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Tuesday 09 November 2010

School balls remain a battleground

Posted in: Features
By Kitten Power - 10th April 2010

Constance McMillen
As the issue of taking same sex dates to school balls has been thrust into the spotlight in the United States, a New Zealand support group for queer youth has some advice for any students facing discrimination at school.

Mississippi teenager Constance McMillen hit the headlines in the US after she was barred from taking her girlfriend to her prom and the school cancelled the official event. The 18-year old took her school district to court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, where a judge ruled the Itawama County School District could not bar McMillen and her date.

The judge did not force the school district to hold the prom because a private prom was being organised – and it was understood McMillen was invited. However she was then apparently tricked into going to a 'fake prom' at a country club, where just five other students turned up, while the rest of her peers partied at a secret event organised by parents.

Despite the attitude from her school and community, McMillen has inspired young gay and lesbian people across the world with her bravery. A Facebook group Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to the Prom has attracted more than 400,000 fans and is now being used to mobilise support for a law change so that students can no longer face such discrimination in the US.

New Zealand group Safety in Schools For Queers (SS4Q) says McMillen has set a wonderful example of a young person standing up for her rights and for the rights of others.

Spokeswoman Laressa Donaldson says the teenager's win illustrates what can happen if we continue to stand up for what we believe in.

"Collective lobbying is needed to advance change, and Constance has done a fabulous job of galvanising the support around her to do that."

Donaldson says we know that New Zealand schools aren't necessarily safe environments for queer students. She says there have been a myriad of examples where schools have not allowed their queer students to take partners of the same sex to their school ball and SS4Q is aware of instances where schools have demanded their queer students sign a contract stating they are bringing a partner of the same sex. Donaldson says these are actions of discrimination, and a breach of New Zealand's Human Rights Act.

"The school ball is a significant event for many New Zealand students - it's a time when young people get to connect with each other and express themselves outside of the class room," she says.

"If the rights and diversity of our young people are undermined at this important time, then we are repressing not just queer students, but all students. Such actions reinforce the hierarchy of heterosexual privilege, and alienate those who do not fit the heterosexual mould."

What can students do if they wish to take their same sex partner to the school ball?

The Human Rights Act (1993) says it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in any of the prohibited areas of public life, therefore this would include a school ball. Students can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The commission can be contacted on 0800 4 Youth Rights or 0800 496 877. Check out their website for more information on the Human Rights Act and the complaints process,

Have you faced discrimination over attending a school ball or event?  Email with your story for a feature we are working on.

Kitten Power - 10th April 2010

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