CHICAGO – Little less than a year after a young Mississippi woman captured national headlines successfully challenging a local school policy that denied her ability to wear a tuxedo to a public high school prom, a Chicago area high school senior has also successfully overturned such a discriminatory policy.
In a letter sent to Proviso Township School District on Wednesday, March 30, 2011, lawyers for Belinda Sanchez asked the school to reverse its decision to deny Ms. Sanchez the opportunity to attend the prom in a tuxedo, explaining that its decision violated Ms. Sanchez’s constitutional rights. The Proviso East High School prom is scheduled for later this month. Ms. Sanchez’s lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois were informed late yesterday in a letter from the school’s Superintendent that her request has now been granted.
Ms. Sanchez wants to enjoy her senior prom with a group of friends. She has been planning this night for her entire senior year. In keeping with a school requirement that young women produce a photo of the dress they intend to wear, Ms. Sanchez met with Principal Milton Patch in March and notified him of her desire to wear a tuxedo. She selected the outfit because she thought it best represented who she is and how she expresses herself. Patch refused her request, saying that he didn’t want a “sideshow” at what he described as “his” prom and suggesting that she might want to wear something “more revealing” than a tuxedo.
“I was shocked,” said Ms. Sanchez. “I didn’t know what to say. I felt like crying out of anger. I didn’t expect it from him.”
In its letter this week to Patch and Proviso Township Superintendent Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart, the ACLU of Illinois makes clear that a policy requiring that all girls wear dresses to a school dance is gender discrimination that is not permissible under federal law. The letter notes that “(f)ederal courts have consistently ruled that acting against a person for not conforming to traditional gender norms amounts to illegal sex stereotyping.” The letter goes on to assert that barring Ms. Sanchez’s freedom to wear a tuxedo is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression.
Ms. Sanchez has chosen a tuxedo – a white dinner jacket with black pants – that her father agreed to purchase for her.
“A tuxedo fits who I am,” added Ms. Sanchez.
The case is reminiscent of a Mississippi case last year involving Constance McMillen. Ms. McMillen also wanted to wear a tuxedo to her prom, and was denied her right to attend with her girlfriend wearing a tuxedo by local school officials. In that instance, the school district ultimately had to pay out more than $116,000 in damages and attorney fees.
“We are pleased that Belinda is getting her wish,” said John Knight, Director of the ACLU of Illinois LGBT & HIV Project. “She is a strong-willed, bright young woman who did every right thing. She respected the rules and went to talk to the principal in a courteous, thoughtful way.”
“I hope she enjoys the prom,” added Knight.