By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
FULTON – Constance McMillen has done a lot of praying lately.
She’s also done a lot of talking as she finds herself in the center of a growing nationwide controversy sparked by her fight to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend.
Media outlets across the nation interviewed the 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School one day after the Itawamba County School District announced it would cancel its April 2 prom. The announcement came a week and a day after the ACLU sent a letter on McMillen’s behalf to the district, demanding it change its prohibition on same-sex dates at the prom.
McMillen said her girlfriend has not publicly revealed her identity because the girl’s parents disapprove of the relationship.
A couple of efforts began on Thursday to try to restore that dance. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in Oxford asking the court to reinstate the prom for all students. Meanwhile, several parents of IAHS juniors and seniors met Thursday night to discuss holding their own prom for students at the school.
Although McMillen said she has faced vitriol and anger from students who blame her for canceling the prom, she cites the support of family, friends and the ACLU for helping her through a trying time. She also credits her faith.
“God has helped me, and I’ve been praying a lot,” McMillen said. “Regardless of what you believe, I’m a Christian. Sexual orientation doesn’t make a religion.”
McMillen returned to school on Thursday, but she found “so much tension and hostility.” Students silently stared as she walked through the hallway, she said, and one student screamed, “Thanks for ruining my senior year.” She left around 10 a.m.
“It was too much for me today,” McMillen said.
The 668-student high school sent all of its students a memo on Feb. 5 stating the rules for the prom, including one requirment that dates “must be of the opposite sex.” Even before the memo was sent, McMillen, who missed the prom last year, asked school officials if she would be allowed to attend. They told her that she couldn’t come with her girlfriend and if other students saw them at the dance together and complained, she could be asked to leave.
Looking for an outlet, she contacted the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, which was formed in the fall of 2008 to deal with discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in Mississippi public schools and colleges. The coalition put her in touch with the ACLU of Mississippi, which sent a letter to the district on March 2 demanding that it change its policy by Wednesday or possibly face legal action.
“I didn’t think the school would carry it that far,” McMillen said. “I couldn’t believe they would rather punish everybody than do the right thing.
“What I got from it is that if they had to let gay people go, they would rather cancel the prom. It is sad they feel that way about it… I’m upset but I’m not angry. You can’t be mad because some people have different beliefs.”
The Daily Journal spoke to Superintendent Teresa McNeece at her office but she said she had no comment on the district’s decision. A message left with school board chairman Eddie Hood was not returned.
Google Trends ranked McMillen “on fire” on a day when she was featured by outlets like CNN, USA Today, MSNBC and Headline News. This morning, she will be in New York for on interview on the CBS Early Show. An ACLU Facebook page created about her fight on Thursday had 40,000 fans by 11:30 p.m. A Daily Journal story about McMillen on NEMS360.com had the highest number of views and comments ever for a single story on the site.
McMillen’s father, Michael McMillen, said he stands by his daughter.
“Whatever makes her happy, I’m OK with,” Michael McMillen said. “We differ on opinion about certain things, but all in all, if this is what she wants, I’m completely supportive. In no way would I discriminate or hold things against somebody for choosing that life.”
He said that he and his daughter have talked about the scope of a fight that has grown much larger than his daughter’s original stance.
“She understands it is not about the person, it is about the movement and the right to choose who she wants to be,” he said.
The ACLU filed Thursday’s lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. It claims the First Amendment gives students the right to bring same-sex dates to school dances.
ACLU Legal Director Kristy Bennett did not return a message seeking comment about the suit. But in a release, she said that public schools “can’t censor someone’s free expression just because some other person might not like it.”
“Itawamba school officials are trying to turn Constance into the villain who caused the prom to be canceled, but that just isn’t what happened,” Bennett said in the statement. “She’s fighting for everyone to be able to enjoy the prom.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.