WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:
Constance McMillen was just a girl who wanted to have fun, like any other high school senior looking forward to senior prom in the spring of 2010. But when she was told by her vice principal, principal, superintendent and school board attorney she would not be allowed to attend her prom – because she wanted to bring her girlfriend – everything changed.
Constance McMillen reported her school to the American Civil Liberties Union which informed the Itawamba County school district that the rule was illegal. Change it by March 10, said the ACLU, or we’ll sue. The school’s systems response was to cancel the prom on March 10 and issue a press release that generated national and international news attention. Constance’s life hasn’t been the same since and that’s putting it mildly. “They cancelled prom and I was on CNN the next day!” she says.
The ACLU immediately filed suit. Constance received text and Facebook messages saying she had ruined prom for everyone and that she didn’t deserve to go to that school. Her best friend, who had been like a sister to her, stopped talking to her on March 10 and they have not spoken since.
In court a few days before the April 2 prom date, school officials testified there would be a prom privately hosted by parents and that Constance and her girlfriend could go. But when she went to get a ticket, she found it had also been cancelled. Eventually it seems that officials and parents decided to have two proms — most students attended one held in another community and Constance was able to get tickets to one where only six students showed up.
Constance let her lawyers know. She had originally filed for only a dollar in damages but after the fake prom, the publicity – and the duplicity – she was harassed and had to move in with a family in Jackson, Mississippi, five hours away, to finish high school.
A federal judge ruled that Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, MS, violated Constance’s First Amendment rights. She filed for damages and settled out of court for $35,000 with a promise from the school system to change their sexual orientation and gender identity policy.
“It wasn’t about the money,” Constance says, “as long as they changed their anti-discrimination policies. Still, they were trying not to change it, but we got onto ‘em and told ‘em if they didn’t, we would file for contempt of court, so eventually they changed it.”
Constance, who lives with her paternal grandmother in Fulton, got connected to the ACLU and gay activists through her mother, a lesbian who lives near Biloxi. “She just tries to live and do what she’s got to do, but she didn’t think it was right,” Constance said.
Constance is majoring in psychology at Northeast Mississippi Community College.
Invitations to speak on panels and at rallies come from all over. Constance has been interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres who also gave her a $30,000 college scholarship. She has been honored as a Woman of the Year for 2010 by Glamour magazine. She has led gay pride parades in New York City and California, has met President Obama at a White House reception and lobbied Congress.
People are asking her to tell her story and why she chose to be out front
The ACLU reported fewer calls this year from students needing support around prom season – and that several kids called to say that their school officials had heard of “that girl in Mississippi” – and so they said, ”sure, you can take your girlfriend.”
What’s the best thing to come from all this? “That it changed things for people,” Constance says, “first at my school and then over the country. It was already illegal, really, but since this was in federal court, now it’s in black and white that no school can do what they did to me. It is illegal to stop someone from going to prom based on their sexual orientation.”
Constance took an enormously heroic step for a young woman who was raised hearing that gay people can’t go to heaven. She has become a spokesperson for gay rights and hopes her studies lead to a career as a psychoanalyst so she can scientifically study the hostile effects on overall health on individuals forced into the closet.
Constance McMillen is our 2011 Woman of Achievement for Heroism.