Is The Prom Experience Open To All?
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Proms are a right-of-passage for high school students. We'll look at the experience of one young woman whose school cancelled the prom because she wanted to take her girlfriend.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): As California waits for the decision to come down from federal court on same sex marriage, it’s important to note that smaller battles are being waged by gays and lesbians every day for equal rights. In a small Mississippi town at Itawamba County Agricultural High School a battle was fought earlier this year over the high school prom. The effort by 18-year-old Constance McMillen to escort her girlfriend to that prom became a Facebook sensation and attracted the help of the ACLU. Constance McMillen joins us today to tell her story. And good morning, Constance.
CONSTANCE MCMILLEN (Gay Rights Advocate): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for being here. And also joining us is Kevin Keenan. He’s executive director for the ACLU in San Diego & Imperial County. Good to see you, Kevin.
KEVIN KEENAN (Executive Director, ACLU, San Diego and Imperial Counties): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you’ve been following Constance’s story and you want to question her or you want to make a comment, please give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Constance, there are a lot of people familiar with your story. You’ve been in the news. There’s talk show host Ellen DeGeneres talking about your story. But if you wouldn’t mind, could you tell us again what happened at your high school. For instance, when did you decide to ask permission to escort your girlfriend to the prom?
MCMILLEN: I think it was like back in December whenever I originally asked and I was told no. And – But I was told that we could like go with guys and then meet up and dance together and stuff. So I was just going to let it go. And then I went and asked about wearing a tux and they’re like, no, you can’t do that either. So I was like, okay, if I’m – Okay, if I can’t go to a prom and be myself and wear what I want to wear and go with the person I want to go with, then I’m just not going to go at all. But they – I had no idea that I had a right to do that…
MCMILLEN: …until my mom got me in contact with one of her friends and he gave me the contact to the ACLU and then I called them and I told them about it and then that’s when that started.
CAVANAUGH: That’s when that started.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about your high school and your community. Did I say that correctly? Itawamba?
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about the town and your high school.
MCMILLEN: It’s a stereotypical small town. There’s like three thousand eight hundred and something people there, population as of the last census, and it’s just, you know, like a few people run everything and there’s a higher class family and then everybody else. And that’s just how most small towns are, and it’s a very stereotypical small town.
CAVANAUGH: I want you to tell us more about your desire to wear the tuxedo. Do you think that’s the thing that got them? Or what do you think – or was it both of them? You wanted to escort your girlfriend and you wanted to wear the tux.
MCMILLEN: It was both. But, I mean, the people at my school, like the students, would not have cared. It was the administration that wouldn’t let me, that’s what made such a big deal. Like even the students were like, I mean, they’ve – they had seen me and my girlfriend at school so it’s not like we would’ve walked in and they would’ve been like, oh, she’s gay? Like they – they already knew.
CAVANAUGH: I read that there was actually a rule that you could only go to the – a prom with a different sex partner or and that girls had to wear dresses.
CAVANAUGH: So that’s interesting what you say, though, Constance. So the kids, your fellow classmates didn’t give you much of a problem at first, at least.
CAVANAUGH: Now what happened after the ACLU got involved?
MCMILLEN: Well, they sent the demand letter and the school responded by completely canceling prom, and that’s what made national news. And that’s when – Like that day like completely changed my life. It was like – it’s never – it hasn’t been the same since.
CAVANAUGH: And is that when perhaps the kids at school weren’t too crazy about you anymore?
CAVANAUGH: Because they blamed you.
MCMILLEN: Yeah. I mean, I walked in school like the next day and I didn’t – I didn’t even want to go to school but my dad was like you need to go. So I went. And as soon as I walked in, like people were staring and whispering and talking, and I had already gotten text messages the night before and that morning, really mean things, so I just – I mean, I stayed like half the day and then I had to leave. Like I couldn’t – I couldn’t take it anymore.
CAVANAUGH: I am talking to Constance McMillen and you may be familiar with her story through the Facebook “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend To the Prom” page. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, if you want to talk to Constance. Alex is on the line from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Alex. Welcome to These Days.
ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Good morning. Hey, girl, what’s going on, Constance? I just wanted to let you know how deeply you’ve touched my heart, how strong of a woman you are, and how fast you’ve had to have grown up because of this. I’m 23 years old, I’m straight, but I have a lot of gay friends, and for such a young age you have such a strong soul. And a lot of high-schoolers would’ve buckled maybe, worn the dress maybe, would’ve just not gone, so you would have not gotten the flack from the other students. But I just get really emotional thinking about your strength and your courage and it’s, you know, I don’t have a question, it’s just a comment and I’m sure you’ve heard it a lot but you go, girl. Keep on pushing, keep that strength up, and we love you. And you’re changing, you’re really changing a nation here, and I know you know this. So keep on going, girl. You’ve got it.
MCMILLEN: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: I think she’s a supporter.
CAVANAUGH: Marcy is on the line from Hillcrest. Good morning, Marcy. Welcome to These Days.
MARCY (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi, Constance. It’s an honor to speak to you. I guess my comment is a lot along the lines of Alex’s before. I’m very gay-friendly. I’m actually bisexual but I am married to a male. I went to a performing arts school where there were a lot of gay people and it was okay and a lot of girls did take their girlfriends to the prom and wore tuxedos. And this is back in the eighties, like ’83, ’84, ’85. It made no difference then and people didn’t really care. And it just angers me that things like this are still happening. And same thing, you did a really amazing thing for yourself. And I don’t want this to ever change – if this is going to change you, change it for the positive. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
CAVANAUGH: Marcy, thanks so much for the call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I’m speaking with 18-year-old Constance McMillen, who tried to take her girlfriend to the prom and created quite a stir in her hometown of Mississippi. And also Kevin Keenan – Keehan (sic), I’m sorry, who’s executive director of the ACLU in San Diego & Imperial Valley. And I’m going to speak to Kevin in a moment but I just want – Constance, if you kind of bring us around and finish up the story because I know that a prom did take place but it was kind of – it wasn’t really officially sanctioned by the school.
MCMILLEN: Yeah, there was – Okay, they had a – There was like four proms this year but like two of them got cancelled. They had like the prom that they were originally going to have then they cancelled that. And then they said in court, they were like, oh, we’re going to have this private prom and everybody’s going to be allowed to go. Constance can bring her girlfriend, blah-blah. And then when I tried to buy my ticket, it was cancelled. So then there was two other private proms and one I was allowed to go to and the other one I wasn’t allowed to go to. And the one that I was allowed to go to, like six people were there and everyone else was at the other one. But they don’t call it a prom, they’re calling it a formal dance party, which I think is the definition for a prom like in the dictionary.
MCMILLEN: But I’m not – I’m not sure. But, you know, there’s been so many problems.
CAVANAUGH: So did you ever actually get to go to a prom?
MCMILLEN: I did. I’ve went to quite a few proms.
MCMILLEN: I’ve went to the fake prom and then I went to the Second Chance prom and then I went to the prom in Memphis, the Prom For All, and I’ve been to just like a lot of things that were prom-themed like just prom galore.
MCMILLEN: But I – I love it, though.
CAVANAUGH: Kevin, what did the ACLU claim when they went to bat for Constance’s right to bring her girlfriend to the prom?
KEENAN: It’s actually a free speech right to express yourself by going with the partner of your choice to the prom. It’s a recognized form of freedom of expression to associate with people and that’s more protected when you’re making a statement by doing so. And so the judge found that, in fact, Constance’s free speech rights had been violated. But I think what, you know, the legalities aside, of course what resonates with folks, I think, is that this is a great American tradition of prom and this is just patently obviously unfair, cruel. The amount of community organization to set up the fake prom is, you know, just the type of, you know, massive discrimination that, you know, rings of the civil rights movement and responses in the south to African-Americans winning their rights. So, you know, I think the First Amendment once again saves the day but it’s really – it’s much more fundamental than that. It’s about fundamental freedom and fairness.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is it – it’s my understanding, however, that kids in school don’t really have all the rights that people who are grownups and not in school have, that schools can dictate to restrict rights when it comes to searches and things of that nature. These school rules, though, were deemed that they did violate the First Amendment.
KEENAN: That’s right. I mean, keep in mind she wasn’t wearing something that violated a dress code other than for, you know, being a girl who wanted to wear a tuxedo. So – And the only, you know, other rule she violated was being herself and trying to take her girlfriend. So it’s not a question of, you know, misconduct disruption. All the other things that school are allowed to regulate, this is sort of pure and simple unfair discrimination.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Kevin Keenan of the ACLU, and Constance McMillen, and we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Constance, tell me about the Facebook phenomenon that developed around this whole story.
MCMILLEN: So the ACLU or – they started a Facebook for me and it had like, I don’t even know, so many hundred thousand fans. And then I had like so many people add me on Facebook. Like I still have like 3,000 friend requests that I have not been able to get to, and so many messages. And they’re all basically saying the same thing. I mean, every now and then there’s one that’s like, oh, you’re going to hell. But, I mean, most of it is just like telling me how they think it’s great what I did. And, I mean, it feels really good and it helps to see all the support like that, especially when it was getting – when it was – when I was going through it and it was really hard and I could just get on Facebook…
MCMILLEN: …and just have all this support because, I mean, it’s not like that in my town. It’s not. And, I mean, I haven’t personally ever been discriminated against other than this at my school but I’ve seen people just because they were gay be discriminated against at my school. And I wasn’t going to let them – I wasn’t going to let them do it to me.
CAVANAUGH: Now what are your relations like back home now? Are – You’re obviously a celebrity but, I mean, do you have a wide range of support or are – is it still a little difficult getting along with the people in the town?
MCMILLEN: When I’m in my hometown, I really don’t go do anything. I have a few friends that I hang out with that are still like supportive but the majority of the people still just don’t associate with me. I mean, people that I would see and usually be like, hey, what’s up? They just walk past me like they don’t even know who I am. Like that’s really the reaction from the majority of the people there.
CAVANAUGH: Kevin, we’ve had a couple of cases around San Diego County somewhat similar to this? Am I wrong in thinking that?
KEENAN: Yeah, there’s been censorship of Natalie Jones, who wanted to just simply present a historical Power Point for a class on Harvey Milk. And, once again, it was the sort of parents and administrators who freaked out, not the other kids. They prevented her from doing this simple historical presentation and she came to us and we helped her give that presentation and get an apology from the school. So there’s still, you know, there’s still a lot of this kinds of discrimination that seems real small in the big scheme of things. Obviously, you know, marriage equality, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, there’s all these other ways in which LGBT people are still officially discriminated against but what is often the most hurtful is these little small things that go after kids in small places where administrators think they can get away with it.
CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, Constance, you have become a celebrity because of this. What about your girlfriend?
MCMILLEN: Well, she – I mean, I had to keep her out of the media because her – I mean, she’s not old enough to just make that decision herself and her parents did not want her in the media so that’s why I kept her out of it. But, I mean, we’re broke up right now, so…
CAVANAUGH: Fame does that sometimes, yeah.
MCMILLEN: No, it’s not really that, it’s just because I’m starting college and I’m going to college in Memphis and she’s two hours away from me and, I mean, we really just need time to, you know…
MCMILLEN: …do what we need to do.
CAVANAUGH: Now even though things aren’t too great back home in Mississippi, you, as I say, I mean, you’ve been a star. You were the Grand Marshal of the New York City Pride Parade, is that right?
MCMILLEN: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: What was it like?
MCMILLEN: It was really fun because, I mean, I think that Pride is just like altogether a beautiful celebration because to – I mean, I know it has a lot of historical meanings and stuff but like to me, what it means to me is like everybody comes together and celebrates who they are and there’s so many people that are put down every day because of who they are and some people that try to hide who they are, so Pride is like a time when they come together and really celebrate who they are. I think it’s beautiful. And then on top of that, I mean, I was with – I was Grand Marshal with Lt. Dan Choi and Judy Shepard. So to be put up there like with – along with them, on the same status, that meant a lot to me because I think that they’re great people and I think they’ve done wonderful things.
CAVANAUGH: Lt. Dan Choi is working against the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and Judy Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard…
CAVANAUGH: …who was killed in Wyoming several years ago. Tell us about the meeting with Ellen DeGeneres.
MCMILLEN: Well, they – So when they told me I was going to Ellen, I was like, oh, my God. I was really excited. But I wasn’t like – I wasn’t like anxious, you know how you usually get like anxious before you meet a celebrity. I really wasn’t like that. And then she walked in the room when I was getting my hair and makeup done, and I was like, oh, my God, it’s Ellen. I was trying not to freak out. But she’s really cool. Like she’s the same – she’s the same off camera as she is on camera. She’s really fun, she’s really nice, she’s really sincere and genuine. And she’s just, I mean, I had a great experience. So…
CAVANAUGH: She gave you a big present.
MCMILLEN: Yes. A $30,000 scholarship.
CAVANAUGH: For journalism? Or just for college?
MCMILLEN: Just scholarship.
CAVANAUGH: Just wow.
MCMILLEN: Tonic.com gave me it and then she presented it to me on her show. And, you know, that meant a lot to me, too, because school has always been really important to me like, so…
CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. Let’s take another call. Marla is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Marla. Welcome to These Days.
MARLA (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. I want to congratulate Constance for her courage and her speaking out. I can remember Ellen’s coming out years and years ago. I used to teach school. I’m retired. And at the school I taught at in the town that was about the same size as your town, there were lesbian and gay students and everybody knew about it but none of them chose to try to go to the prom. That was about 10, 15 years ago or so. But anyway, I just want to congratulate you and thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Marla. What does it feel like, Constance, when people keep praising your strength? Do you feel like a strong person?
MCMILLEN: I’ve realized that like I – I’m stronger than what I thought I was. But I really don’t feel like this person that people keep saying that I am. I mean, I just feel like me and I just – I’m really hard-headed. I mean, that’s – that’s it and that’s why I went up against my school because I wasn’t going to let them do that to me. And then there were times when I was like maybe I shouldn’t do this. I mean, everybody – I mean, when they cancelled prom, I was like maybe I should just go and tell her that I’ll call it off because I don’t want to ruin prom for everyone, you know. And then I was like, no, because I knew that it was important to a lot of other people, not just me. So that’s why I kept going. And so for all these people to say these things, like I’ve heard so many horror stories and then so many people have told me about how I inspired them and I’m – that’s – that was the whole point in the – like me talking to the media because, I mean, I could’ve said no, I didn’t want to talk to them. But the reason that I did is because I wanted people to hear my story so that maybe that it would inspire them to stand up and so that eventually we will have equality everywhere.
CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of that, I wanted to ask you, Kevin, oh, the ruling, as I say, on same sex marriage in California could come down any day now. What is the significance that you see of that ruling on the larger issue of gay rights?
KEENAN: It’s fundamental to the same idea that was at play in Constance’s prom. You know, what terrible things are going to come from letting Constance go to the prom with her girlfriend? How is that really going to harm the prom or the other kids who are there or people who make different choices? Same thing with marriage equality. What harm is it going to bring to let two people who love each other and want to be committed to each other to be together and to have, you know, real and equal marriage. You know, the attorneys have argued very well and with brave clients just like Constance that there is no meaningful harm that allows the state, the government, to discriminate in this way.
CAVANAUGH: And, Constance, before we have to let you go, I know that you’re going to be, in a way, going to another prom in the parade, in the Pride Parade here in San Diego. You’re going to be leading the ACLU’s prom contingent. Tell us about that.
MCMILLEN: Well, I’m just, I don’t know, I was really happy when they asked me to come. And then they said that a lot of people were showing up and stuff so I’m really – I don’t know, I’m just really excited. Anything about Pride, anything to do with the ACLU, I mean, I’m going to go. I’m going to love it, so…
CAVANAUGH: And people are invited to wear their prom attire, is that right, Kevin?
KEENAN: Absolutely. It’s not too late to join our prom parade contingent or see Constance at a reception on Sunday morning. All the information’s on our website, aclusandiego.org, and we want, you know, as many people as possible to get to meet this true living hero.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both for being here. Constance McMillen, thank you.
MCMILLEN: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Kevin Keenan, thanks for coming in.
KEENAN: Nice to see you.
CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.