‘Mississippi Goddam’

Thisanjali Gangoda

During senior year of high school, American students look forward to only two events: the final day before graduation and senior prom. Formal dances have had a long-standing tradition in this country for being an integral part of the teenage experience. It is a right of passage that is coveted by the social hierarchy of high school students, the ultimate coming-of-age moment in the American teenage life. Everyone wants a date, needs to rent a limo and is willing to spend extravagantly on dresses, tuxedos and overnights at hotels to make prom a night they will never forget.

So you could imagine what it would feel like to prepare for all the thrills and frills of senior prom, only to find out it has been canceled because you are a lesbian and you want to wear a tuxedo and bring your girlfriend to the dance.

Last week a Mississippi school board canceled a senior prom after 18-year-old Constance McMillen asked her girlfriend to the dance. The school board sent out memos banning same-sex couples from attending the dance, claiming that it is inappropriate and amoral. Along with the memo, officials made a public statement that said they would not host the prom because of “distractions to the educational process caused by recent events.”

Upon reading this news, I was astounded. The levels of homophobia and discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Mississippi are so high the education institutions are willing to cancel an entire high school’s senior prom as a form of retaliation against the “corrupt” lesbian ways of one student. Beyond being childish and unreasonable, the Mississippi school board acted in the most archaic way of dealing with their so-called social reform agenda. Did they think that by canceling this high school’s prom that McMillen and all other lesbian or gay teenagers would see the wrongs in their sexual orientation and subsequently change their ways? What did they think they would accomplish aside from proving to the world how incredibly intolerant and desperate they are in forcing their moral righteousness on others?

School is an environment where students are encouraged to learn, experience and grow to be a productive and aware citizen. When an educational institution like the school board in Mississippi takes action against a student because of his or her sexual orientation, it only galvanizes the still contentious issue of separation of church and state. Americans are becoming more and more comfortable with politicians and religious authority blurring the lines and dictating who is allowed to have certain rights.

Individuals who are part of the LGBT community have rights. Though they are not entirely accounted for in the United States yet, it does not mean that we are giving up the fight. For McMillen, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has taken her case to the U.S. District Court in Oxford to challenge the ban on same-sex couples attending the prom.

When students heard of the news of their prom being canceled, they turned the blame onto McMillen, telling her, “Thanks for ruining my senior year,” only to compound the homophobia and intolerance that is rampant in this country. It is time to turn that close-minded view onto the power structures of the United States government and demand social change through legislation that is appropriate for the 21st century, not 1809.

For McMillen and many others, the battle for equal rights continues. As a nation, we must build a better relationship between with the LGBT community by acknowledging that they are people who deserve the same liberties as any other American.

But until then, the words of the brilliant Nina Simone linger on in my mind; “Mississippi, Goddam.”

Thisanjali Gangoda is a senior political science major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].