Miss. school district asks judge to throw out suit from lesbian whose photo was left out of yearbook

Ceara Sturgis

SHELIA BYRD  |  Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — A school district wants a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by a lesbian who claimed her rights were violated because the senior photograph of her in a tuxedo was left out of the high school yearbook.

The Copiah County School District said in court documents that Ceara Sturgis didn’t identify a constitutional right that had been violated in the suit filed in August.

“Ms. Sturgis has no constitutionally protected right to appear in the yearbook at all, let alone in a protected right to appear in the senior photo section wearing a tuxedo,” according to the documents filed Friday, Oct. 1.

The district has asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball to dismiss the case, and referenced a similar 2002 lawsuit in Florida that had been dismissed by a federal judge. That case, though, was later appealed and a settlement was reached.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on Sturgis’s behalf, said the U.S. Supreme Court has held that discrimination based on gender stereotypes is illegal.

“We brought this case because no student should have to compromise her identity in order to participate in an activity, like the yearbook, that is essential to the high school experience,” said Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project.

“It’s peculiar that the school district would rely so heavily on that one judge’s decision in Florida, since that decision was appealed and eventually led to the district changing its discriminatory policy in a settlement agreement,” Sun said.

The suit names the district, superintendent Rickey Clopton and Wesson Attendance Center principal Ronald Greer. Clopton didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment Monday.

Sturgis, who is now attending Copiah-Lincoln Community College, graduated from Wesson Attendance Center this past spring. While other photographs of her were in the yearbook, her name and photograph were left out of the senior section.

The ACLU’s suit claimed the district discriminated against her on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes.

Female students could only wear drapes in the yearbook portraits and males wore tuxedos. Sturgis has dressed in masculine clothing for years, and said she wasn’t comfortable in the drapes.

The district’s motion referenced a similar case in Hillsborough County, Fla.

In 2002, Nicole Youngblood, then 17, sued the county’s school board and school district because she wasn’t allowed to wear a white shirt, tie and jacket instead of a drape in her senior portrait, court records show.

The suits filed by Youngblood and Sturgis both claimed discrimination under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew dismissed Youngblood’s lawsuit in September 2002, saying there was no constitutionally protected right involved in the school’s decision regarding senior yearbook portraits.

A settlement was reached after Youngblood appealed the judge’s decision, said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

As part of the settlement, the district now gives its seniors two weeks to appeal their principal’s dress policies, said Cobbe.

“We’ve had nothing exactly like that again. We’ve had students who wanted to wear the clothing of other gender for dances, and I think they allowed it,” Cobbe said.

—  John Wright

Miss. lesbian student sues over rejected tux photo

SHELIA BYRD  |  Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — Another teenage lesbian is suing a rural Mississippi school district, this time over a policy banning young women from wearing tuxedos in senior yearbook portraits.

Ceara Sturgis’ dispute with the central Mississippi Copiah County School District started in 2009, well before a student in another Mississippi school district, Constance McMillen, found national attention in her fight to wear a tuxedo and take a same-sex date to prom.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit for Sturgis, claiming the Copiah County district discriminated against her on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes. Her photo and name were kept out of her senior yearbook.

The ACLU first contacted the district in October 2009 about the issue, but officials said they would adhere to a school policy. By the time Wesson Attendance Center yearbooks were released this spring, school officials had made clear Sturgis’ photo in a tuxedo wouldn’t be included. But Sturgis was surprised to see even her name was left out of the senior section.

“I guess in the back of my mind I knew that was going to happen, but I did have a little hope. I cried. I put my head down and put my hand over my face,” Sturgis said Tuesday.

The suit challenges the district’s policy allowing male students, but not female students, to wear a tux for senior portraits. The suit alleges a violation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

Sturgis, who has worn masculine clothing since ninth grade and began classes at Mississippi State University on Wednesday, Aug. 18, said she felt as if she was being punished “just for being who I am.”

District Superintendent Rickey Clopton didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Sturgis graduated with a 3.9 grade point average and participated in numerous extracurricular activities, including band and soccer, her attorneys said.

“Inclusion in the senior yearbook is a rite of passage for students, and it is shameful that Ceara was denied that chance,” Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project said in a statement Tuesday.

“It’s unfair and unlawful to force students to conform to outdated notions about what boys and girls should look like without any regard to who they actually are as people.”

The ACLU attorney also represented McMillen, who drew inspiration from Sturgis in challenging Itawamba County school officials about McMillen’s plans for prom this year.

“I inspired her to do what she did and now we are friends,” Sturgis said.

But Sturgis didn’t face the same hostility as McMillen. Sturgis said her classmates and teachers were supportive, but she hopes hoping the suit will help other gay teenagers who feel they must conceal their gender identity.

“There are students who are hiding it their sexuality,” Sturgis said. “They have come up to me and told me they are. I had already decided what I was going to do, but it just took a little while.”

While she finished her senior year, Sturgis was living last fall with her grandparents in Wesson, a town of about 1,700 founded during the Civil War and 45 miles south of Jackson.

The students took their yearbook portraits at a studio and Sturgis tried on one of the “drapes” that females students are required to wear.

“The thought of a portrait of her in the ‘feminine’ clothing as a representation of her senior year embarrassed her, and she began crying,” the lawsuit states.

Sturgis later put on the tuxedo and was photographed.

School officials informed Sturgis’ mother, Veronica Rodriguez, early in the school year that the tuxedo photograph wouldn’t be allowed, according to the suit. At the time, Clopton said federal court decisions supported the school’s policy.

The lawsuit names the school district, superintendent Clopton and school principal Ronald Greer. It seeks unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees.

The filing comes weeks after McMillen reached a settlement in her federal lawsuit against the Itawamba County School District.

The north Mississippi district had canceled its prom rather than allow McMillen attend with her girlfriend. The district agreed to pay $35,000 and follow a nondiscrimination policy as part of the settlement, though it argued such a policy was already in place

—  John Wright