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When an Alabama teen planned to wear a tuxedo to her prom and bring a girl as her date, her principal told her she couldn’t do either. It’s a dilemma that LGBTQ students face annually when prom arrives, not to mention on numerous other occasions throughout the school year. But the student, identified only as Britney, continued to fight for her rights.
She turned to the Southern Poverty Law Center for help, and the civil rights group informed her that both the First Amendment and Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, protected her choices. When she let her principal know this, he allowed her to go to prom in her dream ensemble — a black tux and black dress shirt offset by a gold bow tie. Britney’s date, in a yellow evening gown, complemented the look.
“The bow tie really put the principal over the edge,” Britney told the SLPC of her struggle to wear what she wanted to prom. But she pushed back because she “didn’t think it was right” to be forced to conform to gender stereotypes at the event. She “wanted to go to prom as myself.”
While Britney knew her rights and was prepared to fight for them, many students do not. And schools across the country have tried to intimidate students into conforming to gender norms at prom. In 2009, then-Mississippi student Constance McMillen wanted to wear a tux to prom and go with her girlfriend, but her high school forbade her and later canceled the dance just to keep her from attending. Constance sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union and sued the school. The court ruled in her favor, finding that the school had infringed on her rights.
”It sets a legal precedent for gay and lesbian students all over the country that they have the right to bring a same-sex date to the prom and also to wear gender-nonconforming clothes to the prom,” Christine Sun of the ACLU said of the ruling.
School dress codes can’t discriminate against students, and the right to free expression also includes one’s choice of clothes. Both of these factors worked in Constance’s favor. If it would be appropriate for a student to wear a tuxedo or evening gown to an event, like prom, then all students should be permitted to wear such attire, “even if it isn’t stereotypically associated with your gender,” according to the ACLU.
The challenges LGBTQ students face during prom don’t stop with their attire or dates, but they do have some legal protections. Boys can run for prom queen and girls for prom king, even if schools say otherwise. Although there haven’t been any court rulings on this matter, the ACLU contends that both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause protect students’ rights to run for any category of prom royalty, regardless of sex.
In 2007, Cinthia Covarrubias, a transgender Fresno, California, student who occasionally went by “Tony,” ran for prom king and lost. But the next month, Crystal Vera, also a transgender student from Fresno, ran for prom queen and won. These students are considered trailblazers for courageously challenging norms.
While the actions of such students and legal precedents should make it clear to schools that they can’t force students to conform to gender conventions at prom and other events, they continue to do so. That’s why the best advice any student attending prom can get is to not take what school administrators say as gospel. Too often, schools don’t know the law, flout the law, and don’t have the best interests of LGBTQ students in mind. And they’re counting on students and their families not to fight for their rights.