This May in Jarrell, Texas, same-sex couples had the right to attend the high school prom. For this they can thank Allison Brawley, who courageously fought for that right last spring.
Jarrell, Texas, population 1,033, sits at the intersection of Farm Road 487 and Interstate 35 in Williamson County, 38 miles north of Austin. Its archetypal main street — local grocery, hardware store, and two hair salons — has certainly known better economic times, but walking through this hamlet you see and hear Texas the way the rest of the country might imagine it: tractors and boots, howdies and ma’ams. Main Street Jarrell seems self-evident.
Conventional values in such a place are rarely questioned. There are things you do and don’t do. You smile and say hello when passing on the street. You drive Silverados and F150s. You accept that the biggest heroes in town are the boys who play football on Friday nights and enlist after graduation. You know that hard work, responsibility, and long-held conservative values have been passed down from generation to generation. And perhaps more than anything else, you know that citizens of a certain age in this red-state community aren’t especially accommodating of the “gay lifestyle”.
Last spring 18-year-old Allison Brawley offended some old-timers and agitated the natural order of things in her hometown. Despite knowing full well the anti-gay sentiment that defined old-school Jarrell, Allison decided to do whatever necessary to take her girlfriend to the prom. She had read a story about a gay student in an equally less-than-gay-friendly Alabama town successfully fighting for her right to take her girlfriend to the prom. If it could happen in some out-of-the-way Alabama high school, she reasoned, it could certainly happen in Jarrell. Her dad had committed suicide when she was 10 years old. Her mom had battled the bottle for years. Allison could deal with adversity.
Despite the five brightly colored earrings in her right ear, Allison didn’t stand out in the hallways of Jarrell High. Her reputation was more unassuming honor roll student than firebrand lesbian. She played by the rules. During her senior year, advanced classes filled the first seven periods of Allison’s school day. During eighth period she worked as an office aide. It was there that she asked her principal, Robert Reyes, the hardest question she should never have had to ask.
Reyes — an ex-Army lieutenant with a small-town Texas background — fit the role of a conservative town’s high school principal perfectly. It was during eighth period, in Reyes’ office, that Allison approached him and asked if she could bring her girlfriend, who attended a different high school, to the prom. She tried not to pay attention to the wooden disciplinary paddle displayed in the corner or the sign that read: “Cowboy Zone, enter at your own risk” and focused instead on staying calm. She knew an excess of emotion wouldn’t help her cause. Cowboys don’t cry.
Her principal’s initial response to her question was non-verbal: he fidgeted and averted his eyes as he rifled though a stack of mail on his desk. After several fraught seconds, he looked up and fixed her with a hard stare. “No,” he said gruffly. He then suggested that Allison could have a male friend escort her girlfriend to the prom.
“That’s discrimination,” Allison said.
“Jarrell is a small conservative town,” Reyes said, “and you know it as well as I do.”
Reyes looked away and went back to work.
One morning last spring I drove to Jarrell to learn more about the town. I parked my Honda Civic at the Shell Station at the intersection of North Fifth Street and Interstate 35 and walked store to store asking people what they thought of the young lady who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom. Wearing overalls and chewing tobacco, the gray-haired octogenarian who owned the hardware store summed up the responses pretty well: “Now, you know, we don’t think too much of the gay lifestyle around here.”
Another older resident told me she didn’t mind gays, she actually had some gay friends, but she couldn’t stand it when they, “forced their lifestyle on others”.
Puzzled by her comment I asked her, “So you don’t think same-sex prom dates should be allowed?”
She quickly reiterated, “I don’t think the gay lifestyle should be forced on others.”
Despite this pervasive view among the town fathers (and mothers), Allison decided she’d circulate a petition asking that the school afford gay couples the same rights as co-ed couples at school functions. Four teachers, 154 students, and the school nurse all signed the petition. Townsfolk might have opposed Allison’s endeavor, but not her classmates at Jarrell High, which has a student body of 212.
When she saw the petition, Allison’s science teacher advised that she meet with the school district superintendent and make her case there. Allison called the superintendent’s office and set up a meeting. Two days later Allison met with Superintendent John Rouse in his office on North Fifth Street. Rouse said he supported Reyes’ policy. Yes, he admitted, the petition was impressive, but he wouldn’t change the prom policy.
The next morning at school, Principal Reyes called Allison into his office. According to Allison, Reyes was agitated. He issued the following threat — if she pressed her case, he’d ban all outside students from the prom, and he’d make sure people knew it was her fault.
“He said everyone would hate me,” Allison told me. “He asked me if I wanted my legacy to be the girl that ruined the prom.”
A few days after Allison met with Reyes, he agreed to speak with me. We met in his office. After several minutes discussing his background, I asked about Allison and the prom. “You don’t need to worry. Allison will be treated fairly,” Reyes said.
“So she’ll be able to take her girlfriend to the prom,” I asked.
“She’ll be treated fairly,” Reyes said again, before thanking me for coming and telling me he had work to get back to.
Allison might not have had an increasingly angry principal on her side, but demography was working quietly in her favor. Her request, and the response to it, reflected the generational divide over the place of gays in society. According to a recent Pew poll, while only 33% of the Silent Generation (67-87 year olds) favors gay marriage, 74 percent of Millennials (18-34 year olds) do so. These numbers boded well for Allison.
A friend of Allison’s suggested that she call the American Civil Liberties Union. She did. An ACLU attorney listened to Allison’s saga. The attorney sent a letter to the school district stating the prom policy violated the constitutional rights of gay students and must be rescinded.
A week later, during eighth period, Reyes called Allison back into his office. He took a deep breath and told her, calmly, that she could bring her girlfriend to the prom. “He told me he didn’t want to risk a lawsuit,” Allison said. She was surprised, but she knew she had won a battle. And she was proud.
When societal values shift, towns like Jarrell are often the last ones to the party. Sometimes otherwise good people, caught between yesterday’s misguided morality and a more enlightened present, cling to prejudice with every ounce of misguided righteousness they have. Fortunately, sometimes all it takes to cross the threshold is one steadfast 18-year-old woman unwilling to take no for an answer.
Reyes was right about one thing, Allison will have an enduring legacy at Jarrell High: the senior who stood up to discrimination and prejudiced school administrators and won. She recently showed me a photo with her prom date. They are standing under a live oak tree, wearing tuxedos, arm in arm. Allison is smiling broadly, like a teenager does on the way to the prom.