By Kellee Terrell
“Where Are They Now?” is a new series where we catch up with past Lambda Legal plaintiffs. This month, we’re highlighting Janizia Ross, an Alabama teen we advocated for in 2018.
Like many other high school students, then Alexandria High School junior Janizia Ross wanted to give her girlfriend at the time a touching grand gesture: An elaborate and adorable promposal during an assembly. But to her surprise, many faculty and students complained. Janizia was threatened with suspension and possibly not being able to attend prom. Soon after, Janizia’s mother, Jeanise Ross-Walton, asked Lambda Legal to advocate for her daughter.
Lambda Legal drafted a letter to school administrators underscoring the school district’s legal responsibility, according to the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, to respect the sexual orientation of all its students and not to discriminate against students on the basis of their sex. After our letter and much media attention, the school reversed its decision: The couple was able to enjoy their prom.
In her own words, Janizia discusses what happened, the impact Lambda Legal’s help had on her, and the importance of inspiring other LGBTQ students to stand up for themselves.
That day started like any other normal school day, except this day, I decided I was going to do a promposal for my then-girlfriend, Raven. Given that the school talent show was coming, that would be perfect. Raven was going to be singing a song dedicated to me. But before I could do anything, I went to the teacher in charge of the talent show and asked for permission. She told me it would be fine. So I got some poster board and decorated it the same day.
Two days later was the show. Raven performs her song, and then my cousin, who was an emcee for the event, calls her back on stage. That’s when I did the promposal. We hugged. She said yes. The whole thing lasted 26 seconds and we were happy until the teacher who gave me permission comes over to me and tells me that I am in trouble because “we did that in front of the whole school.” Now I remember when a boy proposed to his girlfriend in front of everyone, and that was OK, but now this was different. I wonder why?
Later, the principal threatened to suspend me, my cousin, and Raven—who had no idea the promposal was even happening. He also told me that this was a “Christian” school, which I kindly reminded him it was not—this is a public school and that he had gotten in trouble in the past for saying that same thing. He didn’t care. The next day, he went on the intercom apologizing to the students for “what they saw.” I felt so bad because after being bullied over the years, he was basically saying that there was something wrong with us.
Thankfully, my mother told me, “We’ve reached out to a lawyer. Don’t you worry. If he doesn’t apologize and let you go to prom, we will do something.” At the time, I didn’t know what Lambda Legal had done, but the next day, I woke up to all of these messages from news outlets like ABC and BET wanting to interview me. It was crazy! But then we started getting death threats and bomb threats to the school. I was so stressed because on top of students and teachers being mad, people I didn’t even know were threatening me too. I was playing in a basketball game, and the opposing team’s parents were trying to fight me. I had to have police escorts take me to school.
But even in all that hate, something really cool happened. One day I came to school and there were rainbows spray-painted on the ground and rainbow streamers hanging in the school. The LGBTQ+ community wasn’t playing around!
But even in all that hate, something really cool happened. One day I came to school and were rainbows spray-painted on the ground and rainbow streamers hanging in the school. The LGBTQ+ community wasn’t playing aorund! he police thought I did it, but I didn’t. But it made me feel so good to see it.
I don’t regret one thing (except I would have done the promposal more extravagantly). Even better, we were finally able to go to prom, which was all we wanted. No, it wasn’t easy. The entire situation did kick my self-esteem, but having my parents stand up for me and get me help from Lambda Legal made all the difference. I hope other kids could finally feel more comfortable coming out to their parents and friends because I told my story. And I know that not everyone could do what I did, but my advice for other LGBTQ+ kids is to be unapologetic because that will help them become the stronger person they are supposed to be.
Learn more about students’ rights and school dances here.