LENA MITCHELL: Gay people in our midst aren’t going away

By Lena Mitchel/NEMS Daily Journal

The subject of Itawamba Agricultural High School’s prom has gotten lots of attention in the media, and I feel a need to add my bit of perspective to the mix.
At the center of the controversy is whether IAHS senior Constance McMillen can attend the school-sponsored prom with her lesbian date, and whether Constance herself can wear a tuxedo.
The school responded “no” to both of Constance’s requests, and ultimately canceled the school-sponsored function in hopes of eliminating their problem. Parents are now planning a junior-senior banquet function separate from the school district, and at an undisclosed location, to avoid the media frenzy.
But the school district’s problems haven’t gone away.
A judge will decide Monday if the school district must proceed with the original prom plan on the basis that the district violated Constance’s constitutional rights by refusing her requests and canceling the event.
I believe that Constance’s rights have been violated.
By boldly submitting her requests to the school board, this courageous young woman has become the standard-bearer in a cause that may benefit – and perhaps embolden – others who have been too timid or reserved to challenge the status quo for themselves.
She follows in the path of a fellow Mississippi teen who resisted having her rights stifled because she refused to conform and “go along to get along.” Ceara Sturgis of Wesson was denied the chance to have her senior photo published in the school yearbook wearing the tuxedo she preferred.
Last year Jim Hill High School in Jackson made a stab at specifically banning same-sex couples from the prom, distributing a flyer that said “dates must be of the opposite sex,” according to the Jackson Free Press.
However, a simple letter from the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union to the school principal and district superintendent reminding them of the student’s rights persuaded the district to not challenge the issue. They soon issued a revised prom flyer that made no reference to who could accompany a prom guest as a date.
Published reports say that Constance has spent her entire education in the same school system, so her contemporaries are fully aware of who she is, and statistically, she and her girlfriend are unlikely to be the only gay students at the school.
Unfortunately, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule that refuses to acknowledge a gay sexual orientation has been the accepted standard throughout many communities, and online comments following Daily Journal articles about this topic show Northeast Mississippi is among them.
Refusing to accept or acknowledge Constance and other gay people in our midst doesn’t make them go away. Too many families have been torn by someone who was gay but tried to conform as a heterosexual. Gay people have married someone of the opposite gender and had children, only to find late in life that they could no longer bear the burden of hiding their true identity.
Do I admire and love someone as a friend, but as soon as I learn the friend is gay, toss him or her aside? Am I willing to give up our shared laughter, tears, history? Did that friend become someone less principled, less talented, less intelligent, less … anything because he or she learned to trust our friendship enough to reveal a central element of who they are?
Certainly not.
My circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances includes many people who are gay, but that aspect of who they are is incidental to the qualities that have forged our relationships.
Adults seem to be the ones in the equation who cloud the picture with misinformation, prejudices and stereotypes.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein said in the lyrics of their song from “South Pacific:”
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
From what I’ve read from Constance’s schoolmates, the young people would say we need to “get over it.”

Lena Mitchell is Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter. Contact her at 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.