“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 to them.”
In March 2010, the Itawamba Agricultural High School cancelled it’s prom. The reason; 18 year old lesbian student Constance McMillen had requested permission to take a same sex date, and to wear a tuxedo.
On a March 12, 2010 appearance on the national CBS Early Show, McMillen said that she had first asked the school principal about bringing a same-sex date to the prom in December 2009, and that he said it was not allowed, due to a concern that pairs of same-sex friends who were not in a relationship would buy less expensive couples tickets instead of individual tickets. McMillen said she told him “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 to them.” Although the school board did not explicitly say the prom was cancelled due to McMillen’s request, the cancellation came only one week after the ACLU sent a letter to the board pleading her case.
McMillen’s resultant campaign for equality and justice saw the issue become global news. It garnered support from high profile celebrities and hundreds of thousands of members of the public. The resultant outcry and court proceedings ended with the school district agreeing to a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation; but not before a community set out to actively ostracise one of it’s young citizens.
Shortly after her initial complaint, the school board encouraged the creation of a private prom. McMillen called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which threatened the school with legal action. On March 10, 2010, the ACLU filed a free speech lawsuit on McMillen’s behalf, seeking an injunction which would reinstate the prom. The ACLU stated that it was “shameful and cowardly of the school district to have canceled the prom and to try to blame Constance. On April 21, 2010, an amended complaint was filed, seeking compensation with a court hearing scheduled to take place on Monday, March 22, 2010.
Subsequent to international press coverage of the prom’s cancellation, many groups offered to sponsor a non-discriminatory prom and enough money was reportedly raised to host one. However, it was reported that adults posted signs in protest on the high school, including ones stating “What happened to the Bible Belt?”, and “Gomorrah”.
On March 30, 2010, The Clarion Ledger newspaper reported that the private prom scheduled to be held at the Tupelo Furniture Market had been cancelled after McMillen attempted to purchase a ticket. Lori Byrd, who served on the parent organizing committee of the private prom, told the newspaper that there were many parents involved who did not want to be sued for not allowing same-sex dates at the private prom, so they cancelled it. However, it was reported the following day that a new private prom had been organised, to be held at the Fulton Country Club, and that McMillen would be allowed to attend with her girlfriend.
McMillen and her date attended the prom, but found only five other students in attendance. A second secret private prom had been arranged by parents, to be held in the community of Evergreen, and the rest of the students chose to attend that prom instead of the Fulton Country Club prom.
Students who attended the “Evergreen” prom posted photos of the event on their Facebook pages, but many of the photos were deleted after they became public. Some students said the event was not a prom but was instead a birthday party, while others said it was just a private party. However, while claiming the event was not a prom publicly, students uploaded photos from the event to their Facebook pages labeled as “Prom 2010” and posted status updates which referred to the gathering as “prom”.
McMillen subsequently transferred out of the Itawamba High School and into Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, saying she was harassed by other students blaming her for the prom controversy.
On July 20, 2010, the school district settled the case out of court by paying McMillen $35,000 and agreeing to the non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.
Since then, Constance McMillen has become an unofficial figurehead for youth LGBT issues in the USA and beyond.
After appearing on the Ellen Degenres show, she was awarded with a $30,000 scholarship. She also presented Wanda Sykes with the Stephen F. Kolzack Awards at the 2010 GLAAD Media Awards at Sykes’ request and later that year shared Grand Marshall duties at New York City Pride.