A Tux, a Corsage, a Lesbian Prom?

A young lesbian wants to wear a tux and take her girlfriend to the prom–should this really make the news in 2010?

Schools in many places throughout the country remain a fierce cultural battleground for LGBTQ students who are struggling for the right to be themselves. Itawamba County in Mississippi is no exception.  School officials there are apparently so terrified that the fabric of society will disintegrate if two lesbians attend the prom together that they decided last week to cancel the prom for all students.

Constance McMillen just wanted to enjoy prom night like any other student. She wanted to get dressed up and take her girlfriend to the most important dance of the high school social season.  But school officials told her she could not escort her girlfriend to the prom, and that she would be thrown out of the dance if students complained.

Frustrated with what she knew was blatant discrimination, McMillen sought the assistance of the ACLU of Mississippi. The ACLU wrote a letter to the school district on her behalf, explaining that by excluding Ms. McMillen and her date and informing her that only male students could wear tuxedos, it was violating her  First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Instead of taking the ACLU’s Constitutional argument seriously and doing the equitable thing, the school district cancelled the prom. (Perhaps it’s not that surprising that a  Mississippi school would be so hardheaded; just two years ago, actor Morgan Freeman paid for the first-ever integrated prom at Charleston High School in the state, which led some white parents to refuse to let their children attend and became the subject of the documentary film Prom Night in Mississippi.)

On March 11, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi asking the court to order the reinstatement of the prom for all students, including McMillen and her girlfriend.  But the school district has thus far shown no signs of backing down and the April 2nd prom remains canceled.

The good news here is that there has been a tremendous outpouring of support nationwide for McMillen and her brave stand against intolerance. Nancy Kohsin-Kintigh, Project Director of the ACLU of Mississippi, explains:

The high school prom is a rite of passage for many young people and Constance has the right to participate in this important event. We will not rest until ALL students have safe and equitable school systems free from discrimination.

Celebrities and ordinary citizens alike have pledged support to ensure that McMillen and her classmates can have their prom. Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, a youth-led organization, offers an alternative prom so that all students, regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation can still have their special night.  To support Constance and her fight for the rights of LGBTQ students check out this Facebook page.

Isn’t it about time we recognize the rights of women to wear what they want and dance with the one they choose?

UPDATE: See Constance on Ellen

Photo courtesy of ACLU.

Comments

  1. What a disappointment it is to learn that this school district has let down so many people. We can only hope that the attention this story gets will lead to a cultural change, and something better than a prom will come out of the situation. In the meantime, I know I’m not alone when I say that Constance’s courage is remarkable. She is a hero!

  2. I agree, Justine–it’s hard to believe this kind of thing still happens. Another sad part of this story is that Candace is being blamed by her fellow students for ruining their senior year. Talk about adding insult to injury. Let’s hope she gets her prom!

  3. You go, Constance!

  4. Okay, canceling the prom was ridiculous, and they made this into a much bigger deal than it should have been. However, the strongly biased language in this article isn’t helping anyone. Of course this girl should have been allowed to go to prom with whatever other student she wanted to, and of course she should have been able to wear any appropriate attire (suits are pretty neutral now anyway… and a tux isn’t much different). But diction such as the diction in this article is only going to make the issue worse and cause the “other side” to have even more trouble understanding the problems here.

    Here is an example: “Constance McMillen just wanted to enjoy prom night like any other student. She wanted to get dressed up and take her girlfriend to the most important dance of the high school social season.” Constance is obviously not “just like any other student.” Be realistic, she has probably had a rough time getting acceptance in Mississippi for identifying as lesbian. She is coming from a different perspective and experience than most of the other students at her school (unless I am mistaken, she and her girlfriend were the only ones trying to attend the dance as a “non-traditional” couple.) So, clearly, she was unique, not one of the crowd as the diction of the article suggests.

    Also, prom traditions are strongly rooted in the “traditional” gender roles of the western world. The boys wear tuxes and the girls wear dresses. There is a King and a Queen and a court. Usually, students experience quite a bit of pressure to have a “date” to this occasion where one is a girl and one is a boy. Even Constance is exhibiting a portion of this tradition in that she wants to wear a tux instead of a dress. Why a tux? Why not some other formal attire? She chose a tux specifically because that is “what you wear to prom” if you are part of the masculine half of the gender roles in the event. I wonder if Constance’s girlfriend was intending to wear a dress, if so the gender roles are still there and this situation looks a lot less genuine.

    Prom is FOR traditional stereotypes, it exists within that frame, so it is actually true that allowing this to happen is “destroying” that tradition. It breaks the frame. Whether or not that is bad can be debated, but it really does break something (even if it was flawed originally). We shouldn’t be treating a minority as if it is prevalent. That DOESN’T mean we should ignore the rights and feelings of gay or lesbian students, but there is no sense in arbitrarily inflating their presence. Prom is not a rite of passage, it is a ceremony, maybe even a ritual with very specific parameters. Those parameters are not compatible with homosexuality, so it is silly to pretend otherwise.

    The problem here is with the concept of prom, not with specific people. You aren’t going to convince people to be tolerant by forcing them to run a school dance in a particular way.

    Even if it is because of selfish intolerance, the opponents to Constance attending the prom have a right to their opinion and they are being treated as if they “aren’t allowed to think that.” Treating anyone like that is only going to turn them off and making their opinions stronger.

    Their fear is justified in that if you remove the gender roles, prom is forever changed. You can’t have a “king” and a “queen” if gender roles are openly interpreted. Kings and queens are specific genders! So it WOULD change prom. Don’t pretend that it wouldn’t, explain why changing it might not be so bad.

    • Indeed, prom is rooted in traditional gender roles. However, it is the 21st century, and social norms are constantly shifting. In this day and age, people are aware of homosexuality and gender-variance. (True, they may not accept it, but at least most people are aware of the fact that the LGBTQ community exists.) What prom boils down to is a high school dance, and at dances people have a right to express themselves as they see fit. Within the realm of formalwear, options are wide open. What should it matter what people wear as long as they're comfortable and having a good time?

  5. Are you asking whether or not this should be reported on by the media or are you asking why this type of discrimination still happens in 2010? If the former, absolutely. Any act of injustice should make the news. If the latter, the answer is also yes. The gay rights movement has largely situated itself in urban areas with a focus on issues that are not central to the lives of rural LGBTQ folks. As a queer woman who grew up in the backwoods of Georgia, an urban queer centric movement means that this type of discrimination will continue to happen in 2010, 2020, 2030, and beyond.

  6. Brenda Black says:

    Fighting discrimination in favor of fairness and justice seems to be a never-ending battle. When my daughter attended high school in the early eighties, we had to wage a battle so that she could wear pants (as the boys did) during orchestra programs. In addition, girls were required to wear white robes for graduation and boys were required to wear maroon. We waged a Title 9 battle and won.
    Modesty supported the wearing of pants and why shouldn’t one be given a choice of which color to wear (when two are available) according to personal preference. It was the idea that one was being discriminated against that was offensive. In this case they are discriminating against a person’s very self-identity and because of inflexibility, hurting everyone.

  7. Wow, really? An openly-gay woman student attended our prom, with a woman date, in 1991 (Park Center Senior High, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota) and outside of a few stares, no one noticed or cared. She was a great dancer too! I will never understand why love in any form so threatens some people.

  8. I just have to shake my head in disbelief. I am from a small rural town in Virginia’s south, but at my prom in 1988 we had two lesbian girls attend together and they both wore tuxes and to best of my knowledge, no one cared. The most attention they got was when they entered as seniors and were announced, and that was more for the novelty of seeing two girls wearing tuxedos, and less because the couple was made up of two girls.

  9. Amazing that a school would do this in this day of age, especially when you just know that there would be a firestorm. But it’s also a good reminder that in some places in the USA, we are still at step one.

    BTW – I love the confidence she has in the pic.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I commend Ms. McMillen for the courage it must have taken to call the ACLU and fight this case with their assistance. The school’s response is ridiculous and sends a tragic message to its students.

  11. My partner and I just had a totally humiliating experience at the Mens Warehouse trying to get a tux rental. Needless to say I’ve written a letter to the general manaager quoting this story.

  12. Amie Bell says:

    This is such a sad ting to here about that two young girls are being denied a right of passage just because they are gay. My god what is happening to freedom?

  13. I appreciate this story as it heightens and underscores our awareness of the continued bigotry and oppression that permeates our culture. I am really curious about where most of the others who have commented here live. This story is not surprising to me at all. The actions the school took are exactly what I would have expected in most places. They are inexcusable and horrifyingly oppressive but nor surprising. These stories need to be shared and publicly and openly condemned, especially by those who identify with the dominant culture of heterosexuality. Thanks for sharing this with us Justine. I think your diction is just fine!

  14. okay prom is a highschool dance , one of the most nights you cant forget . so i feel that if a women wants to wear a tux so be it let her do it . And as the same if a guy wants to wear a dress so be it to whats the point of making someone were something their not comftable with that wouldnt be right.

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by msmagazine: Instead of letting Constance take her girlfriend to the prom, her Mississippi High School canceled the Prom. http://bit.ly/b6nO3Q

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