An interview with Constance McMillen

This Sunday, Lifetime’s hit show Drop Dead Diva will air an episode (“The Prom”) loosely based on Constance McMillen‘s brave battle with her community and school district to attend her senior prom with a female date. As part of our coverage of the episode, had the chance to interview McMillen. The conversation was a clear reminder that, despite her youth, she has already become a leading force in the ongoing battle for change. Obviously you’ve received a lot of press and support during the whole prom debacle, but did you ever think your personal story would get so big that it would be portrayed on television?
Constance McMillen: Um, no. [Laughs] I really had no idea it was going to end up like that. In the beginning of all this, the ACLU had said they had seen cases like mine all the time. So they would just send a demand letter and the school would just change the policy. So that’s how I thought mine was going to go. Then when prom was canceled, the next morning I was on CNN and it just escalated from there. So no, in the beginning I had no idea it was going to get as big as it did, much less be on TV.

AE: I found out about your story via Facebook, by joining the “Let Constance Go to Prom” Facebook group. Do you think social media played a big role in getting a lot of people to support your cause? What do you think separated your experience from the rest and brought it more coverage?
CM: Well, really I think the media coverage had a lot to do with it, but I know that the Drop Dead Diva episode that’s going to air — I’m sure that’s going to bring a lot more attention to it. Really, I just think there was so much media surrounding it — I mean, I did so many interviews. It was just crazy. And then Facebook — it was just all a bunch of people working together and helping to get my story out there.

AE: Have you felt pressure at all, kind of being the face and the name of this — I would call it a movement — for gay teens?
CM: I guess I do feel more pressure but it doesn’t matter to me. I like the pressure because I know I’m going to be fighting the same fight and lobbying for our rights and supporting the same cause and advocating for all the things I believe in. But yes, I do feel the pressure because people expect big things.

AE: What was it like to be in the room as an extra during some of the court scenes?
CM: It was crazy, really exciting. I didn’t want to mess anything up. [Laughs] Hearing the dialogue in the court room and knowing it was inspired by my story was pretty exciting, I’m not gonna lie. It was really cool to be a part of.

AE: Did it bring back any bad memories?
CM: No, I really have a positive outlook on things. I mean, looking back at the way things were and then thinking about my future — I still deal with some things, but it’s paid off so much in the end that it doesn’t really hurt as bad. It’s not as hard to think about anymore. I’ve moved on and I’m doing bigger things, and I’m moving forward with my life.

I was just happy because I knew the episode was going to be good and I knew other people would be watching it and it’s going to be reaching more people, so I’m really excited about that.

AE: How close to your own story was this?
CM: Well, I don’t really know. I haven’t seen the episode yet, I just know it was based on my story and I was just there on set for a few scenes while they were taping it. I’m excited to see it, though!

AE: Well I’ve seen it and it’s a really good episode. I mean, I watch the show anyway so obviously I’m a fan, but I think you’ll be really happy with it. Lance Bass is one of the guest stars and I was just told that he donated money for you to have your own prom. What did that end up being like?
CM: Actually he donated money to the MSSC (Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition) Second Annual Second Chance Prom, which I did attend. He donated money and Green Day donated money, a few people did. I met Lance at the prom, but when I found out he was going to be in this episode of Drop Dead Diva, I was hoping to see him again. But he ended up shooting on a different day.

AE: So how did that (real life) prom party turn out? I’d imagine it was a lot of fun.
CM: Oh yeah, it was great. There was lots of people, a great buffet and really cool bands. We partied — we had a really, really good prom. It was amazing; it really was.

AE: What do you hope viewers get from watching this episode?
CM: I hope that they’re inspired. I hope they understand what people who are discriminated against go through, how it makes them feel. And I hope that the people who face discrimination will decide to stand up for themselves. I hope they’re inspired to make a difference and make a change, not to just take “no” for an answer. I just hope the story reaches a lot of people and helps them.

AE: What have you been up to lately and has the world been a friendlier place for you since graduating?
CM: Well, I still live in my hometown, so it’s not really that great of an environment around here. But I guess it’s gotten a little better. I mean it’s been about a year, so some people have calmed down a little bit. A lot of people still don’t like me around here, but I’m going to college an hour away and I’m starting my second semester majoring in psychology. I’ve also been speaking at places and received an award from the ACLU recently. I’m just trying to move on and do stuff. [Laughs] During school, I’m just trying to concentrate on my school work, but I believe I’m going to be starting to do more public speaking.

McMillen at the 2010 New York City Gay Pride March

AE: Have you been able to find other gay people at your college and start anything? It surprises me that people are still being asses for the most part.
CM: You know, I’ve thought about it, and it’s not really that they were mean — it’s that they’re ignorant and just don’t understand. In small towns like mine, there’s zero exposure to stuff like this, and any bit of exposure they get is crushed down by the church, pretty much.

So, really, I feel sorry for them. They just don’t know any better and they haven’t educated themselves. I’ve met some friends in college and there’s a smaller gay community there and people I hang out with and talk to. So I’m doing pretty well!

AE: I was lucky enough to grow up in a more liberal area, but I’m also very quick to anger (and drop many f-bombs) when it comes to injustice. How do you stay so strong and positive?
CM: Well, don’t get me wrong, during all the prom stuff there were times when I was mad. There were times when I was crying and just wanted to stop and give up and didn’t think it was worth it. My life just went crazy there for a little while; it really did. Everything was happening so fast — extremely good things and extremely bad things, all in the same day. But the thing that I learned, when I was upset and when I was mad, was that there was no point in being upset about it.

After everything played out, it’s just really easy for me to look back and say everything was worth it. We won and we made a difference. We changed the way things work.

Part of the settlement was that they had to instill an anti-discrimination policy in my school to include sexual orientation and gender identity — and it was the first one ever in Mississippi. That right there is one great thing that came out of it. And it’s a federal law now, so that’s another great thing that came out of it. So many people that have messaged me and told me how much it’s changed their lives. I’ve seen so many people lately standing up for themselves, saying they’re not going to take this. I mean, I’m not taking the credit for any of that, it’s all their doing, but I’m just so happy to be seeing all of this taking place right now. So that’s how I’ve stayed positive, I just know it was totally worth it.

I just want everyone to know, when people are dumb and they discriminate against you, they hate on you and they try to bring you down and make you feel like you aren’t worth anything because you’re different — that’s the point when you have to decide you’re not going to get mad, you’re not going to fight with these people, you’re not going to let these people get you down. Instead, focus more and put all that negative energy towards educating those people and educating other people. Make sure, any chance you get, that you educate someone about this. Because I honestly think the biggest reason people hate and are violent and discriminate and cause other people to kill themselves is because they’re ignorant and they just need to learn more about it.

“The Prom” episode of Drop Dead Diva airs Sunday night on Lifetime.