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A club of her own: Kerry Pacer, 17, fought tears and attacks to create a gay-straight alliance in her Southern high school. Meet the founder of Cleveland, Ga.'s PRIDE.

The Sweetheart Assembly at White County High in Cleveland, Ga., is one of those quaint Southern rituals that puts all the budding Scarlett O'Haras on their rightful pedestal, whether or not Daddy could afford a coming-out ball. Rose in hand, the young ladies walk up the auditorium aisle one by one, basking in the admiration and applause of the entire school.

The ceremony, held on Valentine's Day, is all about pageantry, memory, tradition, and innocence, at least for most of the belles. For Kerry Pacer, however, it was about innocence lost. When she joined the procession, the auditorium erupted in boos.

No one in town doubted the reason: Pacer, a 16-year-old in the junior class at the time, is openly gay. She had approached the principal a couple of weeks earlier with a plan to found a gay-straight alliance, and she kept pushing for it despite fevered opposition from classmates and their parents. And if that wasn't irreverent enough, she accepted her Sweetheart Assembly rose from a female student.

Pacer steeled herself aider the booing episode. As the jeers reverberated in her ears days later she sought out a guidance counselor, who told her that she had brought it all on herself and should have expected all the bullying.

"I was crying," Kerry recalls. "I didn't know how this had gotten so out of hand."

At the end of March the school board relented--after the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia intervened--and allowed Pacer and five other students to form a club, now named PRIDE. The club has a faculty adviser and a set of bylaws but is not mentioned in the school's list of extracurricular clubs.

"I understand that not everyone supports this club, and those people have a right to their opinion," says Pacer. "But we also have a right to exist, and nobody's rights should be trampled on."

Pacer's battle was played out against the backdrop of devout red-state conservatism. Cleveland is 75 miles from the capital of the "New South," Atlanta--but politically, psychically, and spiritually it is light-years away. Fundamentalist churches dominate religious life here, and denunciations of homosexuality thunder from the pulpit on many Sundays. Blue laws have slowed development and the influx of service jobs into northeast Georgia, leaving agriculture, mostly poultry farming, the linchpin of the local economy.

"It is difficult for any adolescent anywhere to take an unconventional stand, but it requires more gumption in this region because this is, in many ways, a theocracy," says Candice Dyer, 34, a White County High graduate who substitute-teaches at her alma mater. "You grow up with this drumbeat that God didn't make Adam and Steve. Like any indoctrination, it's hard to shake."

It's nearly impossible to remain anonymous in a community of two traffic lights, and Pacer's face is recognizable to many, particularly those who frequent the popular sandwich shop where she works 30 hours a week. Lithe as a gymnast, her expressive brown eyes convey softness, merriment, surprise, hurt. Her hair, the color of a late-autumn leaf, curlicues straight down her neck. Except for the stud through her nose, there is nothing bohemian about her looks.

A child of divorce, Pacer lives with her mother, Savannah, a real estate agent and proud member of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and 14-year-old old sister Lindsay in a modest home amid the Appalachian foothills. The scenery in either direction is Southern gothic: wood-frame country churches, graceful pastures, dilapidated chicken houses. The odor of fresh hay fills the air.

Before she came out, in the seventh grade, Pacer followed the path taken by many young rural Southerners. She worshipped at Cleveland Church of God, joined its youth group, and in the vernacular of evangelical Christianity, got "saved" at the altar. As a lesbian, however, she was tired of being told she was "going to hell" and quit the congregation.

By the time Pacer met with school officials earlier this year there were more than 30 GSAs in Georgia, but most were in metropolitan Atlanta, according to Lance Helms, state coordinator for PFLAG. Given the obstacles Pacer faced, PFLAG decided for the first time to act as an advocate and adviser to Georgia high schoolers trying to start a GSA, Helms says. Two PFLAG representatives, Savarmah Pacer and Lib Rumfelt, joined Kerry and several other students in talks with the administration.

After conferring with the principal, they went up the chain of command to Paul Shaw, White County's superintendent of schools, then to the school board, which at first did nothing. But after opposition to the GSA mounted the board held a meeting in May to consider a proposal to eliminate all nonacademic clubs in the district next year. A decision is expected on that in June or July.

During the initial negotiations, Pacer faced her tormentors every school day. Male students taped crude antigay signs to their shirts, and the girls in her gym class asked her not to come into the locker room. At one point "I broke down and cried," she recalls. "They were being so mean." She told one classmate, "You're telling me God is watching me all the time. Who is watching you?"

And then came the Sweetheart Assembly--"the day from hell," as her mother puts it. "I was certainly concerned about Kerry's emotional state of being," Savannah Pacer says. "Her emotions were going high and they were going low."

Amid the furor, the Reverend Phil Hoyt, a Methodist clergyman whose church stands right off the town square, took a gutsy public stand when he called gays "persons of sacred worth." That brought in a busload of picketers from Fred Phelps's antigay Topeka, Kan., church. That Sunday the Cleveland United Methodist Church message board read JUDGE NOT LEST THOU BE JUDGED.

Yet Pacer won. According to Beth Littrell, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia, the school system has no choice under the federal Equal Access Act but to recognize PRIDE, which stands for Peers Rising in Diverse Education. "Kerry and her friends understood that their rights were being violated and refused to be silenced no matter how unpopular their views may be," Littrell said.

One local resident believes the force of Pacer's personality will inevitably change people's hearts and minds. "Kerry is showing people that the sweet girl next door, the one who is serving them with a courteous smile at the local deli, is gay, and that it's no big deal," Dyer says. "This community is more insular than hateful. I believe that people will one day rally around her."

Kerry's story

I have been openly gay at my school for as Ion g as I have been out to my family. Since the seventh grade I have been looked down on for something that I cannot change. However. I have never been ashamed of who am. I must stand up for myself if no one else will. know that I can make a difference, and I am very headstrong and determined about that.

I have dealt with a lot of cruel people in my school. Once everyone found out that I wanted to make it safe for myself and my friends and other LGBT students they were worse than ever. I have broken down in tears at some of the awful things students have said. I pride myself, though, on never letting them see me cry.

I should be able to feel safe wherever I go--especially at school--yet I don't. I am never sure what to expect. The so-called rednecks decide whether your day is good or bad.

A good day is when you hear only one or two words murmured under their breaths. A bad day is when someone yells across the hall or you get pushed into a locker. Every day there was some kind of harassment going on at school. We would bring it to a teachers attention and nothing would happen. They would use the same excuses that it was our word against theirs, or that no one saw it.

Someone had to take a stand. I knew that starting the gay-straight alliance would cause controversy, yet I had no idea that the community would be in an immediate uproar. Everyone tried to justify themselves with the Bible to back up their hatred.

I became discouraged when I felt nothing was going my way. Then I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi: If they had given up when things got rough, where would we be now? Everyone has the right to be who they are. I believe that it shouldn't be so hard to be yourself.

Our group thought that we could widen our arms and call ourselves PRIDE. Peers Rising in Diversity Education. We are still affiliated with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and many other organizations that give minorities a chance to speak out. No one has the right to silence anyone for any reason. We want to let all voices be heard, including those of LGBT students.

It is hard for LGBT students to feel accepted when they see everyone acting out against them and they are often driven back into the closet. They should feel free to be who they are, I am free enough to say, "My name is Kerry Pacer, and am a lesbian. and I have pride." When I say that it gives people hope, and when I get harassed for saying it the hope seems to fade.

I want everyone to have that hope: that one day you can walk hand in hand with your soul mate--no matter what sex or color--and not get shunned for it.

Throughout this whole process I have made many great friends. My fellow students who are starting this group with me are amazing and incredible people. They will go very far and will do many great things. I never knew how brave some of my classmates were until I saw the determination and daring they demonstrated. I love them with all my heart, and no matter what happens I can always turn to them for support.--Kerry Pacer

activate GLSEN'S FIVE STEPS TO STARTING A GSA

1 Follow the guidelines at your school: Establish a GSA the same way you would any other group or club. Check your student handbook for your school's rules regarding clubs.

2 Find a supportive teacher or staff member: someone who you think would be supportive or who has already shown themselves to be an ally around sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

3 Inform the school's administration: They can work as liaisons to teachers, parents, community members, and the school board.

4 Know the law: The Federal Equal Access Act ensures the right of GSAs to exist alongside any other noncurricular student clubs.

5 Administer a school climate survey: This will allow you to better understand your school's climate on anti-LGBT bullying and harassment and to make a case for a gay-inclusive student club.

BY THE NUMBERS GSAs

50 Number of U.S. states with schools that have gay-straight alliances

3,000+ Number of gay-straight alliances in the United States

1,000 Number of people who were registered to vote by GSA members during Voter Registration Week last year

6,500 Number of students who were involved in GLSEN-sponsored Transgender Day of Remembrance events in November 2004

15,000 Number of students who were involved in GLSEN-registered events on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2005

4,000 Number or schools where students participated in the Day of Silence on April 13--an annual event to bring attention to GLBT students and the harassment and violence they face

500,000 Number of students who participated in the 2005 Day of Silence

Source: The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network

Sverdlik has written for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Post.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:FUTURE GAY LEADERS; Peers Rising in Diverse Education
Author:Sverdlik, Alan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1U5GA
Date:Jun 21, 2005
Words:1974
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