News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 12, 2013

Prom controversy draws national spotlight

Sullivan High School dance won’t exclude anyone, school officials say

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

SULLIVAN COUNTY — Concerns that gay/lesbian couples will attend the Sullivan High School prom have prompted a group to organize a separate prom for heterosexual couples only.

The controversy over the “2013 Sullivan Traditional Prom” is drawing nationwide attention and online petitions in protest.

Despite the protest, the Rev. Gary Larimer of Sullivan Wesleyan Church said Monday that plans continue for the so-called traditional prom, one that bars gay/lesbian couples. “It’s something where we can give the kids a choice,” he said.

He attended a planning meeting Sunday for the prom that would allow only girl-boy couples to attend.

“A lot of kids are upset with this issue, We want to let the kids know the church is behind you. We’re doing this out of love,” Larimer said.

 “We have to stand up for some of these issues or it will continue to get worse and worse and worse.”

The gay/lesbian lifestyle “to me is a choice. You’re not born that way,” Larimer said. “It’s an abomination in the Bible, which tells you it’s wrong, blatantly wrong. Cities have been destroyed because of this type of lifestyle.”

Those organizing the independent prom know they will get “a lot of static” and it will snowball, Larimer said.

“We look at it as a stepping stone other communities might be able to use.”

What’s being done is “out of love,” not hate, he said. “As a matter of fact, several churches will offer some type of help and classes for these [gay/lesbian] couples, Larimer said. “We want to let them know there are places they can go if they need help.”

The Sullivan High School prom won’t exclude anyone, school officials say.

“We’re having our prom April 27 as we always do. We’ll encourage all students to attend,” said Chris Stitzle, superintendent of Southwest School Corp. “We treat all students with dignity and respect, and that’s not going to change.”

The school is not affiliated with the group planning the “traditional” prom, “nor are we responsible for it,” Stitzle said.

David Springer, who’s been the Sullivan High School principal for just seven months, said the controversy arose when two girls wanted to participate in the “grand march” together, and they started a petition.

The petition wasn’t needed because there is nothing prohibiting two girls from participating in the “grand march together,” Springer said.

The grand march takes place in the gym, prior to the prom, when couples are announced as they enter. While the march has traditionally been boy-girl couples, it doesn’t have to be, Springer said. Student couples of the same gender might go together because they want to attend with a friend. Students, however, are not required to state a reason.

According to Springer, the petition prompted some churches to get involved; they apparently were concerned that allowing two girls to walk out together would indicate support for gay/lesbian couples.

Springer said he’s seen televised interviews with some of those attending Sunday’s organizational meeting for the so-called “traditional” prom. “They said some pretty rough things,” he said.

He reiterated the high school “has no part” in the prom being organized through churches.

“Every student is encouraged to attend our grand march and prom,” Springer said.

He also pointed out that legally, the school could not prohibit gay or lesbian couples from attending.

Ken Falk of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana said that same-sex couples who want to attend the district-sponsored high school prom would be protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Under the Equal Protection Clause, “Government cannot in this context treat someone differently,” Falk said. “It requires equality of treatment for people who are otherwise equal.”

While churches can exclude same-sex couples from a prom, Falk hopes the community takes the opportunity to learn from this experience and recognize that “equality of treatment for everyone is an important value, even if individuals don’t like where it leads.”

Sullivan Mayor Clint Lamb said it’s a school corporation issue and he had no comment. The city “has no stand on that,” he said.

But if people are painting the whole community as being intolerant of those with alternative lifestyles, “I think it’s unfair,” he said.

A Facebook page, “Support The Sullivan High School Prom For All Students,” has sprung up in defense of the school’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student body. Late Monday afternoon, it already had 6,500 “likes.”

The controversy has received national attention, including the Huffington Post online, which noted that LGBT activist/columnist Dan Savage wrote about it in his blog.

He wrote:

“There’s no way to stop the haters at Sullivan High School from holding an independent prom for the special bigoted kids. But here's what we can do: we can make a noise so loud enough that all the queer kids at Sullivan High School hear it. Those kids need to know that there are people  — a lot of people — who think this [expletive] is wrong,”  according to an excerpt published in the Huffington Post online.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or