SULLIVAN, Ind. - A quiet Indiana community known for its parks and corn festival has become the latest setting for the debate over gay rights and bullying after several area residents, including some high schoolers, proposed holding a nonschool-sanctioned "traditional" prom that would ban gay students.
School officials and many residents of Sullivan, a city of about 4,200 near the Illinois border, have scrambled to distance themselves from the controversy caused by the group's plans and from some strong, antigay remarks made by one of its members.
Diana Medley, a group member who is a special-education teacher in another school district, said she believed being gay was a choice people make and that gays had no purpose in life.
"I just ... I don't understand it," Medley said, referring to whether homosexuals have a purpose in life. She was speaking to Terre Haute television station WTWO at a Sunday planning meeting for the antigay dance.
Medley's comments have been widely circulated on social-networking sites and in news coverage of the story, and have led to online campaigns to get her fired. A petition on Change.org calling for her dismissal had generated more than 18,000 signatures from as far away as the United Kingdom as of Friday, and a Facebook page supporting a prom that includes all students had more than 27,000 likes.
The fallout has surprised many residents of the coal-mining town, which is known in the region for its attractive parks. Some say they think the issue has been blown out of proportion.
"We are conservative around here. That's just the way of this town," said Nancy Woodard, 60, who owns the Hidden Treasure Exchange store. "In any town in this county, you'll find four or five churches no matter how small the town. ... The Bible is a big belief system here.
"Everybody has jumped on this little town," she said. "To me, there isn't any need for it."
David Springer, the principal of Sullivan High, said talk of the "traditional" prom began last month after a student began circulating a petition demanding that gays be allowed to participate in the grand march at Sullivan's April 27 prom. The grand march is when couples are presented at the dance.
Springer said that Sullivan High's official prom was the only prom the school would support and that it didn't exclude anybody, including gay couples.
"I've been to eight grand marches and . . . we always had girls go out together, and a lot of times they just didn't have a date," Springer said. "Our prom is open to all of our students."
He said the school, which has 545 students in grades 9-12, has never banned same-sex pairs from attending the prom.
"I don't know how you can have a dance and exclude certain people," he said.
Some critics say Medley's statements and the campaign to hold the "traditional" prom speak to a larger climate in which gay students fear being bullied and aren't welcome.
"When someone says your kid has no purpose, how do you think that makes a parent feel?" asked Annette Gross, Indiana state coordinator for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), whose son came out at age 19.
Aaron Gettinger, 20, a Stanford University student who graduated from Sullivan High in 2011, said he wasn't surprised by the push for a "traditional" prom that would ban gay students. He said that he was bullied daily because he is gay and that he encountered viewpoints similar to those espoused by Medley.
"It's just the way that it is," he said. "It's part of a way of thinking that the rest of the country needs to know still exists and goes on."
Those behind the push for a "traditional" prom declined to comment, and it's unclear whether the event will still happen.