Dancing to her own beat

One by one, the partygoers stop on the front porch for just a few minutes of her time. They praise her bold, brazen efforts in the face of overwhelming challenges and wish her well in her single-minded pursuit of equality.

Constance McMillen handles the acclaim with the skill of an old pro. She's grown used to such interruptions in the last nine months. Her courageous display against discrimination is now a focal point of the gay rights movement, and on this brisk October evening, she's being honored with a cocktail party in Nashville to celebrate her efforts.

What makes the story even more remarkable is that McMillen is just 18. A native of Itawamba, Miss., she made national headlines this spring when she lobbied unsuccessfully to bring her girlfriend to the senior prom. With the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), McMillen fought an Itawamba County school board to be able to take her lesbian partner and wear a tuxedo to the Itawamba County Agricultural High School prom, in the small town of Itawamba, Miss. about 20 miles east of Tupelo.

"I think it's just a matter of putting it into a perspective where it's not just a gay rights thing, but it's a civil rights thing," she says, her tangy Southern drawl echoing her steely resolve. "And Prom is such a big event all across the country. When people hear that someone can't go to the Prom because that person is gay, it makes them stop and think."

McMillen insists that she didn't intend on turning her senior year into a real spectacle. Despite the pressures of serving as a spokeswoman, she hasn't shied away from her newfound fame.

"I like the fact that people are interested in what happened to me and the change I'm trying to make," McMillen admits. "The more people who are interested, the more who might be inspired to help the cause."

McMillen first started her crusade when a memo sent to the student body laid out the criteria for bringing a date to the prom, and one requirement was that the person must be of the opposite sex. Her outspoken disapproval was not a popular move within the community.

"Before, I'd never been discriminated against or talked about for being gay," >Mcmillen remembers. "When all this happened, I felt all that harassment, the bullying, the torment, and it feels terrible. I don't think people should go through that."

The ACLU told board members the restriction violated the students' rights. The school board responded to the scrutiny by announcing they were canceling the entire prom. After a lawsuit was filed on McMillen's behalf, the school district eventually agreed to pay her $35,000 in a settlement. The school district also agreed to a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.

McMillen, who served as a grand marshal in the New York City Gay Pride Parade in June, completed her senior year at a high school in Jackson, Miss. A made-for-TV movie about McMillen, produced by ABC Disney, is now in the works.

It's all heady stuff for a teenager, but McMillen has more interest in returning to a regular life. She's just finished her first semester of college at Southwest Community College in Memphis. Compared to her recent experiences, these latest tests---she plans to study psychology or psychiatry---have been relatively untaxing.

"I am planning on being an activist," McMillen says, expressing concern about the recent spate of teen suicides. "Before all this, I'd never heard of PFLAG or any of these other organizations. I feel like that's how small towns operate. They keep all their students in this dark area. If they don't know about all this stuff, they can't do anything about it. They don't know other people like them are out there."


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