A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Why can't Constance bring her date?

Officials in Mississippi's Itawamba County School District are calling Constance McMillen a "distraction." But the real distraction is the policies of a school district that promote homophobia and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. People across the U.S. have been rallying to the 18-year-old's defense since the news emerged that she, with the support of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), had filed a lawsuit against the school district--after the district cancelled the high school prom rather than allow Constance, who is a lesbian, to dress in a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend as her date.In early February, after McMillen spoke with a vice principal about bringing her girlfriend to the prom, a memo was released in the school stating that prom guests "must be of the opposite sex." In a textbook example of the discrimination that young LGBT people continue to face in many parts of the U.S., according to the Associated Press, 'In the court documents, McMillen said Rick Mitchell, the assistant principal at the school, told her she could not attend the prom with her girlfriend, but they could go with "guys." Superintendent Teresa McNeece told the teen that the girls should attend the prom separately, had to wear dresses, and couldn't slow dance with each other because that could "push people's buttons," according to court documents. '


McMillen told the Associated Press that she stood up to the vice principal. "I explained to them that that's really not fair to the people who are gay at this school," she said. On CBS's Early Show, McMillen said she told the vice principal that "you can't pretend like there's not gay people at our school, and if you tell people they can't bring a same-sex date, that is discrimination." Since district officials cancelled the prom, Constance has gone on the offensive, launching a public campaign for her right, and the right of her classmates, to bring whomever they wish as a date to the prom. She started a Facebook page titled "Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!" which gained more than 300,000 "fans" in just five days. In a video posted on her page, McMillen, who has proclaimed in several interviews that she is proud to be a lesbian, thanked her supporters and encouraged them to "stand up for you what you believe in, stand up for who you are." Although school district officials have not explicitly stated that their decision to cancel the prom is a result of McMillen's case, they released a statement saying they cancelled the prom due to "distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."

Christine Sun, McMillen's attorney, said on the Early Show that this was "clearly the reason they cancelled the prom...The ACLU sent a letter on Constance's behalf, and one week later, the school cancelled the prom." McMillen's struggle has garnered national attention, including appearances on the CBS Early Show, MSNBC, and the Wanda Sykes Show, and there has been an outpouring of support from around the country. Matthew Sheffield of the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MSSC), a group that works to ensure that LGBT students may attend school free of harassment and discrimination, told USA Today that "his office was flooded by people looking to help" with the Second Chance Prom, which will be held in Itawamba County this year as a safe space for LGBT students and the rest of McMillen's classmates. According to Sheffield, "We've had a definite spike in people signing on and joining our organization," as McMillen's stand has encouraged others to get involved in the struggle against homophobia in schools. McMillen told the Associated Press that she stood up to the vice principal. "I explained to them that that's really not fair to the people who are gay at this school," she said. On CBS's Early Show, McMillen said she told the vice principal that "you can't pretend like there's not gay people at our school, and if you tell people they can't bring a same-sex date, that is discrimination."

Since district officials cancelled the prom, Constance has gone on the offensive, launching a public campaign for her right, and the right of her classmates, to bring whomever they wish as a date to the prom. She started a Facebook page titled "Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!" which gained more than 300,000 "fans" in just five days. In a video posted on her page, McMillen, who has proclaimed in several interviews that she is proud to be a lesbian, thanked her supporters and encouraged them to "stand up for you what you believe in, stand up for who you are." Although school district officials have not explicitly stated that their decision to cancel the prom is a result of McMillen's case, they released a statement saying they cancelled the prom due to "distractions to the educational process caused by recent events." Christine Sun, McMillen's attorney, said on the Early Show that this was "clearly the reason they cancelled the prom...The ACLU sent a letter on Constance's behalf, and one week later, the school cancelled the prom." McMillen's struggle has garnered national attention, including appearances on the CBS Early Show, MSNBC, and the Wanda Sykes Show, and there has been an outpouring of support from around the country.

Matthew Sheffield of the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MSSC), a group that works to ensure that LGBT students may attend school free of harassment and discrimination, told USA Today that "his office was flooded by people looking to help" with the Second Chance Prom, which will be held in Itawamba County this year as a safe space for LGBT students and the rest of McMillen's classmates. According to Sheffield, "We've had a definite spike in people signing on and joining our organization," as McMillen's stand has encouraged others to get involved in the struggle against homophobia in schools. Constance McMillen is not the only LGBT student to struggle for the right to attend the prom with a same-sex date, or to wear what they want. Last fall, then-17-year-old high school junior Cynthia Stewart of Tharptown, Ala., stood up for--and won, with the help of the ACLU--her right to bring her girlfriend to the prom after the Tharptown High School Principal Gary Odom initially told her that she would not be allowed to. Also last fall, a Wesson, Miss., high school senior, Ceara Sturgis, who is openly gay, was not allowed to appear in her yearbook wearing a tuxedo. The ACLU sent a letter to school officials demanding they allow Sturgis to appear in the yearbook wearing a tuxedo, stating "You can't discriminate against somebody because they're not masculine enough or because they're not feminine enough."

Then there is Will Phillips, a 10-year-old boy from Washington County, Ark., who has refused, despite pressure from a teacher, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because, as he told CNN, "There really isn't liberty and justice for all... Gays and lesbians can't marry...there's still a lot of racism and sexism in the world." If individuals feel emboldened to take such stands, one big reason is the explosion in struggle as tens of thousands protested against the passage of Proposition 8, which revoked same-sex marriage in California.
Actions like the Itawamba School District's, however, paint a target on the back on LGBT students. So far, McMillen has faced verbal harassment from some fellow students who blame her for the district's decision to cancel the prom. And Phillips told CNN that he has been verbally attacked by students and called a "gay wad" for taking a stand for same-sex marriage. As commenter Tom Head wrote on About.com, school administrators such as those in Itawamba County are "bullying [LGBT teens] at state expense," when they should be supporting them. Their discrimination encourages homophobia, transphobia and sexism, and gives others a green light to bully LGBT teens and those who do not conform to gender norms.

Such bullying has had deadly consequences. Although there is limited information available, EDGE Boston reports that a 2005 Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education study found that "gay teens had suicide rates nearly double those of their peers," and "were four times more likely to attempt suicide in the past year." Last fall, according to Tulsa World, a survey of LGBT youth in Tulsa, Okla., found, "Sixty-seven percent of respondents reported having suicidal thoughts or feelings, and 39 percent said they had attempted suicide." Half of respondents reported facing bullying at school, and few reported seeing a school official intervene. The bullies in the school administration in Itawamba County, meanwhile, are emboldened by the bullies in the Mississippi state government, which provides no protection for LGBT people from employment discrimination and bans same-sex marriage. Constance McMillen deserves our full support for taking a courageous stand against institutional discrimination. We should honor her advice to stand up for what we believe in--and get involved in the movement for LGBT equality.

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