Kerry's courage

Lesbian teenager Kerry Pacer demanded to be treated fairly at her rural high school in northeast Georgia. She never imagined it would change her entire town—or inspire a nation

BY John Caldwell

December 05 2005 12:00 AM ET

The small
Southern town of Cleveland, Ga., used to be the kind of
place where homosexuality was hardly ever talked
about. When it was, it was denounced from the pulpits
of the many fundamentalist Christian churches that
share space with poultry farms around this rural
municipality of two stoplights and about 2,300
residents.

Now the locals,
many of whom have lived in Cleveland their whole lives,
are talking about homosexuality at work and at the local
diner. They’re reading about it in the local
newspaper and hearing about it at school board
meetings. And some are talking about love and acceptance
instead of sin.

That’s
because one courageous and feisty young girl refused to
allow herself to be kept silent. Kerry Pacer, a
17-year-old White County High School senior with soft
brown eyes and a charismatic smile, came out to the
town earlier this year by demanding that she and her gay
classmates be protected from harassment.
“It’s my chance right now to step in and
say we’re going to get treated fairly,” she
says. “If I give up that chance, I might never
have it again.”

Pacer came out to
her parents and a few friends at age 12 but stayed
quiet about it around town and at school. After a couple of
years in high school, however, she could no longer
stand to listen to her fellow classmates call each
other “fag” and “dyke.” So last
January she asked for permission to put up an
antibullying poster. When she was turned down she
demanded that she and her friends be allowed to start a
gay-straight alliance.

“That
little girl just took things into her own hands,”
says Lib Rumfelt, copresident of the Atlanta chapter
of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
and a close friend of Kerry’s mother, Savannah Pacer,
who is herself a dedicated PFLAG member. Rumfelt and
Pacer’s parents tried to convince Kerry to take
it slow, but she wasn’t having it. With her
idea rejected by the school’s new principal, Pacer
made an appointment with the superintendent and asked
Rumfelt and others to go along. “She even told
us to let her do the talking,” Rumfelt recalls.

What followed was
a high-profile roller-coaster ride of acceptance and
rejection. The matter went before the school board, and word
spread about the proposed club. Pacer was picked on
and called names at school, while members of the
Cleveland Church of God, where she once worshipped,
condemned her actions. At the school’s Southern-style
Sweetheart Assembly last Valentine’s Day, Pacer
was booed by her classmates as she accepted a rose
from another girl. Then notoriously antigay Kansas preacher
Fred Phelps showed up with his clan to protest the
club. “I was petrified,” says
Kerry’s father, Bill Pacer, of the potential for
physical violence. “All you need is one nut [to
hurt her].”

But Bill and
Savannah, who divorced in 1997, never wavered in their
support of their daughter. After the American Civil
Liberties Union intervened, the school board in late
March allowed Pacer and five other students to form
the club PRIDE, Peers Rising in Diverse Education. “I
would caution her about being so out,” says Savannah
Pacer, who works as a local real estate agent.
“But she said, ‘I am who I am, and I’m
not going to be quiet just because this is a small
town.’ ”

That tenacity
gained Pacer some widespread notoriety. In April the
Georgia house of representatives passed a resolution
commending her actions. She has received awards from
five different gay and civil rights organizations,
including the ACLU of Georgia and the Human Rights
Campaign, and she has been the subject of numerous magazine,
newspaper, radio, and television reports.

But what Pacer
initially fought for and won—the gay-straight
alliance—would be short-lived. The White County
school board voted in July to end all noncurricular
clubs. “It’s our contention that they
changed the rules this year in order to silence the gay
group,” says Beth Littrell, a staff attorney
with the ACLU of Georgia. “This fight is not
over. We will be exercising our options both legally and
otherwise in order to champion these young
people.”

Meanwhile,
Cleveland’s gay youths are winning a more important
battle, adds Littrell. “The dialogue around
equality issues for gay and lesbian folks has reached
a positive level,” she says. “And what we see
in White County is reflective of a larger trend among
young people. They aren’t coming to us to
rescue them. They’re not waiting for the older
generation to come and tell them they are OK.”

Especially not
Pacer, Littrell says. “She is a dynamic young woman
who knows who she is and absolutely does not waiver in
the face of adversity. And she doesn’t just
stand up for herself. She stands up for the rights of
others.”

Indeed, Pacer was
always attuned to people who didn’t fit in, says
Richard Krise, principal of White County High during
Pacer’s freshman and sophomore years.
“She would go out of her way to say hi to people who
were not part of a ruling group,” he says.
“She was always trying to push the envelope.
She would ask, ‘Why do we do this? Why is this a
rule?’ It’s a rare ninth grader who
could do that.”

Pacer, who lives
with her mother and younger sister, Lindsay, and works
at a local sandwich shop, is far from the only outgoing
teenager to stand up and fight for a gay school club
in a conservative rural town. In fact, several of her
classmates were instrumental in starting the gay-straight
alliance at White County. But much of the positive change
that has taken place in the town can be tied to her
fearless resolve. Now schoolkids who once beat up
their gay classmates are apologizing for their behavior, and
adults who once condemned gay kids are now close friends
with their parents.

“No one
can deny her bravery,” says Bill Pacer, an elementary
school teacher in Atlanta. “She has opened up
eyes and hearts, and her strength has inspired a lot
of people. Other gays kids are saying, ‘If she can do
it, so can I.’ ”

Wow, what a year! Did you expect to get so much attention?
I had no idea any of this would happen. I never
expected it to turn out the way it did. Fred Phelps
coming from Kansas—that was so outrageous. I
knew some people wouldn’t be happy. But I never
expected it to pick up like this. It’s crazy.

How has your personal life changed?
Before, when I would go outside, not everyone
knew I was gay, and now everyone knows. I’m a
lot stronger and more educated. It’s made me want
to learn more about civil rights. I want to be an attorney
now. I’m trying to go to Georgia State.

Take us back to the Sweetheart Assembly.
You choose two sweethearts from each club, and I
was getting walked by another girl. The whole school
just started booing instead of cheering. I never had
anyone hating me before. I had gotten along with everyone.
When people started booing, not knowing who I was, it
really hurt my feelings. I just figured, Oh, well.
I know who my friends are now.

What gave you the courage to do that?
It’s crazy—the way people in my school get
treated because they are gay. I was just like,
Something’s got to be done. I
thought I could take a beating with words because I have a
family to go home to that loves me. But what if someone
can’t? I need to make a difference for them.
What if they don’t know what to say back?

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