CRETE, Ill. -- Their story has played out like the name of a popular lesbian movie: ''The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.''
It started last month, when the girls -- longtime high school sweethearts -- were voted ''cutest couple'' by their fellow seniors at Crete-Monee High School in the suburbs south of Chicago.
Administrators balked, at first. Then several students walked out of class to support the girls.
It is a drama that, for a time anyway, awakened this sleepy town, lined with antique shops, churches and cafes, and still surrounded by corn fields.
In the end, the girls' parents -- though a bit shell-shocked -- agreed to let a photograph of the couple appear in the school yearbook.
And last week, district superintendent Roberta Berry wrote a letter praising the students at Crete-Monee High: ''I am proud to say that while other schools continue to address issues such as alienation, bullying and hate crimes, we have a student body that not only accepts each others' differences, but also celebrates them.''
Upset, some parents and community members have called to complain and written letters to the editor of local newspapers.
But others are supportive -- a sign, students say, that times are changing.
''This isn't 1952 anymore. I think people need to realize there are different people everywhere,'' says Rachel Urban, a 17-year-old Crete-Monee senior. ''If 15- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to handle this, the rest of the country can."
There are other examples of students supporting their gay, lesbian and bisexual peers. In 1999, an openly gay high school student in San Anselmo, Calif., was elected homecoming king. Last year, a lesbian from Ferndale, Wash., was elected king at her prom.
Meanwhile, students at an increasing number of schools are forming gay-straight alliances to support one another -- and more school districts are training teachers to work with gay students.
That's all happened at Waltham High School in Waltham, Mass., where school nurse Nancy Ryan oversees the gay-straight alliance. Still, she says, the school has a long way to go in helping its lesbian and gay students feel safe.
''I don't think they fear for their physical safety,'' she said. ''But I think they still are hearing things that make them uncomfortable and make them afraid to come out.''
It is, for example, still common for students at many schools to use the word ''gay'' to describe something they don't like. And ''fag'' remains a common slur, teachers and students say.
A 2002 report by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a nationwide group of students, parents and teachers, notes that only nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of protection for students, based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
The lack of protection, students and others say, makes it that much harder to come out.
At Crete-Monee, officials and even students have chosen not to reveal the names of the ''cutest couple'' girls, whose parents did not know they were dating until the vote.
''The girls are understandably overwhelmed and so are their families,'' school district spokesperson Sue Rossi said.
Choosing senior ''bests'' is a long-standing tradition for Crete-Monee seniors. Each year, they cast their votes for everyone from the ''most likely to succeed'' to ''most likely to shock us at our reunion.''
While there were three or four senior couples who'd been together through a good chunk of high school, the majority voted for the girls.
Classmates say it was done with sincerity.
They say the girls -- popular students who are active in sports and other extracurricular activities -- can often be seen holding hands in the school's hallways.
''I think people voted for them because they're so open about their relationship -- and how good it is,'' says Danielle Cheatom, a 17-year-old senior. ''They're actually in love and care about each other.''
Adds Nick Renfroe, another 17-year-old senior: ''They really are the cutest couple.''
Renfroe was among about 60 students who protested last month outside the school, fearing that administrators would withhold the girls' photo from the yearbook.
Several students were suspended for two days for taking part in the protest.
Maris Formas, a 17-year-old senior, says the issue brought students to the forefront who'd never been class leaders before.
''The teachers are amazed at our dedication,'' she said. ''I was, too.''
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