A 17-year-old transgender girl missed her graduation at Harrison Central High School on Saturday after a federal judge allowed the school to prohibit her from wearing a dress under her gown and ordered her to wear traditional male attire instead.
The Gulfport teen, identified only by the initials “L.B.” in court documents, told CNN on Sunday that she skipped her graduation rather than “show up and be forced to wear something that’s totally different from myself—my character.”
“It was detrimental to know that I won’t be able to experience my graduation the way I had envisioned it and planned it for so many years—and I’ve been going to this school actively being me with my teachers, my peers, the other students in my class,” she said.
The lawsuit, which L.B’s parents Henry Brown and Samantha Brown filed with the support of the ACLU of Mississippi last week, said school officials told L.B. on May 9 that she must abide by “the HCHS gender-based dress code policy for graduation, which provides that girls must wear a white dress and dress shoes and that boys must wear a white button-down shirt, black dress pants, black dress shoes, and a tie or bowtie.” During a hearing last Friday, the district noted that L.B. and her mother had previously signed a form agreeing to abide by the graduation dress code.
“She identifies as female, so we went by the female dress code,” L.B.’s mother Samantha Brown told CNN. “We felt like we were abiding by the dress code.”
But on May 10, L.B.’s mother called Superintendent Mitchell King “to request clarification on the School District’s dress code policy for graduation,” the complaint said.
“During this call, Defendant King said that L.B. ‘is still a boy’ and that ‘he needs to wear pants, socks, and shoes, like a boy.’ Ms. Brown asked what would happen if L.B. wore a dress to the ceremony, and Defendant King stated that she would not be allowed to participate,” the document continued.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU argued that the school district’s actions violated the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free expression, the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits “discrimination under any education program or activity” “on the basis of sex.”
The superintendent said they based their determination of a student’s sex on their birth certificate. L.B.’s family asked the court to block the school from punishing her for following the girl’s dress code.
After hours of testimony from the Harrison Central High School senior and school district officials last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Taylor McNeel ruled in favor of the school district, giving L.B. no choice but to either acquiesce to the demand to dress like her male peers or to miss graduation.
Former President Donald Trump nominated the judge to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in June 2020; the U.S. Senate confirmed McNeel in December 2020, weeks after Trump lost the presidential election.
“The court’s decision to uphold the school district’s explicit discrimination of our client is deeply disappointing and concerning. Our client should be focused on celebrating this life milestone alongside her friends and loved ones,” the ACLU of Mississippi said in a Twitter thread Saturday morning.
“Instead, this ruling casts shame and humiliation on a day that should be focused on joy and pride. All Mississippi students should have the right and autonomy to be who they are—not who judges and school officials think they should be.”
WLOX reported on Monday morning that school officials also prohibited a cisgender girl, Jai Dallas, from walking at graduation when she showed up wearing black slacks instead of a white dress. The station reported that school officials told her she could walk if she removed the slacks and wore only her underwear beneath the graduation gown with white shoes, but that she declined.
“So, she could walk in her underwear, but she can’t walk in pants,” WLOX quoted her mother, Caren Dallas, saying. “This is something that she achieved, you know, that she worked hard for.”
The Mississippi Free Press called Harrison County Central High School for comment, but a representative in the office said “there’s no comment.”
Calls to the school district office went unanswered.