JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A lesbian student who wanted to take her girlfriend to her senior prom is asking a federal judge to force her Mississippi school district to reinstate the dance it canceled.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi on Thursday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oxford on behalf of 18-year-old Constance McMillen, who said she faced some unhappy classmates after the Itawamba County School District said it wouldn’t host the April 2 prom.
“Somebody said, ‘Thanks for ruining my senior year.’” McMillen said of her reluctant return Thursday to Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton.
Itawamba County is a rural area of about 23,000 people in north Mississippi near the Alabama state line. It’s near Pontotoc County, Miss., where more than a decade ago school officials were sued in federal court over their practice of student-led intercom prayer and Bible classes.
The new lawsuit seeks a court order for the school to hold the prom. It also asks that McMillen be allowed to escort her girlfriend, who is a fellow student, and wear a tuxedo, which the school said also violated policy.
The district’s decision Wednesday came after the ACLU demanded that officials change a policy banning same-sex prom dates because it said it violated students’ rights. The ACLU said the district violated McMillen’s free expression rights by not letting her wear a tux.
McMillen said she never expected the district to respond the way it did.
“A lot of people said that was going to happen, but I said, they had already spent too much money on the prom” to cancel it, she said.
McMillen said she didn’t want to go back to the high school in Fulton the morning after the decision, but her father told her she needed to face her classmates.
“My daddy told me that I needed to show them that I’m still proud of who I am,” McMillen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “The fact that this will help people later on, that’s what’s helping me to go on.”
The school board statement said it wouldn’t host the event “due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events” but didn’t mention McMillen. District officials didn’t return calls seeking comment Thursday.
At least one supporter has offered to help McMillen and her classmates hold an alternate prom.
New Orleans hotel owner Sean Cummings told The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson he was so disappointed with the school board’s decision he offered to transport the students in buses to the city and host a free prom at one of his properties.
“New Orleans, we’re a joyful culture and a creative culture here and, if the school doesn’t change its mind, we’d be delighted to offer them a prom in New Orleans,” he told the newspaper. “Concluding your high school experience should be a joyful one. One shouldn’t conclude that experience with all their friends on a negative note.”
Same-sex prom dates and cross-dressing are new issues for many high schools around the country, said Daryl Presgraves, a spokesman for GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a Washington-based advocacy group.
“A lot of schools actually react rather than do the research and find out what the rights of these students are,” said Presgraves.
McMillen says she hopes her fight will make it easier for gay students at other schools facing discrimination.
“I want other kids to know that’s it not right for schools to do that,” she said on CBS’s “The Early Show.”
In 2002, a gay student sued his school district in Toronto to allow him to attend a prom with his boyfriend. A judge later forced the district to allow the couple to attend and stopped the district from canceling the prom.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said a bill he’s introduced in Congress would make it illegal to discriminate against gay and lesbian school students. He said at least 10 states have such laws, and his bill is modeled after those.
“This situation with the prom is a perfect example of why we need to protect students from discrimination. In this case it’s a prom. It other cases, it’s getting beaten up or killed,” Polis said.
The school district had said it hoped a privately sponsored prom could be held.
Southside Baptist Church Pastor Bobby Crenshaw said he’s seen the South portrayed as “backwards” on Web sites discussing the issue, “but a lot more people here have biblically based values.”