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No tuxes or dresses for senior portrait after school settles lawsuit with lesbian

ACLU

Ceara Sturgis' high school wouldn't run this photo of her wearing a tuxedo in her senior yearbook.

No more tuxedos for boys and dresses for girls come senior portrait time at high schools in a Mississippi school district.

Copiah County School District will ditch gender-specific outfits for senior portraits and instead require all students to wear a cap and gown as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of lesbian teenager whose tux-wearing photo was excluded from the senior yearbook.

And though it’s not possible for Ceara Sturgis’ photo to be pasted back into the 2009 Weston Attendance Center yearbook, the high school will include it in her class’s composite picture hanging in the school library.

"I'm really happy, I'm excited," Sturgis, now 20, told msnbc.com by telephone Thursday from Orlando, Fla., where she is now living. "I'm proud of my school because they decided to do the right thing."

Copiah County School District officials and the attorney representing the district did not immediately return telephone calls for comment Thursday.

ACLU

Ceara Sturgis with mom, Veronica Rodriguez

Ronald Greer, principal at Wesson, said he had no comment beyond: "It is what is it and we’ll just move forward."

According to the ACLU,  Sturgis was an honor student at Wesson Attendance. She dresses in clothing traditionally associated with boys and had previously not encountered any problems from her classmates or teachers. When she had her formal senior portrait taken, she opted to wear a tuxedo, with the blessing of her mother, rather than a drape that gives the appearance of wearing a dress or a blouse, the ACLU said.

The photographer permitted Sturgis to do so. It was only after the portrait was taken that the principal informed Sturgis that the school would not publish her photo and name in the senior portrait section of the yearbook, she said.

The ACLU sued the high school in August 2010, contending Sturgis was unfairly discriminated against based on her sex and unfair gender stereotypes.

"I went to school with my classmates my whole life, and it hurts that I'm not included in my senior yearbook as part of my graduating class," Sturgis  said at the time. "I never thought that my school would punish me just for being who I am."

As part ot the settlement announced Wednesday by the ACLU, the school will also amend its anti-discrimination policy to add language affirming its commitment to following the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“Hopefully no other students will be excluded from this important rite of passage simply for expressing themselves,” Bear Atwood, legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said in a statement. “Copiah County School District has done the right thing by changing the yearbook policy so no students have to feel as if they’re out of place.”

“All students deserve to attend school in a setting that lets them be comfortable being themselves,” added Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project.

Sturgis said while the settlement took two years, she's ecstatic with the result and feels "like a weight has been lifted off my shoulder."

Sturgis said she is now working at a Nike outlet store and hopes to go to college in the fall.  But she plans to return to Wesson one day to see her class composite picture -- now with her in it.

"My school has started something, a good thing, baby steps," she said.

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