Constance McMillen's suit over the prom is winning over the South.

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July 7 2010 10:28 AM

Southern Belle

Constance McMillen's suit over the prom is winning over the South.

Constance McMillen.
Constance McMillen.

At last week's Gay Pride March in New York City, the youngest of the three grand marshals was a heavily rouged 18-year-old whose long brown curls looked amply sprayed to withstand the June humidity. In March, Constance McMillen filed suit against her high school in a small Mississippi town. She did this after officials said she couldn't go to the prom with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. Then, rather than address a complaint the ACLU sent on her behalf, the school canceled the prom altogether. And so her ride on the back of a silver Mustang convertible through the streets of New York served as a prom of sorts for a young woman who has been compared to Rosa Parks and to the students who initiated the lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement.

Most accounts of the McMillen case describe her as having "divided America," in the words of the Daily Mail, or as a soldier in the "seemingly unwinnable fight in America's deep south between gay rights and conservatives," as the Guardian put it. The Christian Science Monitor called recent conflicts over same-sex dates the newest permutation of the "Dixie prom wars," referring to the region's past resistance to racially integrated proms. But, in fact, McMillen's case, and specifically her school's refusal to come around, is an anomaly. Her impending trial may be one of the last such battles in the South because, legally at least, the region has acknowledged and protected the rights of LGBT students.

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The Itawamba School Board's decision to cancel the prom was stunningly ill-conceived, given the mounting stack of Southern case law defending the constitutional rights of gay students. In an almost identical incident in Russellville, Ala., last year, the school backed down rather than face litigation. So have schools in Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia in recent years when they were challenged on policies that discriminated against homosexual students. The courts have taken care of the cases the schools haven't. In the 2008 ruling Collins v. Scottsboro Board of Education, which the ACLU lawyers cited in Constance's plea, an Alabama circuit court forced a high school to reinstate a prom it had canceled rather than allow a lesbian student to attend in a tux with a female date. This time, in response to the ACLU's request to force the school to reinstate the prom, Judge Glen H. Davidson, a Reagan appointee, ruled that the school had violated McMillen's First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Though McMillen has suffered plenty throughout her ordeal, much of her life is proof that the South is changing culturally as well as legally. This spring, she casually mentioned to radio host Michelangelo Signorile that she is not the only lesbian in the family. Denise McMillen, her mother, who is 37 and lives in southern Mississippi, has openly dated women since her 20s and raised Constance's 15-year-old younger sister with her partner, Elsa. Her mother is not a gay activist, unless that is what living openly makes you. She works as a waitress and manager at the Whistle Stop Café in Wiggins, Miss., sells Mary Kay cosmetics on the side and refers to herself as a small-town girl.

Denise says her own churchgoing mother accepted her sexual orientation almost immediately and that she has rarely found herself the subject of anti-gay hostility. Constance's father and his very religious parents have said that while they may not approve of homosexuality generally, they accept Constance as she is. Constance doesn't recall her classmates at Itawamba High voicing any objection to her sexual orientation until the school cancelled the prom. Both Constance and Denise say they have never feared for their safety. If anything, Constance's family life is an example of how gay people and nontraditional families increasingly get by without much ado in Mississippi.

And Constance herself is the kind of young woman a state entirely mired in bigotry can't produce. Though she doesn't belong to a church, McMillen describes herself as an "open-minded Christian" and a strong believer in monogamy, which she expresses in a distinctly evangelical way. "Actually, I have a promise ring from my girlfriend, and I'm pretty sure that within the next year she's going to propose. Of course, we wouldn't get married until she's 18." One male student once asked McMillen's girlfriend, "How can you be redneck and gay at the same time?" which seems tantamount to proof that the woman in front of him had that figured out. McMillen would like to live in Los Angeles when she gets older, but that is due in part to many, many hours spent watching the L Word. Her girlfriend says she doesn't want to come because she can't hunt there.

For sure, there is still progress to be made. McMillen paid for suing her school. When the judge declined to force the school to reinstate the prom, expressing confidence in the school board's testimony that a parent-sponsored prom "open to everybody" was in the works, adults in Fulton took the ruling as an opportunity to host a sham prom for Constance and other class outcasts while the rest of the class partied at a separate event elsewhere. Now, McMillen says, some people in the town ignore her on the street. One woman got down on her knees in front of McMillen at a Subway sandwich franchise in Fulton to tearfully "witness" to McMillen's sin.

But to disregard the progress that has been made is to disregard all the gay teen plaintiffs who came before McMillen. Her greatest contribution has been to keep the momentum going. Many Mississippians thank her, and some plan to crank it up a notch. "We will not sit down, shut up and do as we are told any more!" a self-proclaimed "tax-paying, voting PROUD TO BE BORN, RAISED AND LIVING IN THE BEAUTIFUL STATE OF MISSISSIPPI GAY MAN" commented on the gay blog Queerty. "Brace yourself Mississippi, you've finally pissed off the wrong people."

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Margaret Wheeler Johnson is a writer living in New York.

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