Constance McMillen case: proms as gay-rights battleground

A federal judge said a Mississippi high school violated Constance McMillen's rights when it said she couldn't bring a girlfriend to prom. But the school is avoiding the gay rights issue by canceling prom and allowing parents to sponsor a substitute dance.

By , Correspondent

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    Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres sits down with Constance McMillen (l.) an 18-year-old student from Fulton, Miss., whose prom was canceled after she asked to bring a same-sex date, bringing up issues of gay rights. The episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" aired on March 19.
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A federal judge in Mississippi ruled Tuesday that a school district violated Constance McMillen’s rights when the high school senior was banned from bringing her girlfriend to prom.

But US District Judge Glen Davidson denied the American Civil Liberties Union's request to force the Itawamba County School District to hold an April 2 prom at which Constance and her girlfriend could be included. Parents will host a private prom, and that, Judge Davidson said, filled the need for a dance.

The gay-rights question on whether to allow same-sex dates at school-sponsored proms is becoming as prevalent in the Bible Belt as whether to host racially integrated dances. In the South, schools have often avoided racially integrated dances and constitutional questions by having parents or small businesses sponsor segregated dances.

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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.

In the traditional South, Constance’s plea for lesbian rights makes some people uncomfortable, says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Center in Montgomery, Ala.

“It’s these openly gay students who stand up that will see a particular hate,” Ms. Costello says.

The trend of gay proms

Gay proms have sprung up in various areas of the country. In south Florida, for example, Prideline Youth Services has hosted a gay prom for high school students for 15 years.

But bringing same-sex dates to the prom is becoming increasingly accepted – even in parts of the South. The Los Angeles Unified School District allows for same-sex dates, and this week, the principal of Bleckley County High School in Georgia said the school will allow a gay senior to take his boyfriend to the prom.

Constance said in an ACLU press release that she hopes to attend the private prom, though she has not yet received an invitation. But she will attend Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition’s Second Chance Prom on May 8, which is sponsored by Grammy-winning band Green Day and former N’Sync member Lance Bass.

The event is open to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in the state and straight students who are LGBT-supportive. Constance extended an invitation to all her fellow students Tuesday.

Black and white students across the South have been instrumental in forcing their schools to integrate dances racially. Could that happen with gay students?

Costello says that she doesn’t expect change quickly.

“You have to have a critical mass of students willing to declare themselves gay," she says. "That’s very unlikely in the South, where everyone is expected to confirm to a cultural norm.”

Constance's story

The controversy began when Constance asked her school to lift its prohibition on same-sex couples at the prom. On Feb. 5, a memorandum from the school to students that said prom dates must be of the opposite sex. When the ACLU became involved soon after, the school canceled the prom, saying the ACLU's challenge had caused disruptions.

Constance has appeared recently on several national television shows including “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” DeGeneres presented Constance, who has a 3.8 grade point average, with a $30,000 college scholarship from a digital media company Tonic.com.

Last weekend, Constance attended the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Safe Schools Advocacy Summit in Washington “to advocate for legislation that will make schools safer and more accepting for all students and prohibit the kind of discrimination that Constance has experienced,” according to the ACLU’s website.

The summit hoped to bring attention to the Student Non-Discrimination Act – a bill pending in Congress — that would prohibit lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) discrimination in public schools and provide recourse when schools discriminate.

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