By Sue Hyde of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Millions of people now know the story of Constance McMillen, the senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss., and her courageous struggle to take her girlfriend to the school’s senior prom and to wear a tuxedo at the event. McMillen and heroic resistance to the homophobia and gender-rigidity expressed by the town’s school board, which shut down the senior prom rather than have a lesbian student bring her same-sex date, has inspired LGBTQ people around the country and around the world.
Kudos to McMillen and the ACLU of Mississippi for standing strong in their united front to reverse a policy decision predicated on pure prejudice.
She may yet attend a prom that is all-inclusive, but whether she does or not, her story mobilized more positive response than she ever imagined: a national LGBTQ movement has united behind her; a powerful legal advocacy group has gone to court on her behalf; compassionate people have offered alternative prom plans, including a free trip for McMillen and all her classmates to party the night away at a hotel in New Orleans. In addition, she has been offered a summer internship in New York, and a scholarship to support her post-high school education. All of this is welcome and good news and is as it should be.
A bit more under the radar is the less-happy story of Juin Baize, 16, who attended Itawamba Agricultural High School for four hours. Baize was suspended, twice, from Itawamba Agricultural High School reportedly for wearing clothing that school administrators deemed too feminine. It’s hard to know exactly why Baize was suspended since the suspension form that should include a reason for suspension was left blank. But, Constance believes he was sent home for that reason, saying, "They said he was causing a distraction with what he was wearing but it was a half day of school and people didn’t have time to get used to him." (Baize prefers male pronouns.)
Kristy Bennett, legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi, observes, "Juin’s case was a situation where a transgender student wanted to attend school dressed in feminine clothing and the school district would not even let him attend school." When attempting to get information about Juin’s suspension in order to pursue the matter on his behalf, Bennett reports that "...the school would not talk to us about the situation."
The stonewalling by school officials in Fulton may be moot because in February his grandmother, at whose home Baize, his mother and his two siblings had been living, ordered them all out of her house after the suspension made news in the local paper. After Baize’s story ran in the paper, he was harassed when he left the house, so his mom stopped letting him go out alone; and then, stopped letting him go out at all, so worried was she about his safety.
Baize has relocated to Pensacola, Fla., living with friends of his mother who agreed to take him in after his family’s second host household told his mom that he was not welcome in the home. Baize, in the spirit of many young people, reports that he is starting fresh in Pensacola and has found a virtual high school at which he can take classes and accrue credit towards graduation while he looks for a school that will accept him.
Kristy Bennett and the ACLU of Mississippi can’t pursue Baize’s case, since he has moved out of town. His mom is looking for work so she can save money to move herself and her two other children to Florida to re-unite her family.
The moral of the story: Students who are queer but not too queer can tough it out; students who are too queer just need to hit the road to find better places and spaces for themselves.
Yes, we should all support McMillen and the ACLU in efforts to create change in Fulton. But, we should also be mindful that both McMillen and Baize would have been greatly helped by supportive federal legislation concerning school climate and bullying.
Fortunately, there are two bills in the U.S. Congress that if passed, would provide valuable protection to students like Baize and McMillen and the countless other LGBTQ youth who encounter detrimental treatment such as bullying, harassment, intimidation and violence from their peers, teachers and school administrators. The Safe Schools Improvement Act which was introduced by Rep. Linda Sanchez would require school districts to implement anti-harassment policies that specifically include gender identity and sexual orientation; provide funding for anti-bullying programs; and require states to collect data on bullying and harassment in schools.
The second, which was introduced in late-January 2010 by Rep. Jared Polis, is the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA). SNDA would prohibit discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. While federal civil rights statutes expressly address discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, they do not explicitly include sexual orientation or gender identity. Under SNDA, if a school is found to have discriminated against students on these grounds it would potentially lose funding and be subject to legal action from victims.
As citizen advocates, we can help to ensure that LGBTQ students, no matter how queer they are, can attend classes and school events as exactly who they are. Contact your senators and representatives today.
Ask for their support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act. As we know from the stories of McMillen and Baize, and stories of other students yet untold, the Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton Mississippi needs both carrots and sticks to compel the school leaders to make their school safe for both McMillen and Baize. We all know that Itawamba Agricultural High School is not the only high school that fails its LGBTQ students. It’s simply the school that is in the news today. Please lobby your elected representatives for both bills to make sure that the stories of McMillen and Baize never happen again.