The lesbian who successfully challenged a rural Mississippi school district's ban on same-sex prom dates says she wept when she read about the recent spate of gay teen suicides linked to harassment.
Constance McMillen, who was recently named one of Glamour magazine's "Women of the Year 2010," told The Associated Press that she became a bullying victim after she challenged the Itawamba School District over a policy that prohibited her from bringing her girlfriend to the prom and wearing a tuxedo.
McMillen, 18, said she became emotional after reading about the suicides of 13-year-old Seth Walsh, of California, who hanged himself outside his home after enduring taunts from classmates, and of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after his sexual encounter was secretly streamed online.
"I read it on Facebook. I was so upset about this that I could not sleep," McMillen said. "I knew it had to be terrible for them to choose death as a way to escape what they were living in."
McMillen said she has had her own suicidal thoughts.
"But I never really considered it to the point where I almost did it," she said. "Everybody thinks about it when times get hard."
Growing up in the small town of Fulton, Miss., McMillen said she wasn't bullied until school officials canceled the prom rather than allow McMillen and her girlfriend to attend as a couple.
"I went through a lot of harassment and bullying after the lawsuit, and I realized how bad it felt being in that position," she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the district, which paid $35,000 to settle the lawsuit and also agreed to follow a non-discrimination policy, though it argued such a policy was already in place.
'Dignity and pride'
Glamour magazine recently honored McMillen for her fight against intolerance, and she's now in the company of entertainer Fergie, actress Julia Roberts, designer Donatella and Queen Rania of Jordan.
Cindi Leive, Glamour editor-in-chief, said McMillen was selected by an advisory panel of past honorees, including Jennifer Lopez and Katie Couric. The main measure for honorees is that they help make the world a better place for others, Leive said.
"We've seen such devastating proof this year of how tough it is for gay teens out there. To have someone like Constance stand up for who she is with dignity and pride, is a really meaningful thing for other young people to see. We respect her bravery and her example," Leive said in an e-mail.
In a photo on the magazine's website, McMillen is dressed in a tuxedo and a tiara and standing in her messy bedroom. A television movie about her case is also in the works.
McMillen said her family's support helped her confront injustice.
"It seems like gay students catch a lot. It's already a rough time in high school. Everybody wants to be accepted," McMillen said. "The family's acceptance is 100 times more important than people they go to school with. Whenever their family doesn't accept them, they feel like nobody's going to."