Lesbian teenagers break prom tradition in Utah

BY admin

May 11 2004 12:00 AM ET

When Murray High School student Heather Johnston requested to participate in junior prom activities with her girlfriend, she didn't expect to bring a lesson of tolerance to her ultraconservative school in Murray, Utah. The openly lesbian Johnston asked to participate in her school's time-honored event, held in the rotunda of the state capitol, where the boys line up on one side of the capitol's marble staircases and girls on the other. "I got excited about it," said Johnston. "I thought, We should do this." But as Johnston and her girlfriend attended the first practice, they didn't know if one of them should take her place in line with the boys. "There was some concern from a few of the students at practices, as they were coming down with one girl mixed in with boys. That seemed to cause quite a conflict with some of our students and some of our conservative parents," Murray High School principal Dee Jensen said. "Our community is ultraconservative in their approach to some things. That's their right. And being a public entity, we have to try to walk the middle road."

School administrators initially sided with tradition and said the two girls could line up on the girls' side together but would have to promenade alone or with a male classmate. The suggestion angered Johnston. "She'd gone out and gotten herself a nice prom dress, went to the practice, and was told they weren't going to be allowed to do that," said her stepfather, Joe Barraco. "She qualified for all their restrictions. They were both juniors, both members of the school, yet they were going to turn them down." Johnston's mother, Janice Barraco, sought help and was directed to the American Civil Liberties Union. "I'm usually not a person who does confrontation things, so this was a growing thing for me," Janice Barraco said. "I decided I was going to stand by this kid no matter what." So, she discovered, would case law.

In 1980, Aaron Fricke sued his Rhode Island high school for saying he and a male date could not attend a formal senior dinner and dance. A U.S. district judge in that state decided the school's action violated Fricke's First and 14th Amendment rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. ACLU Utah staff attorney Margaret Plane discussed such legal matters with the family and in a meeting with district officials before the March prom. Officials rendered their decision the same day: that the girls could promenade together but that both would line up on the girls' side. "We were willing to say we need to take another look at this past practice," Superintendent Richard Tranter said. "We learned we have to be more tolerant. We need to be more tolerant for the sake of our students."

The decision brought relief to the Barracos and Plane, who were prepared to seek a court injunction on the prom if things went differently. "We wanted it calmly resolved," Janice Barraco said. "We didn't want anyone's prom ruined." Johnston's prom plans changed nonetheless when her girlfriend went out of town just before the dance. A straight female friend stood in as Johnston's date, and when the pair made their way down the steps, fellow students and parents cheered. "It was incredible," Johnston recalls. Though some students spoke against the girls' act, public controversy appears to have ended. Phone calls to the school also stopped, which Jensen interprets as acceptance. "I see it as a change in times, and some people in the community were not ready for it," Jensen said. "[But] they were not willing as parents to make a scene to detract in any way from the activity for the kids. And that's the only reason we have proms--is for kids."

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