Constance McMillen had a tuxedo and a dancing partner. She was ready for the Itawamba Agricultural High School prom.
Since she knew arriving with her girlfriend would raise more than eyebrows, she asked the principal for permission to do what heterosexual students take for granted – participate in an all-school function. The answer was no. Fulton, Mississippi was not ready for that.
Constance had backbone. Rather than quietly accept disappointment, she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. The Mississippi ACLU sent the school district and the principal an ultimatum and a deadline. On that date, the Itawamba County Board of Education published their response:
Due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events, the Itawamba County School District has decided to not host a prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School this year. It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors.
They organized it all right. McMillen and half a dozen others showed up at the country club. Everyone else went to a private party where the girls wore dresses and only heterosexual couples were allowed. McMillen was hurt but philosophical.
They [two students with learning disabilities] had the time of their lives. That’s the one good thing that came out of this, [these kids] didn’t have to worry about people making fun of them [at their prom].
McMillen’s classmates started posting photos of their prom night on Facebook. They also posted snarky comments, blaming McMillen for grandstanding and ruining their prom plans.
Somehow the soft-spoken honor student found the courage to keep fighting. The Itawamba County School District settled in July, paying McMillen $35,000 and another $81,000 in attorneys’ fees. They also agreed to implement policies to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
McMillen transferred to Murrah High School in Jackson and graduated in 2011. Now she is a psychology student at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Her education plans were helped along by a $30,000 scholarship from Ellen DeGeneres. Glamour magazine named her 2010 Woman of the Year. The New York Pride Parade chose her to be Grand Marshal, and President Obama invited her to the White House.
So things turned around for the gutsy young woman who dared to stand up to injustice. Thanks to her, the day when such blatant discrimination is a curious historical footnote moves one step closer.
Byrd, Shelia. “Lesbian teen accepts Miss. School district’s offer.” Washington Times. 8
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Joyner, Chris. “Miss. School district settles lesbian prom-date case.” USA Today. 8
“Judge awards $81k to Constance McMillen’s legal team.” Pride in Utah. 8 June 2011.
Rozsa, Michelle. “Gay teens at center of controversies find support in each other.” CNN.
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“ACLU complaint takes on “decoy” prom for Mississippi lesbian student.” ACLU. 14