in Kulturkampf

Reuben Lack’s Lawsuit is Not About Gay Rights at the Alpharetta Prom

When I first heard of Reuben Lack and his lawsuit against Alpharetta High School, I accepted the story as received: teenager versus fuddy-duddy adults is the oldest plot in the world, after all. Press coverage picked up that narrative framework last week, as I did on Friday afternoon, to my infinite regret.

There is a moral hazard to letting one side set the story quickly — just ask ACORN. James O’Keefe’s ‘pimp’ story took time to debunk, and the truth never caught up to the lie. An organization was libeled, defunded, and destroyed before most Americans understood what had happened. Even today, misinformation reigns: ACORN was never charged with a crime because no one in the organization committed a criminal act, but altogether too many people — even avowedly liberal folks — still think something was amiss. Smoke equals fire, after all, so if you blow enough smoke people will assume there are flames.

Students of Alpharetta reached out to me through email and social media over the weekend, and they are not happy that their school has become the center of unwelcome attention. In fact, the “gay prom” meme threatens to ruin their prom. That should not be allowed to happen. I refuse to repeat the ACORN experience with a high school senior class; my conscience won’t allow it. Time to clear the smoke. 

Alpharetta High School is not a podunk cowtown schoolhouse. It is a very large and diverse suburban student community that enjoys high levels of academic success. The school administration’s actions are almost certainly not driven by anti-gay bias. In fact, homophobic remarks or actions are a quick way for Student Council members to lose their positions because Alpharetta has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying.

Students opposed Lack’s attempt to change the prom court rules, and their opposition doesn’t seem to have been motivated by anti-gay bias, either. Lack would have changed the prom court to a couple rather than a pair. The distinction isn’t subtle: students were adamant they wanted a boy and a girl, not a dating couple, to be king and queen. Prom courts are almost always a popularity contest, but very few are “most popular couple” contests.

Readers may think back on their own high school prom courts: here is the king and his date; there is the queen and her date. That was true of prom at my own high school altogether too many years ago. Nothing in the Alpharetta prom rules prohibits a gay king or a lesbian queen, or prevents anyone from bringing a same-sex date to the prom. (Edit: I confirmed after press time that same-sex couples have attended the Alpharetta prom before without incident.)

Reuben Lack’s suit contends it was his reintroduction of this prom court proposal to the Student Council — after having tabled it earlier in the face of student and staff opposition — that led to his dismissal. Here is how James Radford, Jr., Lack’s attorney, argues this point in a post on his website this weekend:

First, the question arises, is this how democracy works? If someone is elected to office in America, can they be stamped out, forcibly removed, because one or two (or even several) people have the opinion that they are a bad leader? Sure, this is a class president, and not President of the United States. But student government is meant to be an exercise in democracy, an education in how democracy works. And deposing an elected leader based upon the subjective determination that they are a “bad leader” is not how democracy works. That’s anti-democratic.

As an education in democracy working, the reintroduction of an unpopular measure against firm instruction is a fine example of what not to do. Student government is not an actual government, either, but a kind of government-in-training under adult supervision. The grown-ups have to be in charge because “subjective determination” of poor leadership is what the parents actually expect.

In this case, the grown-ups say that Reuben Lack had failed on other counts: scheduling meetings on his own time when faculty advisers were busy, not attending meetings, favoring pet projects over official duties, etc. Lack’s attorney contends this is untrue, and that Lack never received a warning about these previous shortcomings. A court will now determine the truth by examining meeting minutes, teacher notes, etc., and it is possible that Lack has a case in that regard. It is also possible that he doesn’t. Without poring over those documents myself, I can’t say.

What I can say without reservation is that Reuben Lack is not fighting for gay and lesbian equality. He might have reintroduced any measure on any topic in the same way and earned the same action from faculty; this initiative just happened to be the one guaranteed to win national attention. Because of recent travesties — the name Constance McMillen comes to mind — all you have to do is say the words “gay” and “prom” and millions of Americans will reflexively support you.

We have become conditioned to act this way, especially in these latter days of right wing hate radio and teapublican culture wars. Neal Boortz was apparently being awful on this topic last week, for instance. That sort of speech charges the already-polarized, as do the negative social media comments about Reuben that Mr. Radford recorded in his post. Yes, some students have called Reuben names now, which feeds the fire of righteous indignation. But they are not the students who sent me this screenshot of a Facebook thread that has been deleted:

Anushka Panday, Reuben’s debate team co-captain mentioned above, also weighed in on the controversy in a deleted Facebook thread written in answer to Nathaniel Lack, Reuben’s father:

Every day I find myself having to tell an misinformed individual of what is going on with Reuben Lack at Alpharetta High School and I’m personally offended at these accusations and this case since working on student council, etc I am aware that the situation is what you all are making it seem. It is frustrating to know that someone who is representing our school, students, debate team, and friends is bending the truth so much. I’ve had about enough of it, so I’m gonna definitively tell you I do not support you or Reuben on this and I will testify for the school if I am asked.

“…the remainder are patently false and provably so, it really doesn’t matter.” Incorrect. They do matter Mr. Lack. As any club/organization at Alpharetta High School exists, there are rules attached to them. I’m almost tired of hearing about this now since it is tarnishing our teams reputation, our school’s reputation, our teachers’ reputations and our students’ reputations.

“The act of removal is a punishment and it was unlawful.” Your son was removed from student council for the following reasons: He did not attend any student council events to support the organization. He did not help plan any of those events. If I can actually recall, the only meeting I went to he designated tasks and then left. He failed to cooperate with other members, rather, was obsessed with teaching us about legal procedures, etc.

Yes, I agree that we should discuss issues and debate them out, but we also have teachers who are in charge for a reason. If they say no vote, it means NO VOTE. There was conflict, so the teachers who were already frustrated at Reuben’s lack of respect and compromise ceased discussion when they agreed that Prom was not couples, rather one boy and one girl selected by their peers. The selection was democratic and not limiting out any one based on their sexual preference. When Reuben brought it up again, it was not an act of anti-gay belief when the teachers halted discussion, rather one of frustration with Reuben’s behavior and belief that he could just ignore their decision and proceed. Your legal report even mentions that students were going to vote against it, so Reuben tabled it. That is enough evidence in it of itself to show that Reuben for pursuing his own advocacy at the expense of the fair procedure he outlined in the bylaws. It is a matter of pride which is ridiculous. Yes the chat probably isn’t a valid reason to get kicked off, but guess what… everything above is.

“If you read the brief, then it should be quite clear.” Yes it’s clear in them because you pretty much falsified everything. No question about it. Ask any student on council (and don’t you dare claim that they were against Reuben so of course they’d say this since some of these kids are honest individuals who instead of complaining about Reuben’s lack of work, took up his slack and carried out the responsibilities of putting on Homecoming, ABDC, The Talent Show, The Pageant, Pep Rallies, Prom, and Spirit Weeks) and they would immediately expose the truth that you all are so bus trying to hide (i.e. deleting dissenters opinions on Facebook, failure to report in totality what has happened, falsely mischaracterizing the situation, etc) . I myself was kicked off of student council this past year since I wasn’t attending meetings or helping plan events. Instead of trying to challenge the system, I accepted responsibility for my lack of effort. I am not spiteful towards Reuben since he is after all my friend and debate partner, but I do not agree with any of this and I feel the need to speak out against it since it’s plain wrong.

From the moment Reuben started student council, all he has cared about is changing the way things are. It has never been about fulfilling the needs of the students, rather the idea that he could create a name for himself and make a change to the system (since default he thought it was bad). Well he’s obviously doing it now Mr. Lack. Going out and defaming his school. Makes tons of sense to make his student body look like they’re knuckle-draggers and the staff is incompetent and overly conservative.

It is perfectly natural for Nathaniel Lack to stick up for his son, and for his son to stick up for himself. I’m sure they believe he was treated unfairly, and perhaps he was. But questions about his firing, and whether it was appropriate, are quite separate from questions of anti-gay bias. Reuben Lack’s lawsuit is not really about gay and lesbian acceptance at all; it’s about Reuben Lack.

And that’s fine, but it’s not a story that deserves national attention — and it should not be allowed to tar students at Alpharetta High School trying to enjoy their prom, or dedicated teachers trying to guide student government, with false charges of homophobia.

It’s also difficult to swallow claims of stifled debate when fair-minded but opposing Facebook comments keep getting deleted. The elder Lack also showed up in the comments under my post last Friday to denounce Anushka and the rest of his son’s classmates as “little brats” conspiring to keep his son off the council, declaring they would all crumble under cross-examination. Bullying is the hallmark of homophobia, but just who is the bully here?

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