Kerry's courage

Kerry's courage

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

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.

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.

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

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

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?

Tell us a little bit more about that loving family
of yours.
I grew up in Baltimore until I was 7. My parents were
very open and liberal. They would always tell me what
was going on in the world. I knew that if I took a
stand for what I believed in, the world couldn’t stop

How did it feel when you won the right to form your club?
It was like a huge breath let out. I was so
happy. I got my friends together, and we all read the
letter and we were so overjoyed. It went through that
whole long process of not being able to form, and when we
finally did get it, we were like, OK, we may only
have two months left in the year but can still do as
much as we can for now.

Did those two months make a difference?
Definitely. Even if we didn’t really get the club
started and even though we don’t have it this
year, it does give gay students hope. There are so
many people at my school that are out that couldn’t
be out before. Now, if someone calls them a faggot or
a dyke, they stand up for themselves. Now, if a
teacher hears you say that, there will actually be a
punishment for it. It’s really changed a lot.

Are any of your classmates still being mean to you?
Last year it was mostly the seniors who were doing that.
Now I’m a senior. No one can really say
anything because we’ve known each other for so
long. It’s really awkward. It’s such a small
town. I know everyone’s parents, and they know
my mom. If they say something, it will get back to
their parents.

What about the parents? I hear they’ve changed a lot.
It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes. A lot
of the churches had sermons against homosexuality. It
is the Bible Belt. There’s a church on every
corner. But after Fred Phelps came, they had sermons on how
we should love people no matter what. It changed our
town for the good because churches were like,
“We love these people who are trying to form this
club. We may not agree with what they’re trying to
do, but we love them anyway.”

Do you attend a church?
I’m not attending a church now.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but it’s
been a really busy year. Right now I’m staying
home and studying.

What do you say to those who use the Bible to
discriminate against gay people?
I don’t really know what to tell them. You can
use the Bible to make an excuse for anything.
Doesn’t the Bible say not to judge? If it says
it’s a sin to be gay, doesn’t it also say all
sins are equal? Lying is a sin; judging is a sin.

Do you think gay and lesbian people are born gay?
Yes. I don’t think you have a choice. I knew when
I was 12.

What would you say to other teens hoping to start a
gay-straight alliance in a conservative rural town?

I would tell them that they should be prepared
for a lot of controversy. But don’t give up.
They cannot stop you unless you let them. Stand up for
what you believe in. That’s the most important thing.

A lot of them might say it’s not worth getting
pushed into a locker or beat up every day.

It’s not just about being pushed into a
locker. It’s about not having my rights. If I
get pushed into a locker or hit, the bruises go away; the
pain goes away. I know there are people out there who love
me. But later on, what if your child is gay and gets
beat up in school, and you could have done something
to stop that when you were in school? I have to do
this for the people that come behind me and the people that
can’t do it. Their parents don’t support
them, and they can’t do it.

What about the teachers at White County? Do they support
and protect you and your friends?
I’m a very headstrong person. I believe I can
control a lot of situations. If a teacher
doesn’t stop me from being harassed, that
teacher knows they are going to be reported by me. Martin
Luther King Jr. said, “The oppressed becomes
the oppressor.” If you don’t do anything to
stop something, you’re just as bad as the person
doing it. I know that if I do ever get beat up or hit,
I’ll be able to get back up again. No matter
what happens, I’ll never give up the fight.
It’s worth too much.

Is it true that you never let your detractors see you cry?
What people say does hurt me. When someone calls me a
dyke or something, it does hurt. While I was fighting
for the club, I was crying myself to sleep. But if I
went to school and started busting out in tears, or if
at the Sweetheart Assembly I busted out in tears, they would
have been like, “Ha ha ha—we got to
her.” I’m not going to let them see me
with my guard down. I wasn’t going to let them see
how bad they hurt me.

Last June one of your teachers predicted that people in
Cleveland would eventually rally around you.
People don’t really rally around me, but they
understand my point of view now. They’ve just
become more open to it. Even if they previously had a
problem with me being gay, now they just don’t care.
It’s like everything’s in the past.

What one lesson have you learned from all of this that
you think others should learn?

I met Kevin Jennings, the founder of GLSEN (Gay,
Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). He is
amazing. He told me about how when he was in school a
teacher could say one thing to him and it would stay with
him forever. You really need to think about what you
say to someone before you say it. It could do a lot of
serious damage.

Is there one thing someone said to you that you will
never forget.
I was at my cousin’s wedding. My other cousin was
there, and he was looking at my rainbow necklace, and
he looked at me in disgust and he was like,
“What are you, some kind of lesbian or
something?” I thought, OK, you’re my
cousin. You’re supposed to be supportive.
really hurt. That was how I came out to him. It stuck
in my mind forever.

Is there something someone did?
I was talking with a military recruiter at my school,
and I asked him about [the military’s gay ban]
“don’t ask, don’t tell.” He said
he didn’t care about that. He took it so
lightly. I gave him my information card. He called me
and told me about scholarships. He kind of became a friend
to me. He didn’t care that I was gay. It makes me
feel good when someone acts like it’s not a big

How do you feel about your parents and the other people
who have supported you?
I owe them everything. I could not have done it without
them. I’ve been getting calls and letters.
Realizing there are people out there telling me they
support me is the greatest gift.

What about your classmates who helped you form the club?
Our vice president of the club was so good through all
of this. He couldn’t talk to the press because
of his parents, but he is one of the most articulate
people I know. I was so glad we had him on our side. Our
secretary, she was also so helpful. She came up with so many
good ideas. She would always stand up for us.

Why have they not been as visible during all of this?
A lot of their parents don’t really
support them. They have to kind of hide from them. A
lot of them also were just coming out. But it’s
changing. I wouldn’t say their parents are
supportive, but they’re not going to let their
kids get treated bad over something like this.

Have you been out in the open more because you want to be
a leader?
Not so much. This is just one little town. A leader to
me is someone like Kevin Jennings or Martin Luther
King Jr.—someone you can look up to. I just
want to contribute to what they’ve done. I want to be
a civil rights attorney who’ll try to help
people like me in a small town. I’m definitely
going to be active in gay rights.

Do you think gay people will ever have full equality?
Definitely. The world is evolving so much now.
There are going to be a lot more people taking a
stand. There are so many intelligent people out there
who can make a difference.

You seem to have a lot of hope for someone surrounded by
so much oppression.
If you met my friends, you would too. Whenever I hang
out with them, it’s like the world can’t
stop us. Whatever we dream of or think of, we can
accomplish. They’re just such amazing people.
Whenever I talk to them, it feels like, Oh,
it’ll happen tomorrow.
They’re so
confident. If I don’t have hope, then there’s
nothing left to hang on to. I’m not going to
give up.