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Kerry's courage

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

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?

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 me.

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. It 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 deal.

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.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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