Thursday, March 11, 2010

Homophobia in the Bible Belt: The Bigotry of Itawamba County School Board

Living in the Bible Belt, one of the biggest culture shocks for me, other than the barely hinged racism of most whites over the age of 60, is the religiosity of the place. It is something that if you do not come from the South takes some getting used to, not the least for a non-believer. People do not just believe down here. They want you to know about it and want you to think the way they do, and if you do not accept this proselytization it can have a negative impact on your social life with some of these folks.

Enter Constance McMillen. Her crime? She is a lesbian high schooler who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom, in Mississippi (the same state that gave the world the most violent of the civil rights battles and with the largest number of lynchings after Reconstruction). Somehow, I think we should be able to predict the outcome.

School prom off after lesbian’s date request

‘A bunch of kids are going to hate me for this,’ 18-year-old says

JACKSON, Miss. - A northern Mississippi school district will not be hosting a high school prom this spring after a lesbian student asked to attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.

The Itawamba County school district's board decided Wednesday to drop the prom because of what it called recent distractions, but without specifically mentioning the girl's request, which was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The student, 18-year-old high school senior Constance McMillen, said it was retaliation for her efforts to bring her girlfriend, also a student, to the April 2 dance.

"A bunch of kids at school are really going to hate me for this, so in a way it's really retaliation," McMillen told The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson.

Calls to McMillen by The Associated Press late Wednesday went unanswered.

School policy requires that senior prom dates be of the opposite sex. The ACLU of Mississippi had given the district until Wednesday to change that policy, arguing that banning same-sex prom dates violated McMillen's constitutional rights.

'Distractions to the education process'

Instead, the school board met and issued a statement announcing it wouldn't host the event at Itawamba County Agricultural High School in Fulton, "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."

The statement didn't mention McMillen or the ACLU. When asked by The Associated Press if McMillen's demand led to the cancellation, school board attorney Michele Floyd said she could only reference the statement.

"It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors," district officials said in the statement.

"However, at this time, we feel that it is in the best interest of the Itawamba County School District, after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students."

Kristy Bennett, legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said the district was trying to avoid the issue.

"But that doesn't take away their legal obligations to treat all the students fairly," Bennett said.

"On Constance's behalf, this is unfair to her. All she's trying to do is assert her rights."

Itawamba County is a rural area of about 23,000 people in north Mississippi near the Alabama state line. It borders Pontotoc County, Miss., where more than a decade ago school officials were sued in federal court over their practice of student-led intercom prayer and Bible classes.

'A little bummed out'

Anna Watson, a 17-year-old junior at the high school, was looking forward to the prom, especially since the town's only hotspot is the bowling alley, she said.

"I am a little bummed out about it. I guess it's a decision that had to be made. Either way someone was going to get disappointed — either Constance was or we were," Watson said.

"I don't agree with homosexuality, but I can't change what another person thinks or does."

Other students are on McMillen's side.

McKenzie Chaney, 16, said she wasn't planning to attend the prom, but "it's kind of ridiculous that they can't let her wear the tuxedo and it all be over with."

A Feb. 5 memo to students laid out the criteria for bringing a date to the prom, and one requirement was that the person must be of the opposite sex.

The ACLU said McMillen approached school officials shortly before the memo went out because she knew same-sex dates had been banned in the past. The ACLU said district officials told McMillen she and her girlfriend wouldn't be allowed to arrive together, that she would not be allowed to wear a tuxedo, and that she and her girlfriend might be asked to leave if their presence made any other students "uncomfortable."

McMillen said she feared she would be thrown out of the prom because "we do live in the Bible Belt."

The heinousness of this action by the school board is compounded by their moral hypocrisy. Maybe it is not well known to the people of this town, or maybe even the rest of the state (as if they would care), but Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the United States. The educators and school board have no problem with that (so long as they tell them not to have sex before they go out on dates and do exactly that), or with allowing heterosexual teenagers to have a prom, knowing full and well how a good many of them are going to end up that evening (i.e., it will not be a Bible study). If the school board was being honest with you, they would claim that it is just teenagers being teenagers. But if a lesbian wants to bring a date,it is, according to the school district, "a distraction." Nearly fifty years ago, the people of this state rioted at the thought of a black man going to college at Ole Miss. That was their idea of a distraction back then. Today, it is a lesbian going to prom.

Has it not occurred to the people of this district that the only ones distracted are themselves? This young lady does not seem too bothered to me. If anything, she seems to be handling it much better than the members of that district who took away the prom to avoid the sight of, dare the thought, a lesbian couple on the dance floor shimmying to a Gwen Stefani song, who I might add has a history of sporting a tux herself.

And who do you think will be getting the blame for this amongst her Jesus-loving heterosexual peers? The school board? No, sadly, it is the victim of this rationalized hatred.

Lesbian teen back at Miss. school after prom flap


JACKSON, Miss. — An 18-year-old Mississippi lesbian student whose school district canceled her senior prom rather than allow her to escort her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo said she got some unfriendly looks from classmates when she reluctantly returned to campus Thursday.

Constance McMillen said she didn't want to go back the day after the Itawamba County school board's decision, but her father told her she needed to face her classmates, teachers and school officials.

"My daddy told me that I needed to show them that I'm still proud of who I am," McMillen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "The fact that this will help people later on, that's what's helping me to go on."

The district announced Wednesday it wouldn't host the April 2 prom. The decision came after the American Civil Liberties Union told officials a policy banning same-sex prom dates violated students' rights. The ACLU said the district not letting McMillen wear a tuxedo violated her free expression rights.

McMillen said she felt some hostility toward her on the Itawamba County Agricultural High School campus.

"Somebody said, 'Thanks for ruining my senior year.'" McMillen said.

The school board issued a statement announcing it wouldn't host the event in Fulton, "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."

The statement didn't mention McMillen or the ACLU. When asked by the AP if McMillen's demand led to the cancellation, school board attorney Michele Floyd said she could only reference the statement.

"I guess they would rather do that than what's right, what's constitutionally correct," McMillen said.

Same-sex prom dates and cross-dressing are new issues for many high schools around the country, said Daryl Presgraves, a spokesman for GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"A lot of schools actually react rather than do the research and find out what the rights of these students are," said Presgraves, who was preparing to facilitate a discussion about anti-gay bullying at a National Association of Secondary School Principals meeting.

The school district had said it hoped a privately sponsored prom could be held. McMillen said if that happens, she's sure she'll be excluded.

"It's a small town in Mississippi, and it's run by an older generation with money. Most of them are more conservative and they don't agree with it," she said.

Fulton Mayor Paul Walker said he supports the school district's decision.

"I think the community as a whole is probably in support of the school district," Walker said of the town of about 4,000.

The mayor said he didn't know of any private efforts to host the prom.

Presgraves said his organization hears about school districts that prohibit same-sex prom dates and gay-straight alliance clubs at schools. He said those kind of policies are detrimental to gay students.

"It sends a message that these students shouldn't be treated the same," Presgraves said.

I do not think righteous anger is enough for these people. The students, teachers, and school board of Itawamba are knowingly committing child abuse on someone they consider less than a full human because of a manufactured "distraction" caused by an antiquated belief in some book written in another language thousands of years ago. Anyone who at this stage in world history that electively remains this stupid deserves what they have coming. Without further ado, I am enclosing the contact information for our friends at the Itawamba County Schools.

Itawamba County School
Board Members

Eddie Hood

Jackie Nichols

Harold Martin

Clara Brown

Tony Wallace


Here is the superintendent.


Teresa McNeece - Superintendent


Phone: (662)862-2159 Ext. 14


UPDATE: Here is the contact information for Fulton Mayor Paul Walker's office, the wretch who publicly supports this bigotry as a communitarian enterprise.



213 W. Wiygul
Fulton, MS 38843

Phone:(662) 862-4929

Fax: (662) 862-9817


I am certain all of the offending parties in Itawamba schools and Fulton mayor's office would love nothing more than to hear from the general public, especially those of you from outside of the Bible Belt, just as their grandparents took kindly to those "Communist Yankee agitators" when allowing the murderers of Emmit Till to go free, or when publicly defending the murderers of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Still, go ahead and email a couple. Who knows, maybe they will get a taste of the medicine they have meted out on Ms. McMillen, who has shown more compassion and decency than the so-called educators of this school district. They deserve nothing less.

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