A transgender teen in Mississippi missed her high school graduation after a federal judge denied a motion requesting she be allowed to wear a dress and heels under her robe.
The 17-year-old, identified in court documents by her initials “L.B.,” did not attend her Gulfport high school graduation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. She opted to miss the ceremony when she was told she had to wear boy’s clothes to attend, telling CNN she would “rather stand up for what’s right than be humiliated.”
The family has asked for the teen’s full name to be withheld for privacy and safety reasons.
On May 9, less than two weeks before graduation, L.B. says she was pulled into Harrison Central High School Principal Kelly Fuller’s office and asked what she was going to wear for graduation.
“I told her I was going to wear a white dress, then she told me I was not going to be allowed to wear a dress, and I would have to wear boy clothes,” L.B. said. “And she stated that the Superintendent called her asking about what students would wear to graduation.”
As far as she knows, no other students were asked the same question.
L.B. says she has attended Harrison Central High School as a girl for the past four years. She attended prom wearing a blue sparkly dress without any objection from the school. “I was being me, and I felt very accepted at the time,” she said. “I felt very understood. I felt that I had a great support system at that school.”
L.B. and her parents, Samantha Brown and Henry Brown, filed the federal lawsuit Thursday, demanding Harrison County School District allow the teen to wear what she wishes during Saturday’s graduation ceremony from Harrison Central High School.
Attorneys with the ACLU of Mississippi are representing the family.
The Browns cited a violation of their child’s civil rights, accusing the school district of discrimination on the basis of sex and gender and violating the teen’s First Amendment rights, according to the complaint.
On Friday, the day before graduation, a federal judge in Gulfport, Mississippi, denied a motion filed by L.B.’s family requesting she be allowed to wear her dress and heels at the high school graduation.
The teen had picked out a dress and heels to wear with the traditional cap and gown in accordance with the school’s dress code for female students, according to a media release from the ACLU.
“Our client is being shamed and humiliated for explicitly discriminatory reasons, and her family is being denied a once-in-a-lifetime milestone in their daughter’s life,” ACLU spokesperson Gillian Branstetter told CNN in an email. “No one should be forced to miss their graduation simply because of who they are.”
Samantha Brown, L.B.’s mother, explained that after the conversation with the principal, they learned the dress code policy throughout the school year was different from the policy for graduation.
A commencement participation agreement is included within the court documents. It shows L.B. and her mother signed the document on March 14, 2023, agreeing to follow conditions required for participating in the graduation ceremony.
The Harrison County School District’s policy on graduation states: “Students are expected to wear dress shoes, dress clothes (dresses or dressy pant-suit for girls and dress pants, shirt, and tie for the boys).” The policy does not mention dress code rules for LGBTQ students or specify students must dress according to their sex assigned at birth.
“Graduation school dress policy is girls have to wear white dresses and boys wear a white button up shirt with a tie and black pants and socks with black dress shoes,” Brown said. “This has never been an issue before. We felt like we were abiding by the dress code according to what she identifies as.”
CNN has reached out to the Harrison County School District and Harrison Central High School for comment.
L.B. called the news “unexpected and shocking,” saying, “I couldn’t understand why they would change it so suddenly.”
“You’ve been allowing me to be this way, be myself, and express myself this way for so long. And it wasn’t even a thought in my mind that they would do this to me,” she told CNN.
“This is a celebration of my high school, this is a celebration of my finish line,” L.B. said. “For me to be forced into something that I’m not, it wouldn’t have been fun for me at all…this kind of injustice is not okay.”
“We have to do better as a community, as a country, as a state, as a city, as a county, we have to do better,” the teenager added.
Brown said the ruling from the judge on Friday was hurtful and caused humiliation for her daughter, stating her opinion that it would have been more of a “distraction and shock to her peers and other teachers to show up like that, other than the way she usually dresses.”
“She’s a good student, she made it to the finish line … that should be more of the things the children should be worried about rather than whether they will be targeted by what they identify as,” Brown said.
Brown said they will be evaluating their legal options moving forward. “We’re going to continue to speak on this and continue to fight for what we feel is right,” she added.
According to court documents, the school policy states that “a high school graduation ceremony is a sacred and inspirational ritual which is intended to be surrounded with decorum of dignity, grace, solemnity, reverence, pomp and circumstance.”
“Students whose attire does not meet the minimum dress requirements may not be allowed to participate in the graduation exercises,” the policy states.
“My graduation is supposed to be a moment of pride and celebration and school officials want to turn it into a moment of humiliation and shame,” L.B. said in the ACLU release. “The clothing I’ve chosen is fully appropriate for the ceremony and the superintendent’s objections to it are entirely unfair to myself, my family, and all transgender students like me. I have the right to celebrate my graduation as who I am, not who anyone else wants me to be.”
The student has been openly transgender since she began attending the school as a freshman, according to the complaint, and her identity has been known to her classmates, teachers, and administrators.
Mitchell King, the superintendent of Harrison County School District, testified in court documents that the district relies on birth certificates to record whether students are male or female.
The complaint describes a phone conversation between Samantha Brown and King, in which King says L.B. “is still a boy,” therefore “he needs to wear pants, socks, and shoes, like a boy.”
The complaint also notes L.B. attended the school’s prom last year wearing a formal dress and high-heeled shoes, without any issues or repercussions.
Second student barred from walking at graduation over attire
Caren Dallas told CNN on Monday that her 18-year-old daughter, Jai, was pulled from the student line 20 minutes before she was set to walk across the stage and receive her diploma because she was wearing the wrong color pants, which school officials told her should have been white and not black.
Dallas said her daughter was “humiliated” and believes she was “targeted” because she had been admonished in the past for wearing jogger-style pants to school. According to Dallas, another female student was also told to replace her black pants and was only able to walk at the ceremony after her mother brought a white pair.
Dallas believes the punishment for her daughter was exacerbated by L.B’s situation, causing school officials to be more vigilant about the dress code with other students.
She told CNN she wants someone to be held accountable and plans to get a lawyer to discuss her legal options.
CNN’s Rebekah Riess, Isabel Rosales, and Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.