Itwamba County, Mississippi is a very rural place, near the northeastern corner of that state and until recently it was famous pretty much only for being the birthplace of Tammy Wynette. But in mid-March, it became famous for another thing: bringing bigotry back to the Deep South.
See, at Itawamba Agricultural High School, there is a young lady ready to graduate, named Constance McMillen. She’s self-assured, eighteen years old, and a lesbian. She announced that she wanted to bring her girlfriend to the prom as a date and to wear a tuxedo. So of course the collective reaction of the faculty, administration, and student body was to nod and say, “Oh, well, that’s how Constance rolls, let’s not make a big deal out of it,” and then they went ahead and planned the prom anyway. No, no, I’m kidding. They freaked out.
They told her that if she and her girlfriend got guy friends to be their “dates,” and then danced with each other, that would “push peoples’ buttons” and they would be ejected from the event. McMillen didn’t back down, though; she said it was unfair. She went on Facebook and got over 70,000 friends nationwide to petition the school district to let her take her girlfriend to the prom already. So the school board issued a public statement:
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.
So rather than allow two young women, who were already out of the closet and openly in a relationship with one another, to be seen on a date, with one of them wearing a tuxedo, the public school district chose to cancel the prom altogether. That wouldn’t cause any, you know, negative pressure to be applied on these students who were doing nothing different than any of their classmates by having a dating relationship. Naturally, there was public outrage.
The ACLU sued the school. Interestingly, because both Federal and Mississippi law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the ACLU chose freedom of expression grounds for its lawsuit instead, arguing that McMillen wanted to express her political and social points of view by going to the prom with her girlfriend and wearing a tux. This is, in my mind, something of a close question. On the one hand, openly dating a person of the same sex and wearing clothing traditionally worn by the opposite gender is indeed making a statement and expressing a social and political point of view. On the other hand, a prom is not a traditional public forum and while McMillen is legally an adult, the event is aimed substantially at minors (it was a juniors and seniors prom). So legally, I think the First Amendment argument is not open-and-shut for either side of the dispute.
Then, the American Humanist Association found some donors, Todd and Diana Steifel, who offered $20,000 to privately pay for an entire alternative prom for the whole school. The issue should have ended there after the ACLU publicly humiliated the Itawamba County School Board.
Amazingly, though, the ACLU of Mississippi initially rejected the offer:
Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word “atheist,” … Our staff has been talking a lot about your donation offer and have found ourselves in a bit of a conflict. We have fears that your organization sponsoring the prom could stir up even more controversy.
The ACLU is about the last place I’d have looked for anti-atheist bigotry. And in a place like Mississippi, you’d think the ACLU could use all the friends it could get. So, this decision was overruled and reversed by the ACLU of Mississippi’s executive director, who also apologized to the American Humanist Association and the Stiefels, who somewhat-less-than-gracefully accepted the apology. So that kerfuffle got (sort of) ironed out.
Unfortunately, the sad story doesn’t end there, either. The ACLU’s suit pressed forward and a judge made a preliminary ruling that the school district had unlawfully discriminated against McMillen and her date. However, he did not order that the prom be reinstated. This seems like the right call to me — specific performance is usually very difficult thing to enforce in a situation like this. The court certainly isn’t going to organize the prom and it isn’t going to be interested in overseeing the school doing it, either. So the cancellation of the entire event was something the Court left alone despite finding that the decision to cancel the prom was motivated by a desire to prevent McMillen from expressing herself.
Then it appears that a group of parents got together and said they’d sponsor the prom in nearby Tupelo. It looked like it had been planned in fits and starts, with a prom being announced, then shelved, then announced again. The school district’s attorney said that at the re-sponsored, re-organized prom to take place at a country club, everyone could come and McMillen would be welcome to bring her same-sex date.
What happened next, though, makes all the rest of what you’ve read look like an undercard. After all that drama, Constance and her girlfriend got all gussied up and they went to the announced prom at the country club in Tupelo.
Five other kids were there, including two of the developmentally-disabled students. All the rest of the kids had gone to a “private party” for the “normal kids” organized behind McMillen’s back. “They had two proms and I was only invited to one of them,” McMillen says. “The one that I went to had seven people there, and everyone went to the other one I wasn’t invited to.”
Really, how low can you get?
Whoever conceived of this idea, whoever planned it, whoever tricked McMillen and her girlfriend into going to the fake prom, whatever teachers and attorneys helped create a public gloss of legitimacy over this — you all should be deeply, deeply ashamed of yourselves instead of snickering to yourselves on Facebook.
Would you have done this if Constance McMillen had wanted to bring an African-American boy to the prom as her date? In 1962, I bet you would have. You’d have filled in your municipal swimming pool rather than let black and white people swim in it at the same time. Just like today, you prefer not having a prom to having one where a single lesbian couple gets to show their faces in public. And now this — you make a special “secret prom for the normal kids” and make it a point to let the lesbian girls and the developmentally-disabled kids go humiliate themselves.
I hope that each and every one of you bigoted motherfuckers get your asses sued into bankruptcy. And that one day you’ll have to ask for a loan to get out of the financial hole you got yourselves into and the loan officer you need to appeal to is Constance McMillen’s wife. See comments for explanation of strikeout format in this paragraph.