JACKSON — Everyone at Wesson Attendance Center knows 17-year-old Ceara Sturgis is gay because she’s never tried to hide it.
But when Sturgis — an honor student, trumpet player and goalie on the school’s soccer team — wanted her senior photograph in a tuxedo used in the 2009-10 yearbook, school officials balked. Traditionally, female students dress in drapes and males wear tuxedos.
Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has gotten involved, issuing a demand letter to Principal Ronald Greer to publish the picture of Sturgis in the tuxedo. The ACLU says it’s giving the school until Oct. 23 to respond before pursuing court action, said Kristy L. Bennett, the ACLU’s legal director.
A secretary for Greer referred questions to Copiah County Schools Superintendent Rickey Clopton, who declined to comment on Thursday.
Sturgis said she should get to decide how she looks in the senior photo.
“I feel like I’m not important, that the school is dismissing who I am as a gay student and that they don’t even care about me. All I want is to be able to be me, and to be included in the yearbook,” Sturgis said in a statement.
Veronica Rodriguez, 47, said school officials are trying to force her daughter — who doesn’t even own a dress — to appear more feminine.
“The tux is who she is. She wears boys’ clothes. She’s athletic. She’s gay. She’s not feminine,” said Rodriguez during an interview Thursday at the ACLU office.
Rodriguez said Sturgis took her pictures over the summer instead of with the other students last year, but she used the same studio, Bruckner’s School Photography.
In August, Rodriguez said she received a letter from the school stating that only boys could wear tuxedos. Rodriguez said she met with assistant Superintendent Ronald Holloway who told her he didn’t see regulations about the issue in the student handbook.
But when she talked with Greer, she said he told her it was his “conviction” that Sturgis wouldn’t appear in the yearbook in a tuxedo.
Bennett said the teenager’s constitutional rights are being violated. Bennett said similar cases, including same-sex prom couples and girls wearing tuxedos to proms, have been successfully challenged in court in other states. ACLU officials said they were unaware of any other constitutional disputes involving gay teens at Mississippi schools.
“You can’t discriminate against somebody because they’re not masculine enough or because they’re not feminine enough. She’s making an expression of her sexual orientation through this picture and that invokes First Amendment protection,” Bennett said.
There’s no state policy that deals with the yearbook photo issue, said state Department of Education spokesman Pete Smith.
The deadline for the photo to be accepted for the yearbook was Sept. 30. But advertisements for the publication are still being taken so Sturgis has time for her photo to be included, Bennett said.
Sturgis lives with her grandparents in Wesson, a town of about 1,700 founded during the Civil War in southwest Mississippi. The town’s Web site said residents “pride ourselves on our quiet way of life.”
Rodriguez said she allowed her daughter to finish school in Wesson after she relocated earlier this year for a new job near Jackson, Miss., more than an hour’s drive to the north. She said her daughter is popular among her peers, although she’s heard some parents tell their children, “‘You don’t hang around Ceara because she’s gay.’”
The attention over the photo seems unwelcome in Wesson.
Municipal Clerk Linda Dykes declined to comment about it.
“We are a small town, a very loving, giving town. That’s about the extent I can comment,” Dykes said Thursday.
Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press