If there's any justice in this world, then Constance McMillen's name and her story of fierce heroism will be celebrated in the annals of the human rights movement in this country.
The 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss., made national headlines last month when her fight with the Itawamba County School District gained significant media traction. McMillen wanted to bring her girlfriend to the high school prom on April 2, but after contacting the school's vice principal last December in hopes of receiving approval, he told her she was not allowed to do so.
But McMillen was persistent. Though a memo was circulated around her school in early February that said same-sex dates would not be allowed to attend the prom, she approached school officials again. They told her there would be strict conditions if she were to go: she couldn't attend with her girlfriend, she couldn't wear a tuxedo (the twisted logic of the school officials was that a guy wouldn't be allowed to wear a dress) and if she and/or her girlfriend made any other students "uncomfortable," they could be thrown out.
On March 2, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition wrote a letter to the school district demanding that they allow McMillen to attend the prom with her girlfriend, and that she be allowed to wear a tuxedo. Shortly after receiving the letter, the school district announced that they were canceling the prom altogether. On March 11, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the high school and issued a statement
which said, in part,
"'Itawamba school officials are trying to turn Constance into the villain who called the whole thing off, and that just isn't what happened. She's fighting for everyone to be able to enjoy the prom,' said Kristy Bennett, legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "The government, and that includes public schools, can't censor someone's free expression just because some other person might not like it.' "
McMillen soon took her story on the road. On March 19, she was on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" discussing her experience. She spoke about how some of her friends were supportive of her, but that most of her peers blamed her for the prom being cancelled. A particularly poignant moment was when her supportive father, who was in the audience, talked about the high school becoming a "hostile environment" for McMillen, and that he had made clear to school officials that it was their responsibility to keep her safe.
On March 23, a Mississippi federal court ruled that the school officials violated McMillen's First Amendment rights. The court did not force the school to re-schedule the prom due to "assurances that an alternative 'private' prom being planned by parents would be open to all students," according to the ACLU.
But McMillen never ended up attending this parent-organized prom because, she told The Advocate
, she "was never invited and organizers made it very difficult for her to find information on the time and location." She and her date were told to go to a country club for the event, which they did -- only to find to her school principal and teachers chaperoning a "dance" attended by about seven people.
She told The Advocate that of the students in attendance, two had learning difficulties. "They had the time of their lives . . .That's the one good thing that come out of this, [these kids] didn't have to worry about people making fun of them [at their prom]," she said.
It's worth pointing out that discrimination comes in many forms, and McMillen has lots of company in this area. The practice of discriminatory proms at public schools, though unconstitutional, is still very much a reality. Much like the Itawamba County school board's decision to allow parents to plan and host a private prom, other schools in the South can get away with these segregated events by allowing them to be sponsored by parents or small businesses. The Christian Science Monitor reports
that acceptance of same-sex prom dates is growing in the South, but if this anecdote originating from another high school in Mississippi is any indication, comprehensive equality and inclusiveness is still a goal unmet:
"For instance, Charleston High School in Mississippi held its first racially integrated prom just two years ago. The event came about only after the school accepted actor and Charleston native Morgan Freeman's offer to pay for the senior prom. His only condition: That both blacks and white could attend. Some whites, however, still held their own 'white only' prom."
(That's right: a Hollywood superstar had to essentially bribe this high school in order for it to hold an interracial prom. What's equally upsetting is that, according to NPR
, Freeman had been offering to pay for this integrated prom since 1997.)
Thanks to McMillen, the ugly tradition of segregated proms and reinforcement of homophobic attitudes has been brought out of the shadows. Though McMillen was still ultimately discriminated against since she wasn't able to attend the same prom as everyone else, there is still so much value to be found within her story -- the public has an opportunity to recognize that inequities and prejudices are still reinforced by school officials across the country. McMillen's brave decision to speak up -- even when her voice shakes -- has opened an important dialogue.
There is a good note to end on: McMillen will be donning her tuxedo after all, when she attends the second-annual "Second Chance Prom"
hosted by the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition in Tupelo, Miss. Upon learning of McMillen's "fake-prom" ordeal, the Grammy-winning band Green Day, the singer/performer Lance Bass, and celebrity chef Cat Cora have signed up as co-sponsors
for the event. All Mississippi youth are invited, including students from McMillen's high school.