Gay prom controversy (1980-2010)

This year’s gay/lesbian prom travesty involved Constance McMillen, the young lesbian woman denied the right to wear a tuxedo and slow-dance with her girlfriend in the school prom at Itawamba County Agricultural High School. The pertinent facts and links are here.

Historical diversion: The gist of the story — closing down rather than submit to social change — is old. As old as Reconstruction, in fact, when (to choose one example) the University of North Carolina’s esteemed elders decided it was better to close the University than to be run by the new government. More to the point is the racially segregated proms that persist here and there in the U.S. South, mostly achieved by school officials backing out of endorsing the prom, allowing parents to run segregated proms unofficially.

Homogamy and the prom

But back to the story: One of the reasons the ACLU was able to (mostly) prevail in the Constance McMillen case was because there were such clear precedents. The most important was 30 years ago to the month: Aaron Fricke‘s successful prom challenge at Cumberland High School in Rhode Island, in 1980 — the court case known as Fricke v. Lynch.

The gist of it was the same as the McMillen case — he tried to bring his date, and in response the school cancelled the prom. (In the latter case, the school arranged an unofficial prom, which is how they avoided an injunction forcing them to reverse the cancellation.)

McMillen was invited to be on TV shows with both Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes — and given a college scholarship and a round of applause at the GLAAD awards. She was a guest at the White House for LGBT Pride Month last week, where Obama spoke about her and the other young people in the audience:

This is a reminder that we all have an obligation to ensure that no young person is ever made to feel worthless or alone — ever.  Now, at the same time, I think there’s plenty of reason to have some hope for many of the young people including those who are here today.  They’ve shown incredible courage and incredible integrity — standing up for who they are.  They’ve refused to be anything less than themselves.

Aaron Fricke was much less recognized. Despite the court case, the news at the time was cursory. This was the entire Washington Post story on May 31, 1980:

Amid heavy security, homosexual student Aaron Fricke showed up at the senior prom with a male companion. Both wore tuxedoes.

Cumberland, R.I. High School hired six policemen instead of the two usually hired for the event to protect Fricke and his date, Paul Guilbert, both 18, from possible violence from other students.

Fricke successfully sued in federal court to be allowed to bring Guilbert to the dance.

Maybe one reason for the disparity in attention might be that Fricke’s case was won mostly on the First Amendment — his right to express his sexual orientation at a school function — rather than a gay rights case. But mostly it was a different time. He did publish a book the next year, though to much less attention.

In some ways it’s easier to be gay in high school than it was 30 years ago. But then again, there’s the story of Ponce de Leon High.

In 2007, in the rural high school in Florida, the principal became concerned about a “gay pride” movement in the school. After a lesbian student was harassed, the principal told her she should not “go down the road” of being gay, because of the Bible, and called her parents to tell them she was gay (they didn’t know).

In response,  some students wore rainbow paraphernalia, or armbands with the words “gay pride” or just “GP.” The principal took it on himself to interview about 30 students personally, asking them their sexual orientation. He told Heather Gillman, who identifies as straight, she could not write the words “gay pride” on herself or any school materials, nor wear her rainbow-colored belt – under threat of suspension. In fact, when asked for clarification by the ACLU, the school explained that rainbows themselves were banned as decorations. A federal court reversed the school’s decisions.

Different features of society change at different rates (and not all in the same direction). Behaviors that are formal (such as marriage) often change more slowly than those that are informal (such as dating). Friendships and dating across racial lines occur more easily than marriage because the resistance to change is less, and the stakes don’t seem as high to parents or other authorities who oppose racial integration. Some practices are between formal and informal – rituals that have a symbolic importance without a legal finality. One of these is the high school prom, which is why it remains a culture-war battleground.

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