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US schools grapple with gay rights at the school prom

Constance McMillen
Constance McMillen was surprised when the school cancelled the prom

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

When officials at a small high school in rural Mississippi cancelled the annual prom, little did they know they would trigger a passionate national debate.

For many American teenagers, the high-school prom is a rite of passage on the path to adulthood. But for 18-year-old Constance McMillen, a milestone was reached sooner than she had anticipated when she emerged as a cause celebre among gay rights advocates around the nation.

I've been called a bigot, a homophobe and a few cuss words. It's been pretty rough
School principal, Trae Wiygul

Ms McMillen - who came out as a lesbian in her early teens - challenged her school's ban on same-sex prom dates.

Earlier this month, Itawamba Agricultural High School scrapped the event rather than reverse a decision banning Ms McMillen escorting her same-sex date, and from wearing a tuxedo - male evening dress - instead of a prom gown.

School officials defended the decision, saying that the whole issue had become a "distraction to the learning process".

Ms McMillen's case has been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken the school to court in an attempt to reinstate the prom. It is also asking the judge to rule on whether Ms McMillen's right to freedom of expression has been violated.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that the school had violated Ms McMillen's rights but that it would not be ordered to reinstate the dance.

Ms McMillen had earlier told the court that she "had the right to go to the prom just like someone straight".

Unwelcome spotlight

In the past fortnight, she has been plucked out of her hometown of Fulton to appear on news programmes, and the Ellen DeGeneres show, where she was presented with a $30,000 (£20,000) cheque from a digital media company to help fund her college education.

It's a traditional Southern town, but contrary to what people think, we don't all stand around in blue overalls chewing tobacco
Fulton mayor, Paul Walker

A Facebook group set up by the ACLU entitled Let Constance Take her Girlfriend to the Prom has attracted almost 400,000 fans.

But, back in rural Fulton, the town of 4,000 residents is reeling from the publicity the case has attracted.

Asked to comment for this article, pastor Bobby Crenshaw of the local Southside Baptist Church acknowledged that the case had brought an unwelcome spotlight to the town but did not want to say more. The Southern Baptist Convention said no-one was available.

Fulton Mayor Paul Walker told the BBC News website by telephone that the "community had had its nose rubbed in it a bit".

"We're deep in the Bible Belt," said Mayor Walker. "It's a traditional Southern town, but contrary to what people think, we don't all stand around in blue overalls chewing tobacco."

He described the community as "conservative" and said it "was a great place to raise a family".

Constance McMillan on the DeGeneres show
Constance on the DeGeneres show

"We didn't want this to happen, but it has. But the wounds will heal and we will get back together and move forward," he said.

In court on Monday, the school's principal said he had received thousands of e-mails, mostly supporting Ms McMillen.

"I've been called every name known to man," the Clarion Ledger reported Trae Wiygul as saying. "I've been called a bigot, a homophobe and a few cuss words. It's been pretty rough."

Ms McMillen, too, has said there has been some hostility toward her on the school campus. She reported that one person had said: "Thanks for ruining my senior year."

Prom rights

Chris Hampton of the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Project, says she has never seen a case like the one in Mississippi.

"We deal with quite a lot of cases where students are told they are not allowed to bring a same-sex partner to a prom but the schools often back down," she says.

Schools in this country are in the midst of a culture war
Daryl Presgraves, GLSEN

"We even have a letter on our website that students can download and present to school administrators setting out that LGBT students have rights and that these rights exist in the context of the school prom."

Many schools, of course, allow same-sex dates with no questions asked. On Monday, Macon.com reported that a high school in a small town in the state of Georgia had given the OK for an 18-year-old to take his same-sex date to next month's prom.

Ms Hampton said she had never known a school to cancel a prom as a result of a dispute over gay students.

Daryl Presgraves of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) agreed that while discrimination in terms of prom policy was not uncommon, this was the most extreme case he had encountered.

He said it was unusual that the school was sticking to its guns "in the face of all the media attention".

Part of the problem was that for most schools, issues to do with sexual orientation and gender expression were relatively new, he said.

"Ten or 15 years ago, most schools would say they didn't have any LGBT students, now most schools have an out LGBT student," he said.

He said many schools were grappling with the issues, particular those schools in what he described as more conservative areas.

"They don't do due diligence to find out what the laws say and what the rights of the students are. We see this particularly in the setting up of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) within schools," he added.

Pervasive bullying

GSAs are student clubs that "work to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression".

There are more than 4,000 GSAs registered with GLSEN - but only six of those, according to Mr Presgraves, are in Mississippi.

While federal civil rights laws expressly address discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, disability or national origin, they do not explicitly include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Ms McMillen's case has helped draw attention to a new bill - The Student Anti-Discrimination Act - introduced by Congressman Jared Polis in January, which would extend civil rights protections to such students.

Mr Presgraves said much still needed to be done to protect LGBT students from discrimination, given that bullying was still a "pervasive problem" in schools.

"Schools have made a big effort to address general bullying but their programmes don't address bias-based bullying," he said.

In 2005, GLSEN carried out a national survey of all students - not just LGBT - to gauge what the general population was experiencing in terms of bullying.

"Categories of student bullying based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression are two of the top three reasons students cited for bullying," said Mr Presgraves.

He said the fact that so many Gay-Straight Alliances had been registered indicated that schools would not be able to avoid the issue for much longer.

Some schools perceived there to be a "culture war" going on around them, he said.

"There is a debate going on and they are saying they don't want anything to do with it. They are, therefore wrongly discriminating to avoid what they perceive to be the great debate going on in society."



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