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A White Sports Coat and a Pink Carnation

by Suzanne Eckes, Todd A. DeMitchell & Richard Fossey - March 29, 2013

Protecting the Legal Rights of LGBT Students to Attend the Prom

It is prom season and with it comes more drama than choosing the perfect dress.  In 2009 the New York Times Magazine reported that one town in Georgia held two separate proms, which kept the students racially separate (see Laub, 2009).  Recent news reports have focused on the prom and LGBT students.

Even though there has been a significant shift in how the LGBT population is viewed in society (see Connelly, 2012), some school districts continue to target LGBT students with discriminatory practices and policies.  Recently two public school districts attracted unwanted national and international attention when they were perceived as discriminating against LGBT students who wanted to attend the school district’s prom.  The Scott County Central School District in Sikeston, Missouri had a policy in place that prohibited same-sex couples from attending prom together.  A gay student who asked if he could bring his boyfriend was told that he would not be able to do so.  It was reported that school officials refused to change this policy.  After the Southern Poverty Law Center threatened the district with a lawsuit, it revised its policy (Owens, 2013).  

The Southwest School Corporation in Sullivan, Indiana was also in the news because of its prom.  In this community, after some learned that a student wanted to attend prom with a same-sex partner, an outside group proposed a “traditional prom” for straight couples.  Fortunately, district leaders stressed that the school-sponsored prom was open to all students.  A teacher in a neighboring district who was interviewed about the straight prom questioned whether gays had any purpose in life.  It is indeed unfortunate that school leaders in Sikeston, Missouri and some community members in Sullivan, Indiana are being openly hostile toward their LGBT student population. It is well documented within social science research that LGBT students are psychologically and emotionally harmed when they are allowed to be marginalized in schools (see Waldman, 2011). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals citing the research on the LGBT student population wrote, “[t]he demeaning of young gay and lesbian students in a school environment is detrimental not only to their psychological health and well-being, but also to their educational development” (Harper v. Poway Unified School District, 2006, pp. 1178-1179).

This same issue was addressed in McMillen v. Itawamba County School District (2010), in which a female student asked school officials for permission to attend prom with her girlfriend and to wear a tuxedo. The student has been openly gay since eighth grade.  After school officials denied her requests, the American Civil Liberties Union reminded the district of some of the legal issues involved. The district then cancelled its sponsorship of the prom due to "distractions of the educational process." The student eventually sued in federal court.  The student believed that the school district restricted her from calmly conveying her social and political viewpoints that it is appropriate for same-sex couples to attend prom together and that wearing a tuxedo to prom allows her to express her identity.  The court found that the student's First Amendment rights had been violated. The federal court reasoned that "expression and communication of her viewpoint is the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment" (p. 705).

Although this issue has been highlighted in the media recently, it has been in the news and litigated in the past.  In 2011 the school corporation in Gary, Indiana reached a settlement agreement for an undisclosed amount of money after a transgendered student was prohibited from attending prom in a dress.  In 2003, Provo, Utah was featured in several national news outlets after its school district threw out a lesbian couple who attended prom together (Scelfo, 2002).  Likewise, in Fricke v. Lynch (1980), the federal district court in Rhode Island granted a preliminary injunction against a school district that prohibited a male student from bringing another male to the prom as his date.  The court noted that not allowing the student to attend the prom with his date would clearly abridge his First Amendment rights.  

Beyond the ignorance demonstrated in these current events and cases, the monetary costs to the school districts can be staggering.  For example, the Itawamba School District paid over $100,000 in fees associated with this case.  We would hope that school districts in the future would not only consider the harm caused by discriminatory policies against LGBT students but would also think about ways to spend tax payer dollars in more appropriate and productive ways.

It is unclear why a school district would engage in such discriminatory behavior.  As noted in the research, LGBT students are oftentimes vulnerable and isolated.  Research also suggests that LGBT students are bullied and harassed at higher numbers than their straight peers, which has led to lower self-esteem, depression and in some cases suicide.  Public schools should treat all students with respect and should not exclude LGBT students from school-sponsored festivities.  Proms are a highly visible school social event; one long remembered by students. To ostracize students from enjoying this event in the same manner as their peers solely because of who they are is wrong and must be rejected. The prom is an event, often on the cusp of leaving high school, in which students can publicly partner with individuals of their choice, share a dance, talk with friends, sport the pink carnation of old, and just be a who they are, a high school student all dressed up for the dance.


Connelly, M. (2012, Dec. 17).  Support for gay marriage growing but U.S. remains divided. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/us/justices-consider-same-sex-marriage-cases-for-docket.html?_r=0

Fricke v. Lynch, 491 F. Supp. 381 (D.R.I. 1980).

Harper v. Poway Unified School District, 445 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006).

Johnson, A. (2013, Feb. 11). Gay-free prom idea backfires on supporters in Indiana town. NBCnews.com. Retrieved from: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/02/11/16930207-gay-free-prom-idea-backfires-on-supporters-in-indiana-town?lite

Laub, G. (2009, May 21). A prom divided. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24prom-t.html?pagewanted=all

McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, 702 F. Supp.2d 699 (N.D. Miss. 2010).

Owens, E. (2013, Feb. 19). High school will change policy so gay student can bring boyfriend to prom. The Daily Caller. Retrieved from: http://dailycaller.com/2013/02/19/high-school-will-change-policy-so-gay-student-can-bring-boyfriend-to-prom/

Scelfo, J. (2002, June 9). Out at the prom. Newsweek. Retrieved from:

Waldman, A. (2012). Tormented: Antigay bullying in schools. Temple Law Review, 84, 385-405.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 29, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17072, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:29:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Suzanne Eckes
    Indiana University
    SUZANNE ECKES is an associate professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department at Indiana University.
  • Todd DeMitchell
    University of New Hampshire
    E-mail Author
    TODD DEMITCHELL is a professor in the Department of Education and Justice Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire.
  • Richard Fossey
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD FOSSEY is a professor of education law at the University of North Texas.
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