Annals of Education
By Chris Joyner
JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi county school board announced Wednesday it would cancel its upcoming prom after a gay student petitioned to bring a same-sex date to the event.
"Due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events, the Itawamba County School District has decided to not host a prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School this year," school board members said in a statement.
Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba, recently challenged a school policy prohibiting her from bringing her girlfriend as her date to the April 2 prom. McMillen, who is a lesbian, and the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union urged school officials to reverse the policy both on McMillen's choice of date and attire. She also wanted to wear a tuxedo to the dance.
ACLU attorney Christine Sun said her organization receives requests for help every year from students facing anti-gay prom policies. The complaints are especially prevalent in the South where attitudes toward sexuality are more conservative, she said.
In the announcement, the school board encouraged the community to organize a private prom. "It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors. "We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this causes anyone," the statement concluded. School officials did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The announcement alarmed McMillen.
"Oh, my God. That's really messed up because the message they are sending is that if they have to let gay people go to prom that they are not going to have one," she said. "A bunch of kids at school are really going to hate me for this."
School officials told McMillen last month that she could not bring her sophomore girlfriend to the prom and also told her she could not wear a tuxedo. The school then circulated a memo that prohibited same-sex dates.
ACLU of Mississippi issued a letter demanding the district change its policy. The letter gave it until Wednesday to decide on a course of action. (Update: The ACLU has filed suit.)
The ban on same-sex dates is a violation of McMillen's constitutional rights, said Sun, the ACLU's senior attorney on gay rights. "We believe the law is pretty clear," Sun said. "The school just can't arbitrarily say you have to bring an opposite date to the prom."
A private prom would allow the district to get around the issue, McMillen said. "If they set it up privately they probably aren't going to allow gay people to go and there is nothing that you can do about it," she said.
Other school systems have managed gay prom issues in varying ways:
Students such as McMillen are "enormously courageous" for making their stands, said Virginia Uribe, founder of Project 10, a gay student advocacy group in Los Angeles.
11 March 2010 — Return to cover.