By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - At 7, Analouisa Valencia was crowned Palmetto Princess in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She relished it - and like a lot of little girls, she dreamed of becoming Miss America one day.
In a few months, Valencia, now 19, will take the stage for the Miss South Carolina contest, hoping for victory and a chance to compete for the coveted national title.
But she's no ordinary contestant. She will mark a first in her conservative home state.
Valencia's father is from Mexico; her mother, an African-American. Valencia came out as a lesbian when she was in the ninth grade and took her girlfriend Tamyra Bell to her high school prom.
She was already shredding stereotypes of beauty pageants because she's biracial. But a lesbian beauty pageant contestant from South Carolina?
"I just really wanted to be an advocate for equality for everyone this year," she says on the phone before heading off to classes at Spartanburg Community College. She eventually wants to earn a business degree at the University of South Carolina.
Her participation in the Miss South Carolina contest is in part a human rights campaign: she is promoting rights for people with special needs (she coaches Special Olympics gymnasts), for racial minorities, for gay people.
She has already thought about her answers if the judges question her on this score. She will be perfectly open and honest about who she is, about their opinions.
"I want to show the judges who I really am," she says. "I want to show them how passionate I am about my platform, how passionate I am for being an advocate for equality."
South Carolina ranks low nationally on LGBT rights. It bans same-sex marriage, does not afford employment, housing or hate-crime protections for LGBT people and has unconstitutional sodomy laws still on the books.
For Valencia to make a run for Miss South Carolina is "courageous," says Ryan Wilson, the executive director of the South Carolina Equality Coalition, a statewide LGBT civil rights group.
"I think it takes a lot of courage for any young person to live openly and authentically. We are extremely proud of Analouisa," Wilson says.
He says beauty pageant contestants can be stereotyped, but they can often afford young women a chance to show leadership.
"She can be a role model for LGBT youth," Wilson says.
There hasn't been negative feedback, Valencia says. So far.
But she's prepared to cope with ugliness if it surfaces. For the time being, she's enjoying her title of Miss Lyman, her hometown just a few miles from Spartanburg.
She's been taking voice lessons every Friday. At the Miss South Carolina pageant in July, she will sing Leona Lewis' "Footprints in the Sand." She's confident she will make an impression.
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - Two days of arguments on gay marriage at the Supreme Court ended Wednesday. The justices heard both sides in two separate cases: California's voter-approved Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage, and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage on a federal level as being only between a man and a woman.
It could be months before the court makes a ruling. CNN spoke with a few people who were inside the nation's highest court Wednesday or were monitoring the hearings closely from the outside. Tell us what you think in the comments below.
Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst: "I think DOMA is in trouble, and I think it's in trouble because Anthony Kennedy was repeatedly concerned that the Defense of Marriage Act violates states rights. Anthony Kennedy, who as we all know is the swing vote on this court, is someone who is concerned about gay rights, although he said very little, I think nothing, about the issue of whether the Defense of Marriage Act violated gay people's constitutional rights. He was clearly very concerned that the Defense of Marriage Act was invading the province of the states to define marriage. That's a state function, usually. And that would certainly be suggesting that he was going to strike down the law. Certainly the other liberals, the four Democratic appointees, looked like they were going to vote it down."
Edith "Edie" Windsor, plaintiff who challenged DOMA: "I am today an out lesbian, OK, who just sued the United States of America, which is kind of overwhelming for me. I think it's gonna be good."
Jonathan Turley, law professor, George Washington University: "You're seeing sort of a sticker shock with the justices, that they were worried about handing down a major ruling either recognizing same-sex marriage or the right of equality, or rejecting it."
Chad Hollowe, supporter of same-sex marriage: "It's pretty clear that some justices like (Antonin) Scalia are going to vote against it no matter what. Scalia was engaged in a long back and forth about how exactly did this become unconstitutional all of a sudden. Was this unconstitutional when the constitution was created - when the 14th amendment was passed? Was it unconstitutional 10 days ago - when did this happen? His line of questioning made it pretty clear he was dead set against it, which shouldn't be surprising, given Scalia's history."
Eric Delk, who attended court arguments Wednesday: "Well, I think that the conservative justices feel that Prop 8 is valid, but I think some of the more liberal justices know it needs to be altered. Because the people decided something different from what the courts decided and opinions have changed since the Prop 8 vote. And I think in California, if they had a vote now, they would probably allow same-sex marriage."
Mary Ann Piet, social worker: "I'm here today because I'm a social worker, and I've seen a lot of people suffer over the years. And I'm concerned about not getting people their human rights, their dignity as people. And this will give dignity and human rights to people. I have members of my family that are gay, and I see them suffer internally."
Also on this blog: A time line of gay rights in America
The first rounds of arguments are over. The nine justices on the Supreme Court today heard about an hour and 20 minutes of debate around Proposition 8 – the measure that banned same-sex marriage in California.
And on Wednesday, the issue of the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between one man and one woman will be up before the highest court.
So what do you think? Who has the right to say I do? And what do our laws say about who we are? Add your thoughts at CNN's iReport.
By John D. Sutter, CNN
Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+. This column contains language that may offend some readers.
Franklin County, Mississippi (CNN) - Statistically speaking, Franklin County should be straighter than John Wayne eating Chick-fil-A. The middle-of-nowhere rectangle in southwest Mississippi - known for its pine forests, hog hunting and an infamous hate crime - is home to exactly zero same-sex couples, according to an analysis of census data.
In other words: It's a place where gays don't exist.
At least not on paper.
Before I visited Franklin County, I figured there must be gay people living in Straight County USA. But I didn't expect anyone to be open about it - and with good reason. As part of this op-ed project, I recently ranked the Hospitality State as one of the least hospitable for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, based on its lack of legal protections. In addition to allowing gays and lesbians to be fired because of who they are, Mississippi is also gracious enough to let landlords evict gay residents.
Those are great incentives for a gay person to become invisible. And being invisible, of course, could mean avoiding census workers.
I drove to this place of rolling hills and misty valleys with a few questions on my mind: Can there really be such a thing as an all-straight county? If so, what is it like to be someone who never has met a gay person? Do you just watch "Glee" and figure it out?
If there are gay people in Franklin County, what keeps them hidden?
I spent a few days searching for answers before I realized I was making the wrong assumptions: It's not that gay people here (or anywhere really) want to be in the closet, necessarily. It's the rest of the world that pushes them in and shuts the door.FULL STORY
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - Everyone knows it's location, location, location when it comes to real estate. Perhaps no one knows this better than activist Aaron Jackson.
He didn't even care what the house looked like. He looked up properties on Google Earth and saw a for sale sign across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church, the controversial group in Topeka, Kansas, that's most notorious for its angry anti-gay protests at military funerals.
The house Jackson initially wanted was sold by the time he got around to buying, but luckily for him, there was another one, on the corner of 12th and SW Orleans streets that was perfect. He paid about $83,000 - a bargain, he'd say, for what he was trying to accomplish. This week, he and others from his nonprofit Planting Peace painted the house in rainbow colors that represent gay pride. FULL POST
Editor's Note: On March 26th and 27th, the US Supreme Court will hear two key cases regarding same-sex marriage. Every Monday and Tuesday in March, CNN Radio will feature stories about issues related to same-sex marriage.
By Tommy Andres, CNN
(CNN) – So far nine states have legalized same sex marriages, none of them in the South. As part of our same sex marriage series we reached out to our audience to find out what it's like to be gay or lesbian in the South.
What we discovered was surprising.
The gays and lesbians who spoke to us all love living in the South despite its somewhat hostile climate towards them.FULL STORY
By Mariano Castillo, CNN
CNN) - Republican Sen. Rob Portman's flip-flop approval for same-sex marriage, is just the latest change of heart on the issue by conservatives.
Even Democrats like President Obama - have turned around after opposing it. This change in attitude is just one of many milestones for the movement.
Here are five of the most important turning points in the same-sex marriage debate:
1993: In a landmark case, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that the state can't deny same-sex couples the right to marry unless it finds "a compelling reason" to do so. It orders the issue back to the state legislature, which then voted to ban gay marriage. This was one of earliest debates on the issue at the state level, and was a precursor to the legal battles nationwide. Today, domestic partnerships and civil unions for same-sex couples are legal in Hawaii.FULL STORY
By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
(CNN) - Patrick Dati had reached his breaking point.
With a metal pin in his arm and Vicodin coursing through his veins, he picked up the phone to call his psychiatrist.
Dati had undergone surgery for a broken arm after his then-boyfriend allegedly threw him down the stairs when he tried to leave their home.
Now he sat on the phone with his doctor, explaining why he couldn't carry on, as he tried to overdose on painkillers.
The attempt to end his life, which landed him in a psychiatric ward for two days, resulted in part because he felt trapped in the abusive relationship and saw no way out.
"I couldn't let my boyfriend go because he wasn't allowing me to," Dati said.
Dati is one of an estimated 3.4% of adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, referred to as LGBT, in the United States. He's also one of a quarter of gay men in America who report having encountered intimate partner violence.
While Dati reached out to LGBT resources for help while he was ensnared in the abusive relationship, including the Center on Halsted Anti-Violence Project's 24-Hour crisis hot line in Chicago, many in his position find that help is hard to come by.
Now, thanks to new LGBT-inclusive language in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, signed into law this month, domestic violence victims like Dati will have access to many of the same abuse and trauma services as victims of heterosexual partner violence.FULL STORY
By Ed Payne and Devon Sayers, CNN
(CNN) - The questions go to the heart of the issue, presenting scenarios some may find challenging.
The Boy Scouts of America, now considering a change in the group's longstanding policy against allowing openly gay members, has sent out a questionnaire that goes beyond a simple yes or no on the subject.
Among them: Is it acceptable for a gay scout and a straight scout to share a tent on an overnight camping trip?
The survey sent to leaders and parents includes five multiple-choice answers ranging from "totally acceptable" to "totally unacceptable."
In February, the Boy Scouts of America's national executive board postponed a vote on lifting its outright ban on openly homosexual scouts and troop leaders.
The decision will be made at the organization's annual meeting in May, where about 1,400 members of the group's national council will take part, the board said.
The organization said at the time that it would "further engage representatives of Scouting's membership and listen to their perspectives and concerns."
The Boy Scouts said in a statement Tuesday that they're in the "listening phase" and are "reviewing a number of issues and how they will impact the BSA, including youth, chartered organizations, parents, and financial, fundraising, and legal concerns."
The survey's nine questions directly address those concerns and point to the complexities of the issues involved.
Here's one of the questions from the survey:
"David, a Boy Scout, believes that homosexuality is wrong. His troop is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith also teachers that homosexuality is wrong. Steven, an openly gay youth, applies to be a member in the troop and is denied membership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for this troop to deny Steve membership in their troop?"
Another question asks if a lesbian mom should be allowed to be den leader, if the church it's chartered to has no problem with homosexuality.
The issues are challenging for an organization that has many ties to organized religion, many of them conservative.FULL STORY
By Michael Martinez, CNN
(CNN) - He has been declared America's "first gay president."
But President Barack Obama's evolution to that title hasn't been easy. His positions zig-zagged over almost two decades.
His advocacy of same-sex marriage began well before his White House years, tracing back to his early political service in Illinois. The effectiveness of his leadership, however, will be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers a California ban on same-sex marriage.
1996: While running for the Illinois Senate, Obama signs a questionnaire for a gay Chicago publication saying he favors legalizing same-sex marriages. He later wins the race.
1998: He alters course and answers "undecided" on same-sex marriage when questioned in another survey.
2003: In his campaign for the Illinois Senate, Obama says in a questionnaire that he is against repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law that states for federal purposes, marriage is defined as only between one man and one woman.
2004: When running for the U.S. Senate, he notes he is "a Christian" and that "marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman." He wins the race.FULL STORY