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March 24, 2010

Oh no she didn’t

Have you ever had one of those moments when the world seemed to slow down and get quiet long enough for you to realize something significant was happening to you? Do you have memories that consist simply of brief instances that, at the time, seemed to last forever and, in the end, carry huge meaning?

For me, one of those moments happened 12 years ago when I walked hand-in-hand with my girlfriend into the Louisville Palace to attend my high school’s senior prom. We were both wearing tuxedos. No one had ever brought a same-sex date to prom at Waggener before that, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over.

I wasn’t as interested in making a statement as I was in having a good time with my friends, dancing and being myself, so I hadn’t thought to ask permission to wear a tux or bring a lady date. I just showed up that way. It was when I locked eyes with the principal that the world went into slow motion. I suspected she would not support the attire or date of my choice. She stared at me, processing what was happening, and I stared back, wondering when one of us was going to move again. In that moment, she could have confronted me and asked me to leave or had me kicked out if she really wanted to, but she didn’t. She looked at me with a hint of disdain and then walked away, without saying a word.

All hell did not break loose. Rather, my girlfriend and I danced, got our school pictures taken, and had fun just like everybody else.

Years later, I learned that after I graduated, the school tried to restrict students from bringing same-sex dates to prom. In response, a group of students and teachers formed an LGBT alliance, which worked to preserve equal rights at the school. In the words of one of my former classmates, “If Pam can do it, then so can we.” And they were right. But, I don’t take credit for anything more than just showing up to dance.

In 2010, same-sex prom dates continue to stir controversies in some high schools, even as more and more jurisdictions are allowing gay marriage to be legal. In the small town of Itawamba, Miss., 18-year-old Constance McMillen approached school officials and asked permission to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend to prom. Her request was denied. The school went on to issue a memo informing students that prom dates must be of the opposite sex. McMillen then contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which helped her file a federal lawsuit accusing the school of violating her rights. But, rather than even consider recognizing the rights of gay and lesbian students, the Itawamba County School District cancelled the prom, which was scheduled for April 2.

If it was the school’s intention to somehow hide one student’s homosexuality by keeping all students home on prom night, then the plan backfired. McMillen’s story is making headlines in national newspapers and magazines, and the student has made numerous television appearances, including a stop on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” where she received a $30,000 check toward her college education and the support of Ellen, who has millions of fans. ACLU’s Facebook page “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!” has more than 350,000 fans, with more joining every day. The school has been flooded with phone calls and e-mails in support of McMillen.

“I never thought in a billion years that there would be that many people that were supporting something that I was doing,” she said in a statement, thanking the public.

Regardless of whether the school ends up making the right decision to reinstate its prom and open it to all students, this experience has proven to be a meaningful event for the LGBT movement. “The fact that this will help people later on, that’s what’s helping me to go on,” McMillen told the Associated Press. I imagine her slow-motion moments are growing faster and faster as her story reaches more and more people. Surely, she will have memories to look back on and be proud of from her struggle for equal rights. My hope is that she carries with her the same lesson I learned from my senior prom: No one should have to ask for permission to be themselves.