Prom season is months away, but that hasn’t stopped a Sullivan, Indiana, high school group from trying to organize a “traditional” prom alternative that would ban gay students. That’s put school officials on the defensive, inspired a Change.org petition calling for the ouster of a teacher who made anti-gay comments, and landed the small town of 4,224 in the midst of a media firestorm.
More on Shine: Gay Teens Get Bullied Less Over Time, New Study Finds
The controversy kicked off Sunday, when a group of community members met at the Sullivan First Christian Church to discuss the possibility of an alternative prom that would be for straight students only. That, Sullivan High School principal David Springer told Yahoo! Shine, was a response to his giving the okay to a pair of girls—he said wasn’t sure if they were a couple or just friends—who wanted to walk in the pre-prom “grand march” for couples.
“I said of course two girls can go together,” he explained. “That’s how this whole thing started.” He added, “All of our students are invited to attend the grand march, the prom and the post-prom festivities.”
More on Yahoo!: High School Students Crowned America's First Lesbian Homecoming Couple
Local WTWO-TV news coverage of the meeting zeroed in on Diana Medley (pictured above), a special education teacher at the nearby Union Junior/Senior High School, who didn’t hold back when asked about the issue of gay couples at the prom.
“We don’t agree with it. It’s offensive to us,” she told a reporter, who then asked Medley if she thought that gays had any purpose in life. “No I honestly don’t,” she said, smiling. “Sorry, but I don’t. I don’t understand it.”
Footage of Medley’s comments flew around the Internet, inspiring activist and writer Dan Savage to call for her termination, as well as an online petition, calling for the same, with more than 8,000 signatures. There’s also a Facebook page, Support the Sullivan High School Prom for All Students, that’s garnered more than 17,800 likes. (A 2013 Sullivan Traditional Prom page was removed not long after it was created.)
“Prom is a universal rite of passage, and undermining that tradition in the name of prejudice sends a soul-crushing message to LGBT students in that community,” Elyza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, told Yahoo! Shine. “Having a teacher play such an active role, and make such awful comments, ups the ante. Teachers are meant to be a source of support and role models, and having teachers support is perhaps the most important ingredient for LGBT students’ success and well being.”
When reached by phone, the principal of Medley’s school, Constance McMillan, told Shine, “You can see the statement on our website. I can’t give you any further information.” The statement, issued Tuesday morning, read, in part:
I would like to clearly state the Northeast School Corporation has never denied any student the right to attend prom or any other Northeast School Corporation sponsored event due to their race, gender, or sexual orientation. In regards to the story that WTWO aired on February 10, 2013, the Northeast School Corporation employee that was interviewed was expressing her First Amendment rights. The views expressed are not the views of the Northeast School Corporation and/or the Board of Education.
These comments were expressed during a Sunday community meeting at a local church and at no time was she representing the Northeast School Corporation. The teacher was participating in a meeting with her local church congregation.
Sullivan First Christian Church’s senior minister Dale Wise, though, told Yahoo! Shine, “I do not know Diana Medley. She’s not from here.” He was also careful to distance himself and the congregation from the whole prom issue, explaining that the church allows a range of community groups to meet there. “We’re absolutely neutral on the prom and on the ‘traditional’ prom,” he said. “We don’t have a horse in the race.”
As far as Medley’s comments being protected speech, noted the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a Washington, D.C.-based equality organization, it may not actually be so clear-cut.
“She is entitled to her own first amendment rights,” Brad Jacklin, project director of the group’s public policy and government affairs, told Shine. “Whether or not she’s saying is against school policy or in violation of the federal Title 9, though, may be a matter for the courts to decide if someone wanted to take that up.” The ACLU has used Title 9, which guarantees equal access at school sponsored activities, in a range of cases, Jacklin explained.
Still, Indiana is not one of the 23 states in the nation with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, he added, “And it definitely doesn’t have any in regard to protecting students.” Fifteen states, including Illinois, Iowa and New York, have anti-bullying laws that specifically protect gay and lesbian students.
“There's no way to stop the haters at Sullivan High School from holding an independent prom for the bigoted kids,” noted Savage in his blog for the Stranger. “But here’s what we can do: we can make a noise so loud enough that all the queer kids at Sullivan High School hear it. Those kids need to know that there are people—a lot of people—who think this sh*t is wrong.”
Michigan Teen Makes Prom Dress Out of Starburst Wrappers
Crazy Prom Moms Accused of Lysol Attack, Paying for Kids' Internet Dates
Celebrity Kids: Gay, Straight, Transgender. It Doesn't Matter to Mom.