Mar. 23, 2005 – After a long, difficult fight, students in a Cleveland, Georgia high school won permission to form a campus gay and lesbian support group. A settlement between the students and the local school board ended a month-long debate over whether or not the board would approve the club in compliance with federal law.
"I canâ€™t tell you how relieved I am that the board is finally going to do the right thing and let us create a safe space for gay students at my school," Kerry Pacer, a 16-year-old student who decided to form the club with friends, said in an press release about the settlement put out by the American Civil Liberties Union. The rights group had helped Pacer negotiate with the district.
According to the ACLU and local media reports, studentsâ€™ initial attempts to form the club were met with resistance, first by school administrators and then by vocal, anti-gay elements of their small community. While education officials acknowledged that the Federal Equal Access Act required them to allow the students to form the club, community opposition stalled the approval process. People flooded the school with phone calls and packed a school board meeting in opposition to the formation of the club.
"Iâ€™d rather we not have any clubs at all," parent Scott Finley told the Southern Voice. "These kids are condemned to hell, and Iâ€™d like to see them saved."
"I understand that not everyone supports this club," said Pacer, "and those people have a right to their opinion. But we also have a right to exist, and nobodyâ€™s rights should be trampled on."
Pacer and her friends did have some support, though, including some parents. Bill Pacer, Kerryâ€™s father, spoke up for his daughterâ€™s cause at a school board meeting earlier this month. "It would be refreshing if the school board and principal had half the courage as this 16-year-old woman," he said.
"This is a question of safe schools," he continued. "When Kerry was booed at a school assembly, the principal and teachers did nothing. Respect should be universal and not for just a few."
And when a handful of Christian fundamentalists from Kansas showed up to protest, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about 100 counter-demonstrators showed two days later to support the student activists. By contrast, the Southern Voice counted only eight Kansas Christians.
Pacer and a handful of her peers decided to start the club after enduring harassment from other students. Initially they planned to open a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, a support group for homosexual students. But after facing so much community opposition, they changed their name to Peers Rising In Diversity Education (PRIDE) and broadened their goals to include anti-bullying activism and promoting tolerance.
Pacerâ€™s struggle, while raising the ire of some, has earned admiration and respect from others. "Kerry Pacer has endured a great deal of discrimination at White County High School," said Beth Littrell, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia, in a press statement. "Sheâ€™s been called names, sheâ€™s been booed at a school assembly, sheâ€™s been punished for wearing a gay-positive t-shirt, and sheâ€™s been harassed by her classmates - and rather than remain silent, she has bravely stood up for her rights and the rights of every other gay student in her community."