When she bought a ticket to prom, Belinda Sanchez, a lesbian student at Proviso East High School, also took home a "prom packet." The packet instructed her to submit a photo of the dress she intended to wear, so school officials could approve it before the April 22 dance. But Sanchez pictured herself in a white tuxedo.
The eighteen-year-old high-school senior approached her principal, Milton Patch, to tell him about her choice of attire, but Patch rebuffed her request. He said it would make her a "sideshow" at "his prom," according to Sanchez. What's more, said Sanchez, Patch told her that girls "are supposed to wear things that are more revealing."
"I told him, 'I don't feel comfortable wearing a dress because that's not who I am,'" Sanchez said. "Pretty much he shut me down."
Sanchez emailed Proviso District 209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart and received no response, so she called the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU-IL) for help. ACLU lawyers sent a letter to the school district on March 30, and the district overruled Patch the following day. D209 officials denied that the ACLU's involvement had any impact on its decision.
"I think there is a reality that a school district probably pays more heed when it gets a letter from a lawyer than when a student raises a question. I'd say that's sort of a shame," said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for ACLU-IL. "Schools are insular places by their very nature, and sometimes there needs to be that little continued push from the outside to help make that substantial change."
Yohnka said the reply the ACLU-IL received from the district explicitly states that Sanchez can wear clothes of the opposite gender, but the district's policy on the matter is not specifically outlined in its code of conduct or the district's prom review policy.
"Our Constitution says you should be able to express yourself, with freedom of speech and the First Amendment, so why shouldn't it be that way in school, the safest place, supposedly?" Sanchez said.
Though her fight against gender stereotypes caused quite a stir, Sanchez is not the first high school girl to opt for "men's" clothes at prom - even in her own school. "I think the issue with Belinda is interesting in that, according to Belinda and others, women had worn tuxedos previously to the prom, but they simply had not reported that or shared that with the authorities in advance," said Yohnka.
D209 Spokesperson TaQuoya Kennedy explained that the district's prom review policy is an attempt to "balance students' rights with the district's requirement to maintain an environment free of disruption" and that confronting this type of issue is "new" for D209 officials.
"The student presented the idea [of wearing a tuxedo] to Mr. Patch, and based on his interpretation of the district's policy, he gave his response," she said.
Principal Patch could not be reached for comment on this story, but the prom packet distributed to students this year stipulates no gender-specific clothing: it only states that "formal attire" and the "dress code" be respected.
Furthermore, the district's dress code protects the freedom of students to choose their clothing except when their "appearance presents a clear and present danger to the student's safety, causes an interference with work, or creates a classroom or school disorder or disruption." But, the code states that "judgment [is] reserved by administration" when it comes to determining appropriate attire. District policy, however, does bar more "revealing" outfits like "belly tops" and "miniskirts."
When asked if she expected any disciplinary action to be taken against Principal Patch, Sanchez claimed she didn't. "You learn from your mistakes, and next time, or whenever he gets the chance to, he should listen instead of judging people," she said.
Kennedy said the school district wants to see an "open and healthy dialogue" result from the incident. ACLU-IL's Yohnka said that, instead of singling people out, "more training district-wide would be appropriate and helpful."
Meanwhile, like other graduating seniors, Sanchez has her sights set on the future: she wants to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney. Right now, though, she's just "really, really exited" about prom.
Nick Moroni contributed to this article