Ceara's Season | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Ceara's Season

Photo by Thomas Beck

Ceara Sturgis' home in Wesson, Miss., is filled with cookie jars. Ancient, smiling caricatures of 1950s-era "Campbell's Kids" join recent additions featuring the likeness of the M&M characters. The kitchen also features a selection of antique kitchen tools, many of which managed to survive the 1960s, including a small gathering of novelty saltshakers and eggbeaters that probably had siblings on the "Leave It To Beaver" show.

"Yeah, we got a pretty good collection," said Sturgis, 17, referencing shelf after shelf of her grandmother's porcelain containers, some from as far back as the 1940s.

It is a home that sits only a few minutes from downtown Wesson, population 1,693, and about a mile from the Copiah-Lincoln Community College--the seat of unsettling recent news regarding the alleged gang rape of a female student at Ellzey Hall.

Sturgis' home is a stark contrast to the problems at Co-Lin, but a mirror image of the lazy calm of the town of Wesson, 51 minutes from downtown Jackson. Her grandparents have clearly filled their home with a profound sense of stability, as well as an exceptional assortment of cookie jars.

The teen herself, a senior at the public Wesson Attendance Center, is affable and open. She instantly extended a handshake to the Jackson Free Press reporter, but then grabbed him up in a hug when he warned her that he still had grease from a recent catfish dinner on his hands.

The soccer goalie managed only a few seconds of conversation before jumping into a scheduled phone interview with a New York Times reporter, enduring what she said afterward were "the same dang questions," which she has apparently been asked "over a dozen times" by reporters from around the world. Thankfully, she said, none had so far visited her at her grandparents' Wesson home.

The openly gay student, whose winsome eyes peek out from under a curtain of light-brown bangs—inspired by a fleeting hairstyle of "Law & Order" actress Mariska Hargitay—is the center of a lot of attention these days.

Last month, she got word from her Wesson Attendance Center principal Ronald Greer that the school would not be using her photo in the school yearbook because it featured her dressed in a tuxedo.

Girls Don't Wear Tuxes
Sturgis' mother, Veronica Rodriguez, carried her daughter's protests to the Mississippi ACLU, which immediately launched a challenge to the Copiah County School District, demanding a legal basis for its decision to refuse Sturgis her spot in the book.

The district responded with a letter referencing a 2004 settlement of Youngblood v. School Board of Hillsborough County, Fla. In that case, former Robinson High School principal Kevin McCarthy refused to alter the school's senior photo dress code that required female students to wear a scoop-necked drape, which ruled out the possibility of student Nicole Youngblood wearing a suit.

Youngblood sued the Hillsborough County School Board, claiming the rule was discriminatory. The resulting settlement allowed seniors 14 days to appeal the dress code prior to photo shoots.

Mississippi ACLU legal director Kristy L. Bennett said the Youngblood case is a poor choice for legal reasoning because in contrast to the Sturgis case, it makes no reference to the plaintiff's sexuality. "There is no mention of a gay-rights issue in the (Youngblood) case. It was just a self-expression issue," Bennett said. "The law doesn't protect your individuality, but there are First Amendment protections for freedom of expression for gay rights, which is a political statement, as opposed to self-expression."

Shannon Minter, an attorney who represented Youngblood in the 2004 case, agreed that Copiah had chosen a poor foundation upon which to build an argument, considering the school settled with the plaintiff.

"The district court opinion in that case should offer virtually no precedential significance at all. We appealed that case to a higher court, and the school agreed to settle the case and changed their policy. That's the only reason we dropped our appeal," Minter said. "These policies are blatantly unlawful. Any court of appeal in this country would likely find such policy to be unlawful now."

This is the general argument of people backing Sturgis—that the U.S. population, and its laws, are moving into a new era of tolerance of sexual disposition, both in the courts and among its people.

And the younger the person, the more tolerant of homosexuality he or she tends to be.

A Different Age
Ambrose Tabb, 17, is an openly gay teen who attends Jim Hill High School in Jackson. Tabb said he became open about his sexuality during ninth grade. The adults in his life, he said, took the revelation much harder than his peers.

"The adults weren't comfortable with the things I wore. I still dress eccentric, but not as extreme as I did in my ninth-grade year. They would suggest I tone it down a little. Maybe they just didn't like the color," Tabb said.

Tabb, a tall, gregarious young man with wire-rim glasses, said the country is changing, and believes that his generation could not care less about what somebody does in their bedroom, providing it is, of course, consensual.

"They're very tolerant," Tabb said of his peers.

"Young people are really accepting of it, and I think it's awesome. Jim Hill, specifically, is growing more progressive. A lot of the students aren't hard-core (gay rights) advocates, but they recognize that some injustices exist, and they know what not to support. There's still a struggle every now and then. They can be judgmental at times, but on a daily basis people are more or less forced to get used to it. There's nothing they can do about it."

The way Tabb puts it, his altercations with the teachers at his school appear to be limited to the occasional flippant fashion tip. However, he said he thinks the ghost of adult disapproval might still be haunting the psyche of even his most tolerant peers.

"There's sometimes this battle going on in the minds of the young people because of their parents," Tabb said. "The parents want to put their ideals into their children, but the children are way more liberal, so there's always conflict in the young when it comes to dealing with my sexuality. There's sometimes a struggle."

Sturgis' mother, 47, agreed that her daughter's peers are taking her sexual preference much more gracefully than her own peers handled the prospect of homosexuality in the 1970s.

"When she first came out in ninth grade, there were some girls who shied away from her because they didn't want to be perceived as gay," Rodriguez said. "But the reaction didn't last long. Ceara has always had this 'take me as I am or don't take me at all' attitude. She went through a little anger and depression, but a lot of it was more because of the way my hopefully soon-to-be-ex-husband treated her."

Sturgis had it easy in a way. Wesson Attendance Center is a school that hosts a wide spectrum of grade levels. Sturgis also attended kindergarten and elementary classes at the same building, and she has attended class with many of her friends since they were toddlers.

"Occasionally there would be some jerk kid who would call her names, but she would respond with 'well, duh, it's not like everybody doesn't know,' or "yeah, so I am a dyke. Are you just now catching on to this?' Those are painful things, but it still wasn't that easy for us back when I was a teen. My graduating class at Union Academy contained 19 people, and one of them was extremely gay, but he knew better than to admit it," she said. "It's a different time now."

One of Sturgis' classmates, questioned at a Nov. 10 Wesson soccer game, said nobody really talks about Sturgis' sexuality, unless prompted by situational conversation.

"It comes up sometimes, but we don't make it the center of what we talk about in the hallway. We really don't care. It's not exactly news these days," said the Wesson student, who sought to dismiss the issue with some mild apprehension. It was not the apprehension of addressing a cultural stigma, however. Sturgis' homosexuality appeared more to be an unfashionable topic that could make you look like a backwoods, banjo-playing dork if you talked about it for too long.

This isn't the attitude of many of the adults who run the school, though. The student, after all, remained anonymous at the pointed request of her principal.

The principal sold tickets at the soccer game, and had an awkward face-to-face moment with a Jackson Free Press photographer and reporter that night. Keeping his eyes low and his voice polite, Greer asked that the media not only avoid naming students, but avoid using pictures of the kids as well, at the behest of parents who do not want the media attention swarming around Sturgis to engulf their own kids.

Rodriguez agreed with Greer on that point.

"I'll respect Greer for that," Rodriguez said, staring out over the field at her daughter standing idle at her soccer goal. Her team was doing so well that the ball rarely had a chance to get to her side of the field. "Greer is a great principal. He's really done well for this school, but this is me and Ceara's fight, not the fight of the other kids at school. We've adopted this battle. Those kids, though, they never asked for it."

Bring A Fighter to a Fight
This was actually a rare moment of compliance for Sturgis' mother.

Rodriguez is a tall woman, with no small amount of upper-body muscle. She made a boast of strength minutes after meeting the Jackson Free Press reporter in person for the first time—a reporter who could not resist challenging her to an arm-wrestling match. It turned out that she had an impressive grip.

"That's what working at a sawmill and at a home construction store does for you," Rodriguez said as the reporter nursed his stinging hand.

Her hair is an explosion of blonde curls, and she looks younger than her age. Her face has a strong resemblance to that of a young Glenn Close, and her attitude is as reactionary as many of Close's more incendiary characters.

She had no problem responding to the comparison by pointing out that the JFP media team looked like a clumsy partnership of Jack Black and Bill Murray.

"I've always spoken my mind, and I've always needed to have strength in my life," she said, before recounting a series of careers requiring heavy manual labor. She served as a prison guard in Florida, and often as a club "smasher" (like a bouncer, but more brutal).

Rodriguez has had to use that strength several times against a husband or two, who she says had penchants for brutality in their own right.

"I'm a jerk magnet, all my life, for some reason," she said in the car on the way to Sturgis' Nov. 10 game in Wesson.

Sturgis' real father, for example, is a man Rodriguez will not even name, and describes him only as a man "best left out of Ceara's life." She also recounted an episode with her last husband, Mr. Rodriguez, from whom she is separated and seeking a divorce. He's living in another state, but she says he won't sign the divorce papers.

Mr. Rodriguez, according to his wife, was a drunk with a violent temper, and liked to take the occasional swing at her. He once clipped her on her chin and sent her backward onto the floor, she recounts. After she climbed to her feet, she grabbed the man and stuffed him into the wall of their Monroe, La., rental unit. He hung there briefly, she said, like a deer-head trophy before she wrenched him back out of his man-sized impression in the wall and vowed an extraordinary barrage of agony should he ever take another swing at her.

It took a combination of his stepdaughter's budding sexuality and his wife's impressive fists to eventually drive Rodriguez out of the house for good.

"He was mad one day and called her a 'faggot.' I got up close to him and said, 'what did you just call her?' And he said, 'I called her a faggot.' Man, I punched him like I had never hit him before," Rodriguez admits, making the gesture of a sledgehammer smacking a soufflé. "I don't know why he won't just sign those divorce papers."

Rodriguez said the only serious issues her daughter must contend with usually involve adults. Sturgis had a gay friend, Austin, who her soon-to-be-ex-stepdad would not let in the house. Before Austin moved out of the state, they had to bring chairs down to the sidewalk, just so the two could talk in the evenings without her stepfather's ranting.

The abuse didn't stop at the stepfather.

"There's one teacher there (at Wesson Attendance Center), and I'm not going to mention her name unless it comes up in the lawsuit, but that teacher has sent Ceara to the office for no reason whatsoever. Some boy made a smart-aleck remark in class, and this teacher said Ceara was laughing about it. Ceara said she wasn't, but the teacher waited until the next morning to tell her to go to the (principal's) office," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said Greer ignored her daughter's denials that she had been laughing, and he threatened to kick her back to Terry High School, which Sturgis attended for about a month before going to live with her grandparents in Wesson. The bad economy had driven her mother to take a job in nearby Jackson—which had not been quite near enough to fund a daily commute.

"They suspended her because she refused to sign a paper saying she was being disrespectful," Rodriguez said. "After that, I told Ceara to be on her best Ps-and-Qs, because this teacher does not need to be teaching."

Rodriguez takes a highly defensive attitude about her daughter's sexuality, an attitude she didn't develop in some sudden majestic revelation. Instead, the realization "kind of grew on her" slowly over the course of years, she said. Her own parents, with whom Sturgis stays in order to continue attending school with her friends at Wesson, have always accepted their granddaughter.

"I have the best parents in the world," Rodriguez said with pride. "They told me from the very beginning that Ceara's their granddaughter, and they'll love her no matter what. I got that commitment out of both my parents, and from my stepdad living with my Mom. I can't get it better than that. I could not ask for more."

While Rodriguez describes Wesson as a loving, tightly knit community, she says not all Wesson adults are so accepting. Rodriguez said she no longer buys anything from a convenience store just down the street from her parents' home because the owners have expressed their displeasure with Sturgis' openness. Rodriguez added that they, and people like Greer, need to keep their opinions about anyone's sexuality strictly to themselves.

"Ronald Greer says he doesn't like or condone her gayness. I say that is none of your business. It has nothing to do with this school," Rodriguez said. "She's a straight-A student who is in band and soccer. At the time I was still working at the sawmill, I got up at 4 in the morning, went to work at 5, and I don't have to worry about Ceara going to school or doing her homework. I consider myself lucky.

"She's not a troublemaker; she's gay."

A Different World Then
Jackson resident Robin Webb, who helped organize a Nov. 16 White House Office National AIDS Policy town-hall meeting at the Jackson Medical Mall, agreed that Sturgis would suffer more at the hands of older adults than kids her own age, and envied the acceptance the girl is getting from her peers.

It wasn't that easy for him, he said.

"I'm the son of a Baptist preacher, and I would have never even considered coming out when I was in high school back in the 1960s," said Webb, who attended Pillow Academy in Greenwood, which began as a segregation school. "I caught enough trouble just being effeminate, without ever admitting that I was gay. The worst of the harassment was indirect. I was a cool guy in a cool set of people—a snotty little preacher's kid—but I always had to contend with that loud, make-sure-Robin's-in-earshot voice telling faggot jokes."

Webb described his youth as a time of idealistic racial healing, when young whites and blacks were reaching for unity in the years of the Civil Rights Movement.

But those civil rights clearly didn't extend to homosexuality: "The tone of the day was 'anything goes.' In fact, it was very hard to be a bigot in those days, it was so unfashionable, but there was no place for acceptance when it came to issues like me. We hadn't gotten that far."

Webb, who remained a safely closeted gay at the University of Southern Mississippi, was more a product of the age than he wanted to be, and was not above holding his tongue in the face of the discrimination that was still very much the norm.

"When I went to USM in 1976, there was this guy named Milton—a radical queer on campus—who was incredibly harassed. He was left out of our music club, even though everybody else in the club was gay. They didn't like the fact that he was out and making a scene of it on campus," Webb said. "I feel so conflicted about that now, looking back on it. I mean, these were my gay peers who I wanted to accept me."

"I just wouldn't have accepted that today," he added about the harassment.

Rodriguez said the more open attitudes of young people may be due to media and popular-culture influence.

"TV, nowadays, is so open about everything. Back when I was a kid, you didn't see any of this on TV that you see now. Everything is so open. The raunchier it is, the better the ratings," Rodriguez said.

"In the Dick Van Dyke Show, he and his wife had to sleep in separate beds. Nowadays, they're almost naked on TV, and it's nothing. It's amazing what two or three decades can do."

Those decades are certainly making a difference in the political scene, report authors Morley Winograd and Michael Hais in the book, "Millennial Makeover; MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics" (2008, Rutgers University Press, $24.95). They write that today's youth are taking more tolerant attitudes to the voting booth, and giving modern-day pollsters a completely different set of numbers on some interesting political issues, compared to their parents.

Those differences are fairly blatant. Pew Research Center polls cited in the book show nearly half Americans now say they have a close friend or family member who is openly gay, and more than half believe that homosexuality is a "way of life that should be accepted by society."

Only 28 percent of those polled believe that school boards have the right to fire teachers who admit to being gay—a drop from 51 percent 20 years ago. In Reagan's 1987 America 43 percent believed that AIDS might be "God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior," although only 23 percent recorded that attitude in 2007.

This transformation is a long time coming. Generation X (those born between the early 1960s and mid-1970s) were already changing the political dynamic back in the 1990s. They came of age in the years marked by declines in marriage, and increases in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births. People who had children during these years also tended to have them at an older age.

The change in family dynamics for Generation X children and from that of the baby boomers may have had some impact on the tolerant attitudes of Generation Xers—but the tolerance of Gen X would later prove to be nothing compared to the philosophical lenience of the Millennial Generation.

A Tolerance Revolution
The Millennial Generation, or Generation Y, is commonly described as the generation born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Gen X and Gen Y achieved adulthood under the liberal-thinking auspices of Sesame Street's veritable monsters like Big Bird, Grover and Cookie Monster, childhood staples since 1969.

Author Winograd agrees with Webb's assessment of the influential power of television. He sees a clear correlation between the attitudes of the parents of the Millennial Generation and the evolution of public television.

"We found an inclusive environment on shows like 'Sesame Street,'" Winograd said. "'Sesame Street' has less influence as other shows with Millennials, but 'Sesame Street' and many of the public television shows that came after it say that 'it's not nice to be mean to people who are different.'"

The dominant group of racial separatists in Mississippi instantly knew an enemy when they saw it. In early 1970, the State Commission for Educational Television banned "Sesame Street" from Mississippi's state educational TV system. The commission told The New York Times at the time that "Mississippi was not yet ready" for a program in which black, Latino and whites all played happily together. They reversed their ban after the decision made national news, but "Sesame Street" was only the first of segregationists' television problems.

Other public-television shows were even more obvious in their message of tolerance. The show "Vegetable Soup," which aired between 1975 and 1978, and voiced talents such as Bette Midler, carried a strong message of integration and the constructive aspects of human diversity. The lyrics in its theme song: "It takes all kinds of vegetables to make vegetable soup," had a good ring to it for 6-year-olds.

These were the shows that fostered the attitudes of Generation X parents, who then parroted the words of the racially tolerant Big Bird from their days of youth to their Millennial children, who were simultaneously hearing the incessant noise of a ubiquitous purple dancing dinosaur from which no toddler—or parent, obviously—could escape.

"Barney and Friends" produced rhymes that stabbed the ears of wailing parents for decades, and he wielded an equally vicious stake that he helped plunge into the heart of segregation, according to Winograd.

Barney was actually the culmination of a 40-year experiment in mass social integration, which all began with a signature on the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson—who was probably thinking at the time that he was only helping children learn how to count.

Johnson, the same guy who arguably signed away voters in the South for decades after approving the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had no way of knowing that he was also seeding the eventual destruction of today's primarily white Republican Party by 2020, according to current evolving poll numbers.

Republicans recognized that bigger monsters were coming out of public television than Elmo, however, and worked hard to beat back "the problem" during the administration of President George W. Bush.

In 2005, House Republicans attempted to cut $100 million in funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which they claimed was pushing a left-leaning agenda. GOP leaders referenced the public television show "Postcards From Buster," which featured lesbian couples and their children with the audacity to live their lives as if they were normal.

Eighty-seven Republicans joined unanimous Democrats in stopping the move. But in June 2006, House Republicans revived an effort to slash funding for public broadcasting. The House Appropriations Committee approved a $115 million reduction in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on a strictly party-line vote, potentially reducing the corporation's 2007 budget by 23 percent to $380 million. Republicans argued that they were making this decision in an effort to rein in government spending. The cuts never made it out of Congress. The House also rejected Bush's plan in July 2007 to eliminate the $420 million federal subsidy for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with a 357-to-72 vote.

A number of philosophical hissy-fits followed in the wake of the attempted budget cuts, the most memorable being the supposed "outing" of purple Teletubby Tinkie Winkie by evangelical marvel Jerry Falwell.

"Remember that entire outcry over the Teletubbies? The Millennials wouldn't even have known what that discussion was about. They wouldn't have even recognized the stereotypes," Winograd said. "But the critics weren't trying to reach the Millennials with that argument. They were trying to reach their parents."

America's Changing Face
Of course, public television can't take all the blame. The daily inundation of Barney's insidious diversity-pushing agenda amounted to a preaching to the choir in later years. Teaching social tolerance toward minorities is easier when about half your audience qualifies as a minority.

"Millennials don't talk about diversity or tolerance of diversity. They don't even see these distinctions," Winograd said. "Just look at the generation. Forty percent of Millennials are non-white. Twenty percent have an immigrant parent. Their whole childhood and upbringing has been, for the most part, a very diverse situation. So when they think about homosexuality and the issue of gay rights, they think of it in those terms: as simply another way that people are, not something deviant or different."

As Winograd puts it, Millennials did what most kids do: They took an easy-to-follow message and applied it to every possible issue in their lives—rather like using a hammer to fix not only nail problems, but also sewer pipe problems, water heater problems, carburetor problems and the occasional problem of a box of sweaty dynamite.

Cultural tolerance, in essence, became an easily laid blanket that Millennials threw over almost every known version of philosophical and cultural difference and attitude, from workplace equality to interracial dating.

These generational changes in attitude may be a further reflection upon the changing face of America, according to a July Center for American Progress report, "The Coming End of the Culture Wars."

"The culturally conservative white working class has been declining rapidly as a proportion of the electorate for years," the report states.

Exit polls show that the proportion of white working-class voters with a low approval rating on a 10-item progressive cultural index (which covers topics ranging from religion, abortion, and homosexuality to race, immigration, and the family) is down 15 points since 1988. Meanwhile, the proportion of more culturally progressive white college graduate voters who showed a more progressive attitude on the same index is up 4 points. The proportion of minority voters, who also have a more progressive attitude, is up 11 points.

The report adds that since 1998, state after state has replicated this general pattern—a sharp decline in the share of white working-class voters accompanied by increases in the shares of minority voters and, in most cases, of increasingly progressive white college-graduate voters. Other demographic trends that will undermine culture battles centering on feminism, gay rights, race, guns and abortion include the growth of culturally progressive groups such as single women, college-educated women and professionals, as well as increasing religious diversity and progressivism.

"Unaffiliated or secular voters are hugely progressive on cultural issues and it is they—not white evangelical Protestants—who are the fastest-growing religious group in the United States," the report states.

President Barack Obama is seeing the value of conceding to the wishes of this vastly expanding new majority.

Last month, he signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, named after the unrelated 1998 murders of Matthew Shepard, tortured and killed in Wyoming for being gay, and James Byrd, who attackers decapitated in Texas by dragging him behind their truck for miles—because he was black—both crimes committed by young whites who were part of hate-filled cultures toward minority groups.

The bill expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. The fill failed to see the light of day in previous incarnations during the Bush administration.

But the Millennial Generation clearly isn't running things, yet. The American Civil Liberties Union demanded last week that the Franklin County School System in neighboring Alabama reverse its decision that a lesbian student could not attend the school prom with her girlfriend.

Like Sturgis, Tharptown High School junior Cynthia Stewart went to the ACLU for assistance after school officials rejected her request to bring her date to next spring's March 25 prom. "I can't believe my school is doing all of this just to keep me from bringing my girlfriend to the prom," Stewart said in an ACLU press release. "All I want is to be able to be myself and go to my prom with the person I love, just like any other student wants to do."

The Alabama ACLU reports that the school is tying itself into knots trying to avoid the issue. It canceled the prom earlier this month to put an end to the Stewart issue—a practice previously used in the South to discourage interracial prom dates—although the ACLU is also hearing that the prom is back on, but with no resolution to Stewart's demand to bring her girlfriend.

Franklin County School District did not return calls.

"It's just sad to see this school twisting itself in so many different directions to avoid its constitutional obligations to one student," Alabama attorney Henry Sherrod said. "Cynthia doesn't just deserve to be able to take her girlfriend with her to the prom like any other student, she has a federally protected right to do so."

The ACLU drew on case law from Alabama state court and federal court defending Stewart's First Amendment right to bring same-sex dates to school dances. They used the same argument to attack the Tharptown High School principal's violation of Stewart's First Amendment rights by demanding she remove a pin from her shirt proclaiming her to be a lesbian. The ACLU gave the school district until Nov. 20 to respond.

Evolving attitudes across the country appears to be as inevitable as hundreds of minority American babies reaching adulthood, although the Center For American Progress Report says the evolution is happening faster in the urban areas.

"These demographic trends are having their greatest effects in America's metropolitan areas, especially the largest ones, and it is here that the culture wars are dying down the fastest," the report says.

Cities Lead the Way
A clear example can be found in the comparatively progressive attitudes of the baby boomers running the cities. Last spring, officials at Jim Hill High School distributed their annual flyer announcing the April 25, 2009, prom. The same document contained a line that caught the attention of the Mississippi ACLU: "[A]ll dates must be of the opposite sex."

Jim Hill senior Brittany Crowell, who volunteered at the ACLU's Jackson office, took the flyer back to her co-workers, who then wrote a letter to the school principal and to then-Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Lonnie Edwards, reminding officials of a citizen's First Amendment Rights to take just about anybody he or she wants to a prom.

The school didn't fight the issue. Two days later, a revised version of the flyer contained no reference whatsoever to any required specifications of a patron's partner.

"I don't remember that much about the issue," said Jackson Public Schools spokeswoman Peggy Hampton, "but that clearly was not a wide-scale policy adopted by the whole district. If it had been, it would not have been changed so fast."

Crowell said she wasn't surprised the school changed its the flyer: "I figured it was something that would get cleared up," she said. We had a lot of support from students on this issue, and it didn't seem to be a real big rule, just somebody's little preference there at the school."

ACLU Outreach Coordinator Sarah Young praised the school's abrupt about-face.

"We really don't want Jim Hill or Jackson Public Schools to be painted as any kind of enemy in this, because they did the right thing and changed their policy," Young said.

"We have nothing but respect for them."

Even the leader of one of the most successful (and most conservative) Christian-based private colleges, Belhaven College, is saying that his school welcomes gay students.

Belhaven College's student handbook indisputably adopts a conservative attitude toward sexuality.

"Being a Christian institution, Belhaven upholds biblical guidelines concerning human sexuality," the handbook states.

"All relationships should reflect that of Christian character. The college upholds the institution of marriage between parties of the opposite sex as the only proper relationship for the sharing of activities of a sexual nature. Therefore, any sexual conduct not within these biblical guidelines is prohibited. … These standards apply to all Belhaven students, both on and off campus," the handbook cites.

But Belhaven College President Roger Parrott said the handbook addresses all sexual behavior, not just that of homosexuals, and has the same dim view of any pre-marital sex.

"We oppose the behavior and nothing more," Parrott said. "Even if somebody reports that one of our students is gay, we're not going to kick this person out of college. We have many openly gay students here, and we certainly don't remove them from campus for that. We're not trying to police the world."

Parrott added that homosexual sex merely falls in line with a myriad of other sins the college also bans, like gambling and foul language.

Belhaven may have to address the issue if the country eventually legalizes gay marriage, but in the meantime, its leaders surely know the campus is dependent upon appealing to Millennial Generation students.

Anti-homosexual college rules, even at religious schools like Belhaven, may be proving archaic to the latest generation of students, if not all of their parents.

"As the more socially tolerant Millennial Generation becomes a larger portion of the electorate, the power of social issues to drive our political debate will wane," Hais and Winograd wrote. "The result will surprise only those who don't pay attention to the historical pattern of civic realignments."

It's a future that Log Cabin Republicans Policy Director Jimmy LaSalvia is already planning for.

"[F]rankly, the country is moving very fast in favor of marriage and equal rights for gay people. If there are some members of the party who want to hold our party back over this issue, then they're doing our party a disservice," said LaSalvia, whose organization represents gay members of the party and supports civil marriage equality for same-sex couples.

LaSalvia reminded the Jackson Free Press that nearly half the Republican delegates at the 2008 Republican National Convention also reported supporting either marriage equality for gay couples or civil unions.

"Four years ago that number was in the 30s," LaSalvia said. "This world is changing fast."

Sturgis will be doing her part to change it, according to her mother. She made a great score on her American College Testing exam and received an acceptance notice from Mississippi State University this month. She wants to take the test a second time and will strive for a score of 29 on the ACT, according to her mother.

At this point, Sturgis does not know exactly what she wants to be when she graduates college, although she definitely has her mind on a purpose.

"She tells me that she wants to make a difference. She says she wants to 'change the world's attitude toward gays and lesbians,'" Rodriguez says, while staring out at the soccer grounds.

Out in the field, Sturgis is getting ready to smack the hell out of a ball that the opposing team is slowly winding toward her goal. It only got past her once that night earlier in the game. It wouldn't get by her a second time; the other team lost that night with a 6-to-1 score.

"She says she wants to make a difference," Rodriguez repeats, while watching her daughter.

"Well I always tell her, 'honey, you're off to a good start.'"

Ceara's Gallery Photos
Nature vs Nurture
Safer Schools Now

Previous Comments

If I am not mistaken schools do have legal rights to enforce dress codes. You cannot wear whatever you want to school, no matter how you feel it may infringe on your self expression. We could certainly come up with examples of crazy things people could wear to express themselves that wouldn't be allowed in school. However, I doubt anyone would put a tuxedo on their list of those. What is wrong with school administrators that they would pick this fight and not know they are in for a lawsuit? Why would be the harm in allowing her to wear the tux in the yearbook photo? With the haircut NO ONE would know she was a girl without being told and her classmates already know she is gay so who are they trying to protect or fool? I think the idiots in the school administration who decided to make this their stand should have to bear the cost of the legal defense of their foolishness.
The problem with your solution, baquan, is that constitutional rights are never decided by the majority. We'd still have Jim Crow if that were true, and remember when the majority voted to close the public schools in the 1960s rather than integrate them? Also, it sounds like the classmates didn't care. More power to them.
I find the comments from Belhaven absolutely laughable. While they may not come right out and say that they don't want LGBTQ students at their school, one need only sit in on a class and listen to the anti-gay remarks that are made both by the students and the faculty to know that this is a hostile environment for a gay person. Even if they did it in a "hate the sin, love the sinner" way they might be justified in these claims, but that is simply not the case. I have heard being gay called "abnormal", "immoral", "against the Bible", "gross", and "disgusting", all within class discussions. Many discussions in several different classes have centered around how society expects Christians to accept gay people but that Christians should not. I guess it never crossed anyone's mind there that gay people can be Christians. LBGTQ individuals are referred to as "those people" and one class audibly expressed disbelief when a professor mentioned that a gay student in one of her classes had come out when such comments were made. The attitude of the students was one of shock that a gay person would be at Belhaven, let alone be sitting next to them in class.
Problem is that in this society - as a whole - things are not dealt with or even recognized until a problem occurs. Do we know that the policy of the school said that girls must wear drapes or are we assuming that? Sure the schools have the right to enforce a dress code. I have one on my job as most of you do. One that even my director's boss doesn't follow by the way. But I digress, times have changed. Our children are no longer the way we were just as we are no longer the way our parents were or them their parents. Therefore, we must adjust. They may as well tell her she can't wear her hair cut that way. It's DISCRIMINATION. Just because it's a school doesn't make it any less wrong. Gimme a break. This is what I mean about picking and choosing what we want to believe in. You can't say I'm not a racist, I'm for equal rights and then say a chick can't wear a tux in HER yearbook picture. She is the one who paid for the picture. She should be able to wear whatever she wants. I mean my goodness, sounds like we are slowly trying to go backwards as far as equality is concerned. It's her yearbook picture and being there with a tux on isn't messing up the yearbook for anyone, teacher, student, principal....ANYONE. They look at her everyday. Why are they surprised that she wouldn't want to wear a drape? It's discrimination, bottom line. Call a horse a dam horse.
It doesn't matter what her sexual orientation is. She should follow the rules. I remember those heinous drapes in my senior picture, and I certainly would have preferred to wear something else. But I didn't. She doesn't get to break the rules because she feels more comfortable wearing something else. It sets a precedent, and that's just what the school doesn't want to deal with.
Why should it matter if the classmates care?
So Baquan, by your logic, if the majority of white students didn't want a black person in the yearbook because they were paying for it, he or she shouldn't be there? You need a crash course on constitutional rights. If the rights of one person is violated, then it's wrong. Civil rights and liberties are not about the will of the majority. If that were true, we'd be living in a very different nation right now, and you wouldn't be voting, yet. And, by the way, there is no indication that the majority of students had a problem with her in the tux. The opposite, in fact.
Unless the school made everyone sign a form that explicitly prohibited girls from wearing tuxes or guys from wearing dresses, and as long as she didn't wear anything offensive (like a swastika lapel) that violated written school policy, I don't see how they ever had a solid case to deny her photo an entry into the yearbook. And even if they had such a form, it still wasn't smart to reject it.
Jeff Lucas
Baquan have you even thought about what your saying...really? I paid for my yearbook and trust me, there were many things in our yearbook that I didn't like and if I had my say, it would not have been in there. Not to mention that she is also paying for the yearbook. So what matters is what everyone else says and that trumps this young lady's rights all together???? It's the masses that matter, not the individual?????? So, that gang of klan members burning crosses in that one black man's yard was okay because it was what the majority wanted, huh? Or is this different because it's about sexuality and not racism?
Nobody should have to wear something that makes them feel uncomfortable. If Ms. Sturgis does not want to wear a low cut top nobody should ask her to do so. After all, she was willing to wear something else already approved by the school district. What is the big deal here? During the rest of the year it's perfectly fine for girls and boys to wear the same but for the yearbook we want the girls to look extra girlie? What if Ms. Sturgis had objections to a low cut neckline for religious reasons? traceyw cautioned against setting a precedent. I believe that is exactly what we need. Why hold on to outdated ideas, change is not so bad. After all, they did take out that rule about not braiding your hair. We need rules to get along but rules are not set in stone and if those rules discriminate they need to be changed. And well, this school district has no problem breaking rules they don't like. It is fine to have prayer meetings but it is not OK for a girl to wear a tux. This is a very scary rabbit hole.
Ladylamia, I will second you on the PR wash from Belhaven college president. I know a very good friend who went through their program. He was harassed daily at the dorms by the darling football team players because he was gay. He reported this to the administration and they took absolutely no action on the matter until eventually he moved off campus to avoid further harassment. It is so easy to say things that sound accepting while at the same time condoning harassment of gay individuals. It's not ok.
I have heard being gay called "abnormal", "immoral", "against the Bible", "gross", and "disgusting", all within class discussions. Many discussions in several different classes have centered around how society expects Christians to accept gay people but that Christians should not. - Ladymania exactly!!! maybe it is getting better there, but a far cry from what the President of the college says here. You almost wish he'd come out and be honest about his Christian beliefs. Or, if he is accepting of gay people, he ought to let the rest of the college know about it - maybe a memo?
"Rodriguez added that they, and people like Greer, need to keep their opinions about anyone's sexuality strictly to themselves." Is it just me, or did this strike anyone as an odd thing to say in a news article about her daughter's right to express her sexuality? I wonder how much thought Ceara and her mother have put into exactly what cause they are fighting for here?
The Eskimo
I truly applaud the writing in this article and the in depth coverage it was given. I was really embarrased to see that this issue was even happening in a school district where I was a teacher (formerly a teacher). The fact that the school board did not handle this situation before it got to this point does not surprise me. It has been reported that the principal reads bible verses to the students when he disciplines them in his office, and this is tolerated. Has this case settled, by the way? I've been a little out of the loop for the past few days.

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