Utah student reinforces gay youth rights


By Deb Price / The Detroit News on the Web, April 30, 2004


The most exhilarating moment of the Murray High School junior prom, held at Utah’s magnificent state Capitol, is when young sweethearts separately walk down two marble staircases, then meet at a single flight of stairs leading them to the dance floor.

At the suburban Salt Lake City school, the “promenade” has a long tradition, one that recently got a much-needed update, thanks to a gutsy 17-year-old lesbian.

Heather Johnston bought an expensive dress and excitedly anticipated the big dance. “She was just sky high,” recalls her stepdad, Joe Barraco.

But then, school officials told Heather she could dance with her girlfriend, but that the girls could not walk in the glamorous promenade as a couple. Why? Tradition.

“It was ridiculous,” says Heather, who came out to gay friends in ninth grade, and to her parents and most kids at school the next year. “We just wanted to be in the promenade like everybody else.”

At the time, she felt crushed. Her stepfather says, “It was upsetting to see her crestfallen.”

So Heather’s supportive mom, Janice, called the American Civil Liberties Union, whose local attorney had news for the school board: Utah’s education code forbids anti-gay discrimination. Plus, the attorney educated the board about an 800-pound gorilla — Fricke v. Lynch, a 1980 federal case that established gay kids’ right to take a same-sex date to public school proms.

School officials immediately did an about-face and told Heather she’d be welcome to walk in the promenade with a female date.

The Murray junior prom, which was last month, stands out in Heather’s mind as “definitely a night to remember because I stood up for everyone’s right to be equal.”

What makes Heather’s story especially inspiring is that she refused to let anything stand in the way of her making sure that “other people wouldn’t have to deal with this problem.” Her girlfriend’s parents forbid her to attend the dance. Heather went anyway — with a straight girl who volunteered to be her “date.”

“When we walked down the stairs, almost everyone was clapping, and friends were hollering for us,” Heather says, calling her friend Tiphany’s decision to help her ensure same-sex couples are treated equally “awesome.”

As we move into the height of prom season, courageous, self-assured Heather can be a role model for gay teens and their friends, parents and teachers. The law is on the side of gay teens. They have the right to take the date of their choice to a public school’s prom. (Anyone who encounters resistant school officials can contact the ACLU at 212-549-2627 or safeschools@aclu.org.)

More than two decades ago, Aaron Fricke, then a Rhode Island high school senior, fought to win rights for himself and other gay teens. Nothing deterred Fricke, not even the five stitches he needed under his eye when a fellow student punched him after reading about Fricke’s legal battle in the newspapers. Fricke won, took his male date to the prom and showed integrity.

After the prom, Fricke said of his battle: “I thought of all the people who would have enjoyed going to their proms with the date of their choice, but were denied that right, of all the people in the past who wanted to live respectably with the person they loved but could not, of all the men and women who had been hurt or killed because they were gay.”

For gay high school students, the prom is a major fork in the road to adulthood. On one side is the exciting, sometimes scary but ultimately rewarding path of honesty. Deception and self-loathing are on the other.

Gay teens are better off skipping the dance than repeating my 1976 mistake. Instead of going with my girlfriend, I hastily acquired a male date. Masquerading as a heterosexual is a nasty habit that’s hard to break.

Self-respect: Don’t go to the prom without it.

You can reach Deb Price at (202) 906-8205 or dprice@detnews.com.

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