Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

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

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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