School must allow lesbian student to wear tuxedo in senior portrait

Sarah Young, ACLU of Mississippi Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project Coordinator; 315-396-5892 /
Kristy Bennett, ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director, 601-540-6642 /

Jackson, MS - The ACLU of Mississippi has sent a letter to Copiah County School District demanding school officials immediately cease violating a student's rights. The school has barred the student from wearing a tuxedo in her senior prom picture, despite the fact that boys are allowed to wear them. Such a requirement for gender-specific clothing is a violation of students' rights to gender equality and self expression.

School officials told Ceara Sturgis, an openly gay senior at Wesson Attendance Center in Wesson, MS, that her photo would not appear in the yearbook because in it she is wearing a tuxedo, not the traditional drape worn by other female students. Assistant Superintendent Robert Holloway informed Ceara's mother that there was no policy in the student handbook requiring females to wear drapes. The decision by school officials to require Ceara to wear a drape is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.

In its letter to the Copiah County School District, the ACLU-MS reminds district officials that students' right to self expression is protected under the First Amendment of the constitution. Clothing, such as a tuxedo, worn as a statement of lesbian and gay rights, has been upheld by courts to be symbolic speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Schools have an obligation to protect, not extinguish, such speech.

The letter further reminds district officials that the 14th Amendment prohibits public schools from engaging in gender discrimination. Courts have also consistently upheld the First Amendment right of female students to wear tuxedos to senior proms. While school officials may impose a requirement of proper, even formal attire for senior photographs, officials cannot lawfully mandate requirements based on notions that only boys may wear tuxedos and only girls may wear dresses or drapes.

Dfferent treatment based on sex is constitutional only if supported by a significant governmental interest. The ACLU-MS certainly sees no significant governmental interest in barring girls from wearing tuxedos or forcing them to wear dresses/drapes.

The ACLU-MS is demanding the Copiah County School District comply with the law by allowing Ms. Sturgis's photo be included in the student yearbook.

(ACLU demand letter can be found here (PDF): /downloads/wesson.pdf)