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Gay student hits snag over date to Villa prom

Laura Murphy planned on attending her prom at Villa Maria Academy. She paid the $100 deposit, scheduled a limousine rental and asked her date.

She ran into a snag, however, and it has nothing to do with what shoes to wear.

Administrators of the private, all-girls Catholic high school don't like Murphy's choice of companion, and they've told her to find someone else or come alone.

Murphy, a senior who is openly lesbian, wants to bring her girlfriend of six months, Lindsey Shelton, and believes school administrators are discriminating against them.

"They said, 'We want it to be traditional. It has to be boy and girl, tux and dress and all that stuff,' " Murphy said. "After I thought about it awhile, I said, 'That's not fair.' "

The disagreement has caused a buzz in the halls of the school, which will be closing in June after 87 years due to enrollment declines. Murphy circulated a petition and gathered signatures from at least a third of the 130 students.

Administrators have no plans to change their minds.

"There are some principles we need to stand by," said Sister M. Ambrose Wozniak, provincial minister of the Felician Sisters, who sponsor the school. "The prom would not be the place for this."

The Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is a disordered condition that, in itself, is not sinful. But the church also considers homosexual acts gravely immoral, and it actively lobbies against same-sex marriage.

Murphy's openness about her sexual orientation would have been almost unheard of 20 years ago, especially in a Catholic high school.

But social scientists and gay anti-discrimination groups say teenagers have become more comfortable with alternative lifestyles and with discussing their own sexuality.

A decade ago, a few hundred high schools across the country had student gay and lesbian associations, and most students waited until college to reveal their homosexuality or bisexuality, said Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of human development at Cornell University.

Now, there are more than 3,000 high school gay and lesbian organizations, and the average age for revealing one's homosexuality is in high school.

"They're just saying, 'What's the big deal? Get over it already,' " said Savin-Williams, a clinical psychologist who has written several books on gay teenagers.

Teenagers, in general, are also less judgmental of gays and lesbians, he said.

One recent study found that two-thirds of high school students -- much higher than the national average -- support same-sex marriage.

"There's real acceptance of sexual diversity in all its forms," Savin-Williams said.

Bringing same-sex dates to the prom has been hashed out before in some public school districts.

"When the schools are public, the students have First Amendments rights of free expression that would protect them," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal. Those rights include the ability to be open about one's sexual orientation in school, Gorenberg said.

Each year, however, the issue gets raised in different parts of the country. Lambda Legal this year is putting out a prom season guide, informing same-sex couples of their legal rights to attend proms together.

But Murphy would have more difficulty pressing her case in court because the law makes exceptions for private, religious schools.

"There are theories for challenge, but in general there are 'carve-outs' for religious institutions if they're truly private and religiously based," said Gorenberg.

At Villa, fellow students describe Murphy as an outgoing and popular classmate.

Christina Falzone, a 17-year-old junior, said most students believe Murphy should be allowed to bring Shelton and that school administrators were making a fuss over nothing.

"I don't think it's right on their part," said Falzone, who plans to attend the prom with a male friend. "The school is closing. We should try to make it the best year for everyone."

The News was contacted about Murphy's situation by her friend Patrick Caughill, a student at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School in Buffalo and a member of that school's gay and lesbian students association.

Murphy, who is 18, agreed to be interviewed, saying she thought it might help other students in the same situation. Her parents preferred that she not seek media attention.

Bill Murphy said he supports his daughter and agrees with her cause, but worried her protest isn't in her best interest at this point in her life.

"I guess I'm proud of her for her gumption, but I still think she's choosing the wrong battle at the wrong time," he said. "It seems to me it's a no-win proposition for everybody."

Murphy described his daughter as a good, hard-working kid who needs to concentrate more on her studies.

Besides, he added, students are bound by the rules and regulations of the Catholic school.

He also expressed concern that his daughter might be being used by politically motivated friends to carry home a point.

But Laura Murphy said she was fully aware of why she was protesting the school's decision.

"I'm not doing it only for other people. I'm doing it for myself, as well," she said.

Traditionally, the Villa prom has been for junior and senior girls with male dates.

School administrators decided this year to open the evening to girls without a date, after too few couples reserved spots for the event at Samuel's Grande Manor.

Murphy believes that concession only exacerbates the unfairness in her case. Shelton, 18, is not a student at Villa Maria and thus still won't be allowed to attend, while other same-sex couples at Villa can attend under the guise of going "stag."

Shelton, a 2005 graduate of Da Vinci High School who is now a freshman at D'Youville College, said she feels welcome by Murphy's school mates and believes everyone would have fun at the prom.

The couple attended a semi-formal dance at Villa in December without incident.

Murphy figured the prom would be no different.

"I wasn't prepared for it to get this far," she said. "It's [my] senior prom. It's the last year of Villa. It's something special, and I want to share it with someone special. I don't want to take a guy I don't really care about."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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