At the Human Rights Campaign, we've been following Itawamba student Constance McMillan's struggle to attend prom with her girlfriend and wear the clothes of her choosing. A court decided her school was wrong to deny her attendance but stopped short of ordering them to hold the prom. So parents and private citizens offered to put on the prom, but details of that prom were mysterious and Constance wasn't invited. Then it was reported that the mystery prom had been canceled, but that another prom would be held at a country club in nearby Fulton, MS; Constance was invited and would be going to this prom. It took place this past Friday and was attended by exactly seven students -- Constance, her date and five others, plus some teachers and the principal as chaperons. How could this be? Quite simply and horribly, the event at the country club was a 'fake' prom and all the other students attended the 'real' prom at another location.
I am sure your jaw dropped to the floor as mine did when I read the news. According to Constance, two of the five other attendees had learning difficulties -- also apparently not worthy of the 'good' prom. There is so much going on here it's hard to find a place to start figuring out how something so unconscionable could happen -- but I will start with the students. We know young people can be cruel (ever seen the film "Mean Girls"?). Homophobia and harassment of LGBT youth in schools often runs rampant -- GLSEN's 2007 school climate survey found that 9 out of 10 LGBT students were harassed in the previous year. We also know that queer kids aren't the only ones being targeted. Anyone who is different faces the wrath of other students. Sadly, it was just last week when Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant high school student in Massachusetts, took her own life after being mercilessly harassed and bullied as the 'new girl'.
Knowing this, it is not a stretch to think that Itawamba students would be totally fine with attending a secret prom while fellow 'different' students were sent to a fake one.
School events don't happen in a vacuum, however, which leads us to the Itawamba school administration and teachers. One can imagine the teachers at Constance's high school overhearing "faggot," "dyke," and "that's so gay" in the classroom, hallways and cafeteria daily without raising an eyebrow -- further enhancing the damage being done. Unfortunately, this happens at far too many schools across our country. But for some teachers and the principal - the principal! -- to be co-conspirators in the prom switcheroo is beyond the pale. Don't educators have some kind of code like the Hippocratic oath that doctors take -- first do no harm? The message they sent to the seven students at the country club that night was pretty clear: "You're different, the other students don't like you and treat you poorly, and that's fine and dandy with us." Simply unethical.
Which leads us to the parents. We expect a lot from the teachers who supervise our children while they are at school -- I've read that many educators feel that they are doing the job of raising children in our country. While teachers do have a certain responsibility, we cannot ignore the impact that parents and families have on young people. The students who name-call in school hallways find that their behavior is reinforced at home, often hearing a parent say homophobic comments. A column in today's Washington Post by Richard Cohen about the actions that led to Phoebe Prince's suicide addresses how finger-pointing at South Hadley High has been directed at teachers and administrators, falsely leaving parents off the hook. But parents sometimes mimic their own children. In these situations, their homophobia transforms from a passive atmosphere in the home into a pro-active statement outside of it. The students may have been the ones who came up with the idea to hold a secret prom, but it was the parents who took the idea and made it possible. This isn't a secret plot carried out by students a la "Carrie" to embarrass an unpopular student. It was parents who organized and paid for the fake prom. And the message sent yet again is that being a 'different' kid is bad and it is okay - if not admirable - to find ways to keep the 'normal' kids safely away from them. Keep in mind this is a school that reportedly suspended a transgender student because he was a distraction.
Lastly, we come to Constance herself. And here is where we get to the good part of this blog post. Throughout all of this she has been strong, confident and relentlessly in search of one simple thing: fairness. We know too well the stories of those queer students who aren't as able to stand up to hatred -- it was a year ago today that 11 year old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover took his life after enduring constant anti-gay harassment at school. Constance has taken on all of the activities over the last year with aplomb and continues to be a role model for all those deemed "different". When asked about whether the students enjoyed the prom she told The Advocate "They had the time of their lives," McMillen says. "That's the one good thing that come out of this, [these kids] didn't have to worry about people making fun of them [at their prom]."
This leaves us with the question of what can be done to change the culture and climate in schools and society to prevent future stories like Constance's and even Phoebe's and Carl's. First, we can start early with the message that different doesn't equal bad. HRC's Family Project has developed the Welcoming Schools Guide that can be used by those who want to strengthen their K-5 schools' approach to family diversity, gender stereotyping and bullying. Welcoming Schools addresses the need to take anti-bullying beyond the students themselves and is a comprehensive guide for administrators, educators, parents and guardians. It is easy to point our fingers at and denounce the cruelty of Constance's fellow students, but there are many adults who were complicit in this cruelty. Changing this atmosphere is also their responsibility.
There are also two pieces of federal legislation that you can contact your members of congress about. Last June, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act and this past January Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
We can all learn a lot from Constance McMillan and how she has handled herself -- when we see something that doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. And it is the responsibility of every one of us to take some kind of action on behalf of fairness. Whether you bring up bullying at the next PTA meeting, write a letter to the Itawamba County School District, or call out your friends or co-workers when they say "faggot" or "that's so gay," you are improving the climate for queer youth -- and adults. Do something.
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