When Stigmas Collide

Elizabeth's picture

This morning over breakfast I was reading the New York Times (ah, the delights of spring break!) when this headline caught my eye: Mississippi A.C.L.U. Rejects $20,000 for Alternate Prom.

You might remember that earlier this month I wrote a blog called Homophobia: Bad for Straight Kids discussing the decision of a Mississippi school board to cancel its prom because they could not otherwise prevent Constance McMillen and her partner from attending. (They also forbade her from attending in a tuxedo. This is not just about homophobia. This is also about gender expression.)

The ACLU and its Mississippi affiliate are representing Constance and a group called Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MSCC) is organizing an alternate prom for the community. The ACLU of Mississippi is apparently the fiscal sponsor for the MSSC. According to the New York Times article, the American Humanist Society offered a $20,000 gift to MSSC to help fund the alternate prom, and a fundraiser at the ACLU Mississippi rejected it, explaining via email that “Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word ‘atheist."

Talk about being imprisoned by stigma. Here the stigma attached to atheism potentially thwarts an attempt to fix a problem caused by the stigma attached to homosexuality.

Fortunately the rejection of the donation was a mistake. According to an apology posted by the ACLU today it is up to the MSSC to decide which donations to accept, and its staffer's views did not reflect the position of the ACLU.

I'm glad the ACLU apologized to the American Humanist Association. I imagine that the MSSC will accept the donation. I hope that the alternate prom is a success. But all of this has me thinking more and more about the damage stigma does to us on so many fronts. I've been thinking about stigma a lot these days because of the recent attacks by folks like Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks on the coordinators of events like KinkForAll, which is an excellent model for community-based sexuality education.

Education is key to reducing the fear that supports stigmatization and fuels moral panics. But all education is not created equal. Sometimes, as is the case with sexuality, and also with religion, the sources of education deemed most authoritative actually suppress a wide range of experiential knowledge and thus reinforce narrow ideas about normalcy. That is why we need community-based education. We need open venues for people to talk to each other about their experiences. Feminists knew this in the 1970s when they reached out to each other through consciousness-raising groups and shared knowledge that was suppressed by dominant institutions like medicine and the academy. They then worked at changing those institutions.

What a tragedy that some of those self-described feminists who succeeded have now turned around and said "No more."

I continue to applaud Constance and her supporters for turning discrimination into education . I applaud Maymay and his supporters for turning attack into dialogue. These efforts give me a new sense of optimism that we will continue to find and expand spaces for open, honest discussion, and that with each such expansion we will become more human to each other.


The Sclarlet A is a symbol of the Out Campaign, calling on atheists to "come out" in an attempt to destigmatize atheism. I use it above both to indicate the importance of coming out, and as a personal identification.