Last year, Taylor Ries didn’t get to bring another girl as her date to the Central Heights High School senior prom in Nacogdoches, Texas.
That’s why a group of community advocates are throwing a “Lavender Prom” in Nacogdoches later this month, giving LGBT students and their peers in rural east Texas the opportunity to dance together at one inclusive event.
In the spring of 2016, when Ries wanted to bring a girl to the prom, she says she was told that she could either “attend ‘stag’ or attend with a date of the opposite sex.” After the ACLU of Texas wrote a letter to Central Heights Independent School District that September, the school canceled senior prom altogether, as local news outlet KTRE reported at the time.
The district superintendent told KTRE that the event would “now be in the hands of parents to decide if they would like to plan something,” citing “increased pressure and liabilities and potential litigation.”
And although the superintendent added that the ACLU letter “was not the complete reason for the cancellation”—citing “pressure, liabilities, and safety concerns” once again—Ries says she is still seen in the community as the troublemaker who got senior prom shut down.
“I don’t feel blamed, I know I’m blamed,” Ries told The Daily Beast. “Everyone kind of knows it was because of me and I got a lot of hate because of that—especially [from] the seniors this year because it’s their senior prom. They weren’t too happy about it.”
KTRE reported that there were “explicit social media posts” last fall blaming Ries for the cancellation. The 18-year-old student, now graduated from Central Heights, told The Daily Beast that she “never hear[s] about it anymore” at college but she still wants her classmates back home to have an LGBT-inclusive prom experience.
“It’s just not fair,” she said. “It’s not about me anymore—it’s about the kids.”
Fortunately, Ries’ story became a point of discussion last year for a local group of advocates on Facebook, including CC Conn, a theater professor at nearby Stephen F. Austin State University. Conn and her group realized that they could do more than just comment on the story through social media—they could create a new, more hopeful story.
“We just wondered what we could do,” she told The Daily Beast. “And at first I thought, ‘Why would I have anything to do this?’ because I don’t have a kid in school. And then I realized that for a straight person to fight for gay rights is an important thing.”
Conn and friends came up with the idea to host their own LGBT-friendly prom in the area with all the usual prom fixins: a DJ, a photographer, decorations, and catering.
This March, they started a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover those expenses with the goal of raising $1500. As of this writing, they have raised $3750. But even though the fundraising has been a success, Conn hopes it doesn’t have to be a recurring event; she wants the school district to reconsider their previous prom policy.
“A lot of people were really excited about how this could happen every year and that’s not my intent,” she explained. “My intent is to make a statement that this community supports same-sex couples, transgender people, anyone to be able to go to their own prom.”
Heather Olson Beal, who was responsible for the fundraising, told The Daily Beast that her involvement with the Lavender Prom was her way of not feeling “powerless” during a harrowing time for LGBT people.
“I can’t fix hateful bigoted laws even though I’m trying,” she said. “But I can work on projects like this.”
On the local level in the United States, Ries’ experience of being told she couldn’t bring a same-sex date to prom is not uncommon.
According to the 2015 National School Climate Survey, prepared by the LGBT education organization GLSEN, over 15 percent of their 10,000-plus respondents said they ‘were prevented from attending a dance or function with someone of the same gender.” That’s often the result of local school policies like the one that used to be on the books in the Central Heights Independent School District.
The district superintendent told KTRE last September that the policy Ries disputed “was in the handbook, and that was the policy at the time” but added that “that handbook is irrelevant” now that the prom has been cancelled. (Neither Superintendent Bryan Lee nor Central Heights High School Principal David Russell responded to The Daily Beast’s emailed requests for comment on Monday and Tuesday.)
Policies excluding LGBT students from school dances have been challenged through various lawsuits, most notably in Rhode Island where a district court ruled in 1980 that gay student Aaron Fricke should be allowed to bring his male date to his senior prom.
ACLU of Texas senior staff attorney Edgar Saldivar confirmed to The Daily Beast that they sent a letter to the Central Heights Independent School District last September but explained, “We have a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations and this is one of them.”
“I can’t speak to the contents of the letter or who I spoke with regarding that,” he noted.
But in more general terms, Saldivar articulated the ACLU of Texas position on policies that prevent students from bringing same-sex dates to school dances—namely that they violate the right to free expression in the First Amendment as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“It is, for us, a pretty straightforward issue,” he said. “You’re not allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the right to go to prom when you allow it for other students.”
But because there are still scattered school districts that do discriminate, informal “lavender proms” have become a trend in recent years—even for senior citizens who didn’t get to go to their proms with same-sex dates when they were growing up.
Ries told The Daily Beast that the Lavender Prom in east Texas is important because “it brings the issue to light” and “not a lot of people realize this is happening in small schools.”
She added that she is indeed planning to attend the Lavender Prom on May 20.
“I’m still 18 so prom’s still cool, right?” she joked.
In fact, she might even bring her old date.