2010 is the year the prom became ground zero for the culture war in the South. Constance McMillin wanted to bring another young woman to prom in Itawamba County, Mississippi and was denied by school officials. The ACLU sued, so the school canceled prom. But now there's going to be a private prom and the story goes back and forth about whether everyone can attend with his or her chosen date. I'm betting not.
Inspired by Constance's stand, Derrick Martin of Cochran, Georgia decided to approach his school about bringing another young man to his prom. At first the school denied his request, but then they decided to grant it. As a consequence, his parents threw him out of the house. And people in the community have decided to protest the school's decision to be inclusive.
So let's summarize. First, people who are barely adults have to take a risk getting thrown out of their homes, risk getting denied by public school officials, and risk setting off the wrath of their community FOR PROM! Can anyone seriously deny that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are substantially more likely to commit or attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers?
I think if you asked people in these two small towns (before Constance and Derrick made their requests) what prom is about, they would say things like a high point of the school year, a rite of passage, a night of fun for the students; the word special would no doubt appear over and over. But now that these two extremely brave students have asked to have a night of fun, experience this rite of passage, and commemorate a high point of the school year with someone they care about, the prom is revealed to be a celebration and defense of heterosexuality.
No? Sounds like something from a p.c workshop at a lefty university? Well, here's what people in Derrick Martin's home town said:
"We knew Derrick was gay," said Keith Bowman Jr., a high school senior who showed up at the rally. "They don't want (Cochran) to be known as a pro gay town."
Most of the dozen attending the rally said they weren't bothered by Martin being gay or being allowed to attend prom with his partner. But they said the school system's decision has brought too much attention to their small town.
"People who don't know the area will think it reflects on everybody," said John Smith, a grandfather who owns an air-conditioning business in Cochran.
Guess what, Mr. Bowman and Mr. Smith, how you include or exclude people does reflect on the entire town. So we can now add another part to the gauntlet: (a) your parents might throw you out, (b) the school might say no, (c) the community might reject you, and (d) you have to keep quiet about it.
Issues like these are exactly why two events happening at opposite ends of the state in the coming weeks are so important. Jonathan has written in a previous post about the Stand for All Families Rally happening on Monday in Shelby County. The event will highlight those in Shelby County who stand for a message of inclusion in response to the Tony Perkins/Family Action Council of Tennessee event happening the same day. And on April 16 students in Knoxville will hold their Breaking the Silence event to bring attention to anti-GLBT violence and bullying in schools.
What these two events and the stands taken by Constance and Derrick illustrate is that youth are providing valuable leadership for inclusion in our communities and there are views that run counter to the kind of ideology that leads to invisibility, violence, and the pressure to take your own life. But can we step out of the situation for a second and acknowledge it's insane that we're making kids fight for the chance to participate in the prom and fight to be safe in our public schools?