Constance McMillen wanted to go to her high school prom. Like most students in the United States, she doubtless saw the event as the capstone of four years of effort, a gala event for students that represents a reward for getting to the end of their senior year and, presumably, graduating not only from high school but into adulthood. One night of glamor and revelry, dressed at a level of style and affluence many might never indulge again, to celebrate the matriculation into the next level of independence. A party where students can show themselves—to their peers and to themselves—as adults.
It has become something more, probably, than it was ever intended to be. Patterned after high society “debuts” at which young ladies of good breeding (and potential wealth) are introduced to Society (with a capital “S”) in a manner that, when stripped of its finery and fashionable gloss, is really a very expensive dating service, with the idea of creating future matches between “suitable” couples, the high school prom is a showcase, a public demonstration of, presumably, the virtues of a graduating class. Over the last few decades, even the less well-off schools strive to shine in what a prom achieves. Instead of a local band in the high school gym, with bunting and streamers and colored lights to “hide” the fact that normally gym class and basketball are performed in this room, the prom has become elevated to a decent hotel with a ball room, a better-priced band (or a DJ), and all the attributes of a night on the town in Hollywood. Tuxedos and gowns are de rigueur and students’ families spare no expense to deck their children out in clothes they really often can’t afford. Limousines transport the budding fashionistas and their knights errant to the evening’s festivities and you know this cost a fortune.
Students may be forgiven for believing that it’s for them.
In its crudest terms, the prom is for the community, a self-congratulatory demonstration of how well the community believes it has done by its youth. It is a statement about what that community would like to see itself as. It is—still—a match game, from which future marriages may derive. It is a staged exhibition of affirmation that the students have come out the end of twelve years of “schooling” the way the community wants them to. It is, in short, less about the students, and mostly about the school and the community that pays for it.
(Match game? Certainly. And in this, the students play the game. Truth in advertising requires that I make a disclaimer here. I did not attend my high school prom. It was 1973, a time of volcanic social upheaval, and for years I used the excuse that I didn’t go because I didn’t want to participate in an antiquated, farcical, “establishment” exercise in peurile stagecraft. The truth was, however, I didn’t go because I couldn’t get a date, and without a date, what’s the point? Part of the shine of prom night is to demonstrate your suitability as a future spouse, your “eligibility”, and showing up solo would be a clear statement that you’re unwanted goods, rejected. Why couldn’t I get a date? Ultimately, I’ll never know, but after asking 86 girls and getting a consistent NO, I gave up.)
So when someone—anyone—wants to attend the prom in a way that violates those community expectations, you may be assured there will be a negative reaction.
The last time we saw this sort of reaction was—probably—when blacks and whites started going to the prom as couples. (Especially a black male with a white female, and if the female was blonde, oh my the reaction increased, because there has always been something particularly provocative about the idea of black males touching white females in this country. This has largely passed now in this country, but when I was a teenager it was guaranteed to cause a fight, certainly an uproar, and many a racist conversation over dinner.) I personally recall an instance in which a couple of males with LONG HAIR were forbidden to attend the prom unless they got their hair cut to a “proper” length.
Clothing is a big deal. Jeans are probably frowned upon, certainly t-shirts. Another instance I recall was a prom queen who showed up in a dress with a neckline that descended to her navel. She was already there. The guardians at the gate quickly assembled a bouquet of flowers three times the normal size and instructed her to hold it up to cover her skin, at least until all the photographs had been taken.
So we now see a lesbian wishing to bring her date to the prom, dressed in a tuxedo.
How many violations can we count! Sexual orientation, dress code, and—probably the most innocent yet deadliest of them all—an expectation that the evening was for her.
She sued. The court said her rights had been violated. She gets to attend. What does the school do? What, in effect, does the community do?
Cancels the prom.
Now everyone is angry at the lesbian. It’s her fault. She took their evening away.
Really? As I said, students can be forgiven for believing that prom night is for them. Maybe it would be fairer to tell them when they’re freshmen that, in fact, no, prom night is not for you, it’s for US. It’s to make US feel good, feel secure, feel justified, feel vindicated, validated, and reaffirmed that the vision we have for our kids and the community we wish to live in will not soon perish from the Earth. How dare a single student presume to change the rules of the game and assume that this is somehow her night, as if, somehow, she had any rights at all?
Because she is, still, a student. She doesn’t have her diploma yet, only the promise of one, and until she has that piece of paper in hand, she’s a Child. Prom night is only so she can get a taste of what it could be like to be an adult.
The hypocrisy is profound. All the accoutrements of the modern prom clearly—CLEARLY—reveal that among the other expectations students have for the night, many of them, is that at the end of the dancing and the lights and the pretty clothes and the fake debuts and the pretending at a class status most of them will never have they will get laid. I say hypocrisy because no school official or community leader would ever admit that, yet they accede to the use of privately-leased limos and the holding of proms in hotels, exercising no control whatsoever on the after-hour activities. Not, I hasten to add, that they could keep students from indulging themselves anyway, but by relinquishing their traditional roles of control of an ostensibly school activity they tacitly approve that activity on that night. Which makes perfect sense, since, as I said, part of the ritual is matchmaking.
How could they control it? Simple. Put the event back in the high school gym, forbid limousines, require parents to escort their kids to and from the prom.
Oh, but the local business community would suffer! All that money!
And it gets pointed up by a young woman who wishes to show up as herself, flaunting the fact that her sexual proclivities run counter to the norm—because whatever the reality is between individuals about their relationships, to the public at large homosexuality is inevitably, inextricably tangled up with sex. People can wink and squint and avert their gaze at what most 17 and 18 year-olds are doing and pretend that, really, maybe they’re not, but Constance McMillen put it right out there. Showing up at the prom underlined so many of the realities of that night that it made people squirm.
But rather than deny the hypocrisy, the school canceled the prom, thereby proving that prom night is about their expectations, not about the students.
Now Constance has engaged on another suit, this one to force the school to hold the prom. I hope she wins. Because for four years, high school students are allowed to assume that prom night is their night, and to have it revealed in such a blatant and spineless way that, no, it’s not, requires an answer. If you advertise something in a particular way, you should deliver. As for Itawamba County, Mississippi? Suck it up and live with it.