Itawamba Agricultural High School would rather cancel the prom than let a lesbian couple attend. More than a month ago, Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at the Mississippi school, asked school officials if she would be allowed to bring her girlfriend, who is also a student at the school. She was told that they wouldn’t be allowed to go the prom together. Even if the two came separately, she was told, they would be thrown out if they danced with each other or made other students “uncomfortable.”
McMillen contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sent the school a letter (pdf) demanding the school respect her legal right to attend with her girlfriend. But instead of allowing McMillen and her girlfriend to attend, the school canceled the prom entirely, citing the “education, safety, and well being” of its students.
It is, of course, legal to be gay—even in public. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that consensual sexual behavior is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It had previously ruled in Romer v. Evans that any public policy—such public school policy—based on animosity toward gay people violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Federal courts have even found on a number of occasions that preventing students from bring same-sex dates to proms violates their right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment, even if the policy ostensibly comes out of a concern with how others might react. As the court said in Fricke v. Lynch (pdf), “To rule otherwise would completely subvert free speech in schools by granting others a ‘heckler’s veto,’ allowing them to decide through prohibited and violent methods what speech will be heard.”
“It’s okay if girls go to a prom together because they can’t get dates,” film critic Roger Ebert said, “but god forbid if they like each other.” The ACLU is filing a lawsuit to force the school to hold the prom. More than 80,000 people have already joined a Facebook group asking that McMillen be allowed to take her girlfriend to the prom. The Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, which works to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, is organizing a private prom open to everyone. And Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) has introduced a bill in Congress that would make it illegal to discriminate against gay and lesbian students. As Polis points out, more than whether or not two people can attend a dance is at stake. Gays and lesbians are still treated as second class citizens in many ways. In some cases, people are beaten up or killed for being gay.
“All I wanted was the same chance to enjoy my prom night like any other student. But my school would rather hurt all the students than treat everyone fairly,” McMillen said. “This isn’t just about me and my rights anymore—now I’m fighting for the right of all the students at my school to have our prom.”