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