Judge Rules Lesbian Student's Rights Were Violated When School Canceled Prom

BlogHer Original Post

Advocates for equal treatment and civil liberties are celebrating a federal judge's ruling that Mississippi's Itawamaba County Schools District violated the constitutional rights of lesbian student Constance McMillen by canceling prom instead of allowing her to attend in a tuxedo with her girlfriend. U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson is scheduling a trial, but is not requiring the prom to be held.

It's a victory, to be sure, with Davidson stating that her plan to affirm her gay identity by wearing a tux and attending the dance with her girlfriend was expression and communication that is protected under the First Amendment. The trial stands to set or affirm important equity issues.

But the costs to McMillen, and to other gay teens who speak out even about positive treatment, are potentially devastating. Towleroad reported today that a teenager in Georgia was approved to attend his school prom with a male date, but was then kicked out of his home after receiving publicity. We won't hear about most of the teens impacted by the Mississippi story.

The Huffington Post reported:

As for McMillen, she said she was happy about the ruling but does not know what to expect when she returns to school. She attended classes a day after the March 10 decision to cancel the prom. But she said the hostility and comments from other students led her to miss school. She skipped class on Tuesday to go to the doctor and the fight is taking a toll, she said.

"My nerves are shot," she said.

Speaking out about her violated rights was brave and newsworthy, but McMillen's experience with peer harassment is not uncommon. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's 2007 National School Climate Study surveyed 6,209 middle and high school students found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students (86.2%) experienced harassment at school in the past year, three-fifths (60.8%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and about a third (32.7%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe.

McMillen's mother has been a vocal supporter and defender of her child's rights. And though she may not be able to take part in the spring ritual of prom, McMillen's story must encourage parents to learn more about the experiences of gay teens, and to talk to their children about harassment at school. Parents can also talk with teens about the great displays of support this case has evoked -- some terrific examples are linked in this Promtacular post. Ask your teens they how they would support Constance McMillen. About who in their school might need a fist bump of support.

Talking about the school's cancellation of prom, the court case, and the discrimination McMillen faces could be an important way to raise their awareness about their own school climate, about both institutional and community pressures on LGBTQ teens, and perhaps about the challenges they themselves are facing around the issues of bullying, violence or identity.

That type of dinnertime and car-commute conversation with high schoolers might be just as important as the First Amendment protections that are affirmed in this case.

Resources for Parents and Educators

Some school institutionalize peer and administrative support by creating Gay-Straight Alliances or through other affirming programs.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation hosts resources on how to be an ally to encourage community support of gay teens.

Rejection, bullying, being misunderstood, and feeling exhaustion, depression or despair from needing to continually fight for one's rights or well-being can lead to suicidal thoughts. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and up to nine times more likely if they are rejected by their families, according to The Trevor Project, which offers a 24-hour helpline for gay and questioning teens: toll-free, 866-488-7386.

Contributing Editor Deb Rox blogs at Deb on the Rocks. She's been known to look amazing in a tux.

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