Mitch Wright needed more than a guest form to bring his date to his senior prom. Like other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender high school students across the nation, Mitch met resistance from school officials when he asked to bring his out-of-school boyfriend, Josh Bird, to prom in 2009. Mitch didn’t back down, and after a local media storm and some legal support by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, school officials allowed him to bring Josh.
Mitch already handed in the paperwork for Josh to attend prom and purchased their tickets before one of the vice principals at Louisville High School told him they couldn’t attend together. The vice principal explained that even though Mitch’s fellow classmates knew he was gay, it wasn’t tradition at the school.
“I started getting mad and was like, ‘Why can’t I? It’s a public school,’” Mitch said. “They said it was part of their policy, and yet it wasn’t on any of the paperwork. I knew why I wasn’t allowed—because I was gay.”
The news came on the last day of tickets sales. With less than 24 hours to figure out what they were going to do, Mitch and Josh decided to go to prom separately with two female friends. Mitch purchased two more tickets but still tried to figure out what to do.
Josh urged him to fight back.
Josh was attending college at Case Western Reserve University at the time. He said being in college had shown him how much freedom he really had.
“Seeing what the world was like outside of East Canton and Louisville,” Josh said. “It really made me wanna push for it.”
“I was mad to begin with, but once (Josh) was mad, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do something about it,’” Mitch said.
Some of his friends created a petition. They collected 244 signatures comprising mostly of the senior class, as well as some juniors who were also going to prom. Although the petition was never handed to a school administrator, Mitch said he felt he had a lot of support.
Mitch and Josh contacted Carrie Davis, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Ohio, who was happy to help. The next day, Mitch received an email from her asking permission to send out a press release using their names. Mitch said he declined because he has “very conservative family members.” When press releases or letters were shown on the news, their names were blacked out.
The next day, Mitch’s first period study hall class was buzzing about the news before he even had a chance to see the newspaper.
“I was surprised it made the front page,” Mitch said. “The Canton Repository is known for being super conservative.”
Besides the Canton Repository and Fox 8, the story appeared on the ACLU’s website, the Detroit News and the National Youth Rights Association’s website. Mitch said one of his friends saw it on CNN.
The ACLU also faxed and mailed a letter via to Louisville High School principal, Steve Milano. The group posted the letter and a short summary of the story on its website. The letter cited federal court cases in which the exclusion of same-sex couples at prom was found to be a violation of the First Amendment and Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The letter also stated the ACLU would pursue further action on behalf of Mitch if school officials did not reverse their decision.
The letter was sent on April 21, 2009. By April 23, the school overturned its decision. Mitch said Principal Milano came to him, shook his hand and said there wasn’t a problem.
“It was kind of fishy,” Mitch said. “Fox 8 was reporting (that) the school board was saying there was no problem, and it was a misunderstanding, and yet clearly I was told we couldn’t go.”
It wasn’t over yet. Because Mitch had to buy four tickets, there was some confusion at the door on prom night. They were given a hard time when trying to enter because the ticket numbers didn’t match the corresponding numbers on the list.
“The only reason they were making a big deal out of it is because they gave out gifts at the end of the night,” Josh said. “If your ticket didn’t match up with your name, you didn’t get a gift. I literally said, ‘I don’t care about door prizes; I just want to go to prom.’”
One of Mitch’s teachers, who was chaperoning the dance, was able to clear up the misunderstanding.
Finally, they were allowed to enjoy prom.
Louisville High School didn’t respond to interview requests via phone and email, but its extensive student handbook outlines requirements of a prom date. It states an age limit (as young as freshmen or as old as 22) but says nothing about same-sex couples.
Mike Brickner, the director of communications and public policy at ACLU, said the school district also told the ACLU it would allow future students to bring same-sex dates to prom.
Mitch and Josh are still together and both attend Kent State. Mitch is a junior interior design major and Josh is a senior visual communication design major.
Both Mitch and Josh said challenging the school’s decision was important, and they would do it again.
“I hope it changed something,” Mitch said. “In the end, I really wasn’t doing it just for me. I was doing it for anyone who wanted to take their boyfriend or girlfriend to prom.”
“Kids for years and years and years have gone stag with a group of guys, or a group of young women … and they’re never given a hard time,” Mike said. “If two or three or four gay students want to go together, they’re given a hard time and are not permitted to go.”
“Sometimes, I think, these go unreported in a lot of instances. We’re just glad to be out there pushing for greater acceptance when we can … For every kid like Mitch, there’s probably a dozen others who didn’t have the opportunity to, or weren’t able to speak up for their rights.”
Photos by Jessica Yanesh