essays, identity politics

So What’s Next?: McMillen’s Fake Prom

While I was kind of slow to follow the story, mostly because I thought, okay, wrong-doing that has made national news, clearly everybody else is going to jump in and take care of this and I don’t really have to, I’m kind of outraged by the recent update on Constance McMillan’s fight to go to her high school prom. She was told there was a prom, showed up with her date, where there were only 7 students, and some faculty and teachers. The location and time of the “real” prom, privately held, was kept from her.

You’ve probably already heard this. Jesse James had a nice post on it, Dorothy Snarker posted something too.

I can kind of comprehend that that happened. I mean we’re talking about a school district, a small town, a state, which denied her access to the prom in the first place because of her sexuality and gender expression (with her request to wear a tux). I am not too surprised that they would hold another prom, that students—her peers and classmates and (supposedly?) friends—and parents would deliberately deny her access.

What I can’t comprehend is the shock of it all. Because when something like this happens, the experience of realizing reality isn’t quite what you expected it to be is what is shocking.

She won her court case. She was told there would be a (private) prom she could attend. She walked in, expecting that to be the case (at least, from what I can tell in the statements released so far, she expected that), only to find that she had been cast out, ostracized, again. That is such a shock for a person to sustain.

It’s like losing your job or having someone break up with you—you might think, yeah, we weren’t really that good together, but just the act of NOT SEEING IT COMING can make you feel nutso, and that reality somehow didn’t line up with your expectations is enough to make you lose your mind, just for a few minutes. But the recovery from that momentary loss can really be difficult. Because hey, if you didn’t see THAT coming, what else won’t you see coming? What else is going to just blindside you completely unexpectedly? And of course there’s no way to prepare for that kind of thing, but the mind doesn’t really comprehend that, only that if it happened once, we can learn from it, and prepare, in case it does happen again.

Here’s my question, now, though: what the hell can we do about this? What is the piece of adequate activism here? My first thought is that they MUST be doing something illegal, they must be crossing some line or committing some act of discrimination, because HELLO, they so clearly are.

But they threw a “prom.” Teachers and school administrators showed up at it, so it was a “real” event. That all the other students went somewhere else doesn’t have any legal ramification, somehow, right?

Because it is TOTALLY LEGAL to hold a separate prom. It is totally legal for people to hold private parties and not invite certain people, regardless of whether it is due to their gender identity, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, or if you just simply don’t like that person. This is, in my understanding, how many of the segregated proms still exist and operate in the South: because they are private. And of course these events are products of a culture that makes it normal to have a segregated prom.

Okay, so: if the students were all making a fuss about this, if the students were saying, “we don’t want two proms, of COURSE this really outta-sight gay lady is included, we all want to go to the same prom, yay differences!” then perhaps we would have one prom, yeah? But the students aren’t really going to do that when it is their parents who are throwing the separate prom in the first place. The kids of those parents are probably elite, privileged, and have, to some degree or another, grown up with discrimination in the water, in the air they breathe. They are probably not very likely to stand up and support Constance.

So what next?

No I mean really, what the hell can we do about this, given that technically, TECHNICALLY, somehow, even though it is so fucking obvious that it is blatant discrimination here, technically it seems to me that they have done nothing wrong. Technically they “threw” a “prom” and invited McMillen, and therefore did what they were told. And given that the students are blaming McMillen (I have heard about that terrible Facebook group, blaming her for ruining their “best high school memories,” nevermind that a) those for whom prom is their “best high school memory” are those who are the ones running the school, in a privileged, elite, and often very hierarchical system that discriminates and puts down others, and b) usually, those for whom prom is the best thing that ever happened to them end up stuck in their own home town, with kids and mortgages and dead-end jobs instead of attending colleges. Not always, of course, but often), they are not going to stand up for her.

So what next? How does the queer community rally around her? This is the time when Kristen and others I’ve been talking to all say, Constance, GET OUT. Leave your teeny little narrow-minded town, like we all did, come to the liberal havens, come to the gay meccas, come find your people. You got handed a nice fat check on the Ellen show and now can go to college wherever you want. Or you could harness this opportunity and make a documentary out of your hardship and ride on this ten minutes of fame all the way to a job in the gay-for-pay queer nonprofit world.

If I had her address I would say that we should all send loving letters of support, signed, your queer family, the one that awaits you and already embraces you. And while it might be comforting to Constance to know that there are people who support her, what about the other students (who will be voting adults soon enough), what about their parents, what about the school officials, what about the school board? What about the town who is blaming her for such an OUTRAGEOUS attempt at doing something like dancing with her loved one at a school dance oh mah gawd what is she thinking!

Is there anything anyone can do about the homophobia that is so clearly deeply embedded in them all already? Aren’t there more options than her just up and leaving?

This is where the question of education comes in. How on earth can one—or, more accurately, can this movement of queer activism—possibly continue to chip away at bigotry and hatred and homophobia? Is it actually possible to reach people, to help change their minds?

Generally, activists say no. Activists aim at that same populace as politicians: the Movable Middle, who could kind of be swayed either way, depending on the day or what they had for breakfast or what was on Oprah yesterday.

Thus this is the part where I vow to continue to do the kind of activism I do, and where I continue to encourage the kind of activism you do, in whatever way you participate in the queer community, even if it’s just by being out and keeping your private life private. Perhaps especially then. Perhaps it really will trickle down, that the general culture will disgrace and shame homophobia such that, at least, it can no longer be done openly, and there will be consequences.

On the good days, I believe we’re already there, or at least got quite a good map and we’re in a nice easy stretch of open road. But on days like this, with news like this, my jaw just drops a little, and I wonder what can we do? What can I do?

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

15 thoughts on “So What’s Next?: McMillen’s Fake Prom”

  1. Randy says:

    Thanks for sharing, those bigots appall me. IMO any home sold in that area should be purchased by a same sex couple, until the existing residents have all been displaced, separated just like school children moved to opposite sides of the classroom so they can't interact and cause more trouble.

  2. honeybee33 says:

    I heard that the sponsors throwing the second prom set a deadline for purchasing tickets; Constance tried buying her tickets after the deadline and when she was told she couldn't, she threatened to sue. Out of fear of becoming the "victims" of what they saw as an overly litigious, vengeance-bound teen-aged girl, they canceled the second prom and threw a separate, third, secret, private "prom" and invited hand-picked guests. Apparently Constance and her friends never got the message that the second prom had been cancelled and showed up at the empty venue.

    Personally, this sounds totally "southern-culture" to me. That's how they deal with "problems" like Constance – smile to your face while they're stabbing you in the back. I don't think there's any fighting that approach, because it's not just a matter of racism or classism or homophobia – it's an inherent way of facing (or, rather, NOT facing!) social issues of any kind. And it's decidedly impervious to evolution or change.

    yeah, you couldn't pay me enough to live down there! ;-)

  3. I live in the South. I've lived here my entire life. I am also out. I have lived with my partner for the last three years. I have to admit feeling some anger at what has been said up this point.

    What happened to Constance is terrible. This is true. It is not shocking. It's not shocking at all. This happens a lot around here. A few weeks later, a gay student in Georgia asked his principle if he could attend the prom with his boyfriend. The principal believed she had no right to say no, and he was allowed to go to his prom. A week later, his parents kicked him out of his house.

    A week before Constance was told she could not go to prom, a trans student was run out of their high school.

    This information, obviously does not sound like a good case for the South. These things are horrible. Fear of hate crime is constant in some places. My partner and I had a suspected arson attempt on our home as well as a rock thrown through our front door. It can be scary here. Not enough people pay attention. There is something that can be done, though. We stay. We stay here because this is our home. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that I'm the first gay person they have met. How can you expect people to change if no one tries to change them? Moving to more "gay friendly" place would be easier in some aspects, of course, but I love the south. I'm proud of it. The culture here is not all about backstabbing. The culture is also about loyalty and tradition; it is about family and hard work. The south has always been the slowest to accept social change, but dammit.. we CAN change. We ARE changing.

    Constance herself is proof of progress. The fact that she had adults around her that supported her decisions and encouraged her to call the ACLU.. the fact that she had enough pride in herself that she would even *ask* to go the prom… so many students are scared to make that stand. Constance shows us there is change happening in the south.

    What can we do? Join in the movement that's already happening. Work to get non-discrimination laws passed. ENDA would change so much on the federal level. My state (Tennessee) not only excludes LGBT people from protection against housing and employment discrimination, but has a Democratic candidate for governor who supports an adoption ban. We need federal protection, and we can all work for that. 150,000 people marched on Washington in October. Arrests were made recently when activists protested both DADT and ENDA in Washington. They were speaking up. We speak up in order to make a change.

    I am proud of Constance. I have seen her in interviews and she is clearly a confident young woman who does not carry shame about her sexuality. She knows her classmates are wrong. She is going to be ok.

    We need to pay attention to her, sure.. but we also need to pay attention to DADT, DOMA, and ENDA. We need to pay attention to the fact that a man in Oklahoma who was denied the right to have a license plate that says "I'm Gay" was found dead a few weeks ago after having reported threats against his life. We need to pay attention to the fight for gay marriage in all states, not just California.

    Southern queers are an amazing bunch. I can say with experience that we are strong as hell. We are strong as hell, and we fight hard. I welcome everyone to join us.

  4. a. says:

    i have the same questions, basically.

    you probably heard that constance and gf have accepted an invitation to attend NCLR's annual fundraising gala in SF in may, which is basically a massive adult dyke prom (i've been, i recommend it) so i hope that will serve to some extent to connect her with the queer family as you're suggesting we should.

    p.s. 3 grafs from the bottom, you meant "populace." i don't mean to be a constant spelling nag, really i don't.

  5. e says:

    AllysonIvy- everything you said. Thank you for your comment.

  6. sarah says:

    i was reading about this via feministing, and one of the comments there mentions this:

    "My name is Izzy Pellegrine and I'm a founding member of the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, a group that has been working for two years to promote LGBT student rights in MS. MSSC has been working with Constance for months to help organize her fellow students and educate members of her community. We're hosting our annual Second Chance Prom in her city and opening it up to all young people in the state. (And this is no seven person event!!) Check us out at"

    perhaps trying to get in touch with these folks / sending support their way is a concrete thing to do to show our support?

  7. Alexandra says:

    I say with all the internet support that this has garnered, we set up a PayPal or something, take donations, and hold a Queer Prom for her. And anyone else in her area who feels they have a place at this prom. I'm thinking something like the Capitol Queer Prom that happens out in DC every year. :D

    Sounds like a plan to me. :)

  8. Sloan says:

    OK, so i read an article, oh how at the same school (district?) the suspended a transgendered student for well… being trans and wearing to much pink – pretty much. He apparently was "distracting" to the students and was suspended after only like, a day of school.… It's sad. I wish people would get their heads out of their asses.

  9. It's not about homophobia, mostly. It's really about transphobia.

    First, Juin Baize was ejected from the school for crossdressing. Then Constance and several other girls cross-dressed in support of Juin to protest his being thrown out of the school.

    Then prom. "Constance asked, initially, in December if she could take her date.

    Then she asked again. She was told she couldn't take her date. She was also told she could not wear a Tuxedo, which she had added to the request.

    Keep this in mind, please. She was told, before the thing became national news and a court case, that she couldn't take her date but that they could both go there and be there together.

    Indeed, that date part wasn't the court issue. The issue was that she wanted to wear a tuxedo to the Promenade Dance.

    To put it in terms that are clear: she wanted to cross dress in attending the Prom.

    In the interviews with Constance that were published, she made the point that she was told she could take her date, but when she brought up the issue of wearing a tuxedo, the Principal told her that if he let her do that, he'd have to let some boy do it. And he simply was not going to allow that.


    And the LGB community has rallied around Constance, given her a scholarship, trumpeted her cause across the blogosphere. Juin had to move to another town and stay in a cramped home with multiple relatives. No one gave Juin a scholarship and no one's talking about his story (Juin still prefers male pronouns at this point).

    Having been the victim of similar ostracism, my heart aches for Constance. but I want people to start remembering and talking about Juin too. The story made so much more sense, in a horrible way, once I saw these dots connected.

  10. Birch says:

    What I haven't seen reported, and I would be interested in knowing, and may not be knowable… is how many kids would have gone to regular prom with lesbians and didn't go to the private prom? Not active support, but at least passive resistance the jerks?

  11. ayellowdog says:

    I can't agree with AllysonIvy enough. My thoughts after reading this post were nearly the same. Clearly each person has to do what works best for his or her own mental and emotional health, but staying where you might not be wanted and living your life as the perfectly normal, crazy, f'd up life it is is probably the most effective, and most difficult, activism there is. I grew up in WV, went to a tiny college (1000 students) in a tiny town in Indiana, and I'm now earning a graduate degree and teaching at a staunchly, intensely, dogmatically Catholic university. Clearly I'm not so good at retreating to the gay meccas of the world (I have a really hard time not thinking of them as gay ghettos, even though they're not walled off, and that just makes me sad). But . . .

    At my college, not only did I meet the girl who has since become my wife, we and our friends started an LGBT-straight alliance during our sophomore year. The administration refused to fund us or include us in the official activities/clubs list for the school, other students heckled, and we held events anyway. Today, 12 years later, "Love Out Loud" is the largest student organization on campus, fully funded by the college. We held our wedding ceremony on campus this past summer, and received a congratulatory gift from the school on our nuptials. Baby step.

    At my current grad school, I'm officially out to most of my peers and my dean (a very good and kind priest). As my sweetie puts it, though, I'm a "big ol' dyke", so even the people I'm not real chatty with probably assume. Many of these folks have told me that I'm the first gay person they've met, and that now they can see that it just isn't true that all the gays are out to destroy morals or families or whatever the hell it is we're supposedly destroying. My sweetie (who accompanies me to our school functions) and I are the exceptions to the rule they've been taught their whole lives by their Church or their parents or whoever. Now when they hear people, even in positions of authority, spewing hateful and ignorant garbage about the threat of the gay agenda, knowing my wife and I will maybe be that experience that allows my classmates to say…"Hold on. I actually *know* some gay people. They're not horrible at all." And this doesn't happen because I'm always all up in their grill trying to argue with them about the Church's position or anything like that…I just live my life, and they can see that I'm not some diabolical fiend. Baby step.

    All of that being said – we MUST be aggressive with the government – especially at the federal level. We must make sure that the government is not allowed to forget that there is a huge portion of the citizenry of this country that is not being treated equally and thus is always at risk. We must demand to have it made clear that the 14th amendment includes us too.

    Legislation for the protection of our rights is crucial, obviously, and we should all work in whatever way we can to make it happen as comprehensively and quickly as possible. However, we will never be able to legislate the opinions of others. Opinions must be swayed, nudged, gradually overcome by the opinion-holders themselves. And this kind of change can only occur if we are strong enough to live among those who think they fear and hate us, usually because they don't know any better, to befriend them in spite of themselves, to share a common world with them, highlighting for them our common ground. Our (legitimate) defensive outrage at how we are allowed to be treated should be directed towards our elected officials. Everyone else should receive a genuine offer of friendship and goodwill.

    That was long. Sorry.

  12. EliDeep says:

    I won't go on too much, because Allyson and yellowdog summed up my feelings really well. I do want to point out a few things. First, there is a huge rift in the gay activist community over tactics and goals. HRC and the activist establishment want to take it slowly and sweetly and politely ask for our rights, while folks like GetEqual are ready to demand rights. GetEqual was founded by Kip Williams and Robin McGehee, who both grew up in the South. Kip's from Knoxville, and Robin is from Mississippi. I first heard Robin speak at the National Equality March in October. Her speech was the most touching to me because she told all us Southern queers that we weren't forgotten. Often, the gay community writes off the South as a lost cause, and tells us to just move to more gay friendly places. This is NOT a solution. Those of us who live in and love the South know that the only way to change it is to stay. Racism is still an issue in the South (and in the rest of the country), but the landscape has changed dramatically in the several decades that have passed since meaningful federal civil rights legislation was enacted. If we get laws passed at the federal level, you will see more and more companies include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in their non-discrimination and anti-harassment training. As that goes on for a while, folks will take for granted that you can't get away with overt homo/transphobia.

    Brief note to Sinclair on an assumption made in the post: Itawamba County, MS is not a place full of elites. The median income there is $31,156. Over 15% of the population lives below the poverty line. I find that commonly, issues of homophobia, racism, etc are far more prevalent among the impoverished who are exploited by politicians and pastors than among the educated elite. Let's not assume things about the people who make assumptions about us. As always, thanks for writing about this! Keep it up!

  13. EliDeep: I believe Sinclair was talking about the elitism within high school, not monitary elitism. Even within the poorest county, there is a heiarchy within the school. While taken to extremes, and extremely aware of itself, ‘Glee’ shows some great examples of this.

    There are cool, well liked, popular kids, and there are those who are at the bottom of the heap, and those inbetween. (In fact, for the first part of high school, I was towards the bottom, but even me and my weird friends had people we looked down on. And eventually, many of us moved of the feeding chain) Cliques can form around anything, and interact with each other a million different ways to create the dance that is high school social status. Its worse in some schools than in others – and it works differently in some than others. It depends on what matters to people.

    However, inter-group drama doesn’t always happen. Just because my friends were peirced, hair dyed, goth/punk/pagan/geeky weirdo’s didn’t mean the cheerleaders automatically hated on us. Mostly, because 95% of them were really cool. The assholic level of those up on the top, and the zeitgeist of the area they lived in plays a big part of things. We grew up in suburban long island, where having a fake prada bag was a bigger thing to hate on than someone’s sexuality. When sexuality is what matters to the assholes, not something silly and stupid like fashion… it gets unpleasant.

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