Gay teens strive for acceptance in conservative Bible Belt states

Plans for school clubs cause community uproar

March 27, 2005|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CLEVELAND, Ga. - Kerry Pacer was used to the whispering behind her back, the name-calling and the snickering when she walked down the hall. But when almost the entire student body at White County High School booed as she accepted a rose from a female friend during a Valentine's Day program last month, she knew it was time to do something.

Pacer, who said she never has tried to hide the fact that she is a lesbian, did what other gay students in schools across the country have been doing for more than a decade. The 16-year-old junior began trying to organize a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which promotes tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals.

But in White County, a hub of Christian conservatism nestled in the north Georgia mountains, the idea of a school-based group that supports homosexuality put the community in an uproar and thrust this quiet haven where Cabbage Patch dolls originated into the national debate on gay rights.

"There has always been a lot of bullying at school, and there was never anyone to stand up for me," said Pacer, explaining that she and other gay students felt a Gay-Straight Alliance club would promote understanding. "I knew there would be people who disagreed with it, but I had no idea it would grow this big."

With heightened national attention on family values as championed by Christian conservatives, students such as Pacer said they have felt pressure to keep their sexual orientation hidden, particularly in conservative Bible Belt states where many people believe homosexuality is a sin. Those attitudes were manifested in November when voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Throughout the country, school districts have become a legal battleground for issues that disproportionately affect gay students such as bullying and harassment. Though there are more than 1,300 Gay-Straight Alliance groups in schools nationally, some gay rights groups report a rise in hostility at schools in communities that are less accepting of such organizations. As a result, courts have intervened to ensure the rights of gay students.

Election issue

Often, the cases come to light during the spring as students prepare for proms and other social events. Some schools try to bar same-sex teenagers from attending the prom as a couple. Those who do attend often say they feel unwelcome. Meanwhile, gay students increasingly are opting to hold their own proms, segregating themselves from the larger student body.

"During the election cycle, there was a lot of rhetoric being used about gay people, some of which was not supportive of gay people and their families," said Heather Sawyer, senior counsel for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a New York-based gay rights group that handles cases on behalf of gay students. "When young people hear the message that we as a country want to deny gay families civil protections we provide other families under law, it has a negative boomerang effect on how young people may treat other students they know or perceive to be gay.

"Some of the states amended their constitution during the election to make sure gay couples could not get married. The campaigning around this discrimination against gay people was real ugly, and it sends a message that gay people are not entitled to the same equality and rights as nongay people."

Despite the federal Equal Access Act of 1984, which requires public schools to allow all non-curricular clubs the same ability to organize as the traditional chess club or pep squad, some districts have tried to get around the law, often bowing to pressures of the larger religious community. While few districts have gone so far as to ban all noncurricular activities, others have tried to restrict gay students by limiting their freedom of expression.

A high school in Salt Lake City recently created a policy requiring students to submit written permission from their parents if they want to take a same-sex date to a school dance. In Webb City, Mo., a gay student was punished by his high school for wearing T-shirts with gay pride messages on them.

In Cleveland, Ga., hundreds of residents turned up recently for a school board meeting where the Gay-Straight Alliance proposal was expected to be heard. But before the meeting the students withdrew the proposal, opting instead to form a chapter of Peers Rising in Diversity Education, or PRIDE, that would focus on bullying, tolerance and diversity. While school officials acknowledge that they probably would lose a court battle to prohibit the club, community members still oppose it. Last week, dozens of opponents protested at the school, led by anti-gay activist the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan.

Meanwhile Pacer, a teenager with streaked brown hair and a penchant for red nail polish, has become a well-known gay activist in this town of 1,900 people.

Many feel unsafe

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