The Vincennes New Years Eve Ball is a tradition for parents and students of Vincennes Lincoln High School. It's a formal, black-tie affair held in a rented banquet hall on the campus of Vincennes University in Vincennes, Indiana, (pop. 18,069). The "private, invitation only" dance for teens is an opportunity for student-couples to spend the evening dancing and celebrating with the one they love -- a milestone moment among many high school memories made.
Well, at least for heterosexual couples.
Since 2004, the New Years Eve Ball invitations have required "traditional couples only" -- traditional couple defined as one boy and one girl. And within the last week, according to Twitter #LHSSSA (Lincoln High School Super Straight Alliance), some students agree with the "traditional couples only" definition, perceived or policy, with tweets such as "We don't cheer for queers" and #StraightPower. These few students fail to consider that they've created a permanent digital trail showcasing and preserving their bigotry indefinitely, a digital trail available to college admissions counselors and potential employers. Just as their parents have preserved their bigotry indefinitely, for the world to see. Are the students parroting their parents?
The New Years Eve Ball committee is comprised of Lincoln High School senior and junior parents and students. The committee parents fund the event and regard it as a "private party," not all Lincoln High School students or couples are invited -- certainly not Lincoln High School LGBT student-couples. Yet, according to multiple sources the committee utilizes high school resources such as class rosters and school facilities to organize and promote the event. Adding insult to injury, pictures of "traditional couples" attending the "invitation only" New Years Eve Ball are featured in the high school's annual yearbook available to all students. The very foundation of the New Years Eve Ball is based in exclusivity and discrimination funded in part by Indiana taxpayer money (e.g. use of school resources and hosted in a rented facility on the campus of a state university).
A letter sent to the Vincennes Community School Board and the high school's principal kindly asked them to review the New Years Eve Ball committee's exclusionary and discriminatory practices. (Read the letter here.) A copy was also sent to the New Years Eve Ball committee. The school board replied in a positive and affirming manner, agreeing to reach out to committee parents, asking them to reconsider their "traditional couples only" policy. However, it seems not all members of the school board support a potentially LGBT inclusive New Years Eve Ball, citing their religious convictions in defense. Several New Years Eve Ball committee members share the same convictions.
As an alumnus of Vincennes Lincoln High School, I searched among high school memorabilia and found my invitation from 1986. Surprise! LGBT teens have been attending the New Years Eve Ball since its inception. I was one of them. But never was I or other LGBT couples welcomed in an open and affirming manner. We attended in secret fearing ostracism or harm otherwise. We stayed 'in the closet' in order to attend. My date was a girl who happened to be a close friend. Why almost thirty years later is my hometown still allowing local LGBT teens to be marginalized in this manner?
My 1986 New Years Eve Ball invitation specified, "Couples only." Why the change in 2004 to "traditional couples only?" My guess is the sweeping national anti-gay political environment at the time as well as the religious right's hijacking of the word "traditional" entwined with marriage -- one man and one woman.
The majority of parents and students in Vincennes, it seems, are afraid to speak up and out in opposition to the New Years Eve Ball committee's exclusionary and discriminatory anti-gay policies, fearing repercussions or threats to their families. Local businesses have, in the past, suffered due to coercive practices utilized by certain members of the community.
One example: Business owners both gay and straight, with shops located along the town's historic business district -- Indiana's oldest Main Street -- have worked tirelessly to revitalize and enhance the unique commercial district. A job worthy of recognition! A few years ago, when these same shop owners met to suggest bringing a regional art fair to the street, in addition to their repertoire of family friendly events inviting the community downtown, away from big box retailers and chain restaurants, providing yet another opportunity to encourage folks to "shop locally," representatives speaking on behalf of a neighboring house of worship adamantly refused to support the project. To paraphrase their comment: Art fairs bring gays to town and we already have enough queers on Main Street! One can only imagine being gay and living in Vincennes; perhaps it must seem to them that local homophobia permeates the very fabric of their community.
It is time for folks to change their ways.
October 6, 2014 was a historic day -- the United States Supreme Court decision marshaled in marriage equality for Indiana along with many other states. It was also the 16th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's beating in Laramie, WY. The United States Supreme Court recognizes that America is changing. We as a society are becoming more inclusive. The State of Indiana recognizes it too. It's time the New Years Eve Ball committee in Vincennes, Indiana did the same.
UPDATE: After this article's publication the committee agreed to remove the wording "traditional couples only" from the invitation and include LGBT student-couples. However, more work to raise awareness is necessary. As a result, #ball4all has established a campaign to raise funds for a community outreach and advocacy event in Vincennes, Indiana to support equal rights for LGBT and straight students. The event is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2015.
Follow J. Patrick Redmond on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to post, tweet or send messages of support to Vincennes Lincoln High School LGBT students and their straight allies using #ball4all.