Bullying in South Georgia
A lesbian high school student's courageous fight
Shelby Hallman had had enough. The 16-year-old student at Berrien High School in Nashville, Georgia, was tired of seeing her gay and lesbian friends pushed around and called “faggot,” “queer” and “dyke.” One of her fellow student leaders screamed in her face that he had the right to call her a faggot if he wanted to.
Instead of wilting, she sprang into action. She went home, looked online and discovered gay-straight alliances (GSA), and learned exactly what she needed to do to start one at her school so that she and her friends could get some much-needed support. She reviewed school system policy, looked up federal laws and learned that students have a right to start GSAs in public schools.
Even in deeply conservative Nashville, a tiny town of 5,000 in south Georgia.
She lined up a sponsor for the club, an English teacher at Berrien High named Nick Hodge, who didn’t hesitate to take her up on it.
“I believe in human dignity,” Hodge says. “I believe that all kids should be treated well. I believed somebody should have sponsored it and I was honored when she asked me to do it.”
She presented everything to her school principal, who gave her a “maybe” that day, but later came back and turned her down. So Shelby did what few 16-year-olds, much less a 16-year-old in her situation, would do: she called a meeting with the principal and the school superintendent. She cited the federal Equal Access Act, which requires that federally funded public schools provide equal access to extracurricular clubs.
It was enough to convince them. They put it before the school board for a vote in May, and the board, nudged along by a letter from the ACLU of Georgia highlighting the legal precedent at hand, voted to allow the club.
And that’s when things turned ugly in Nashville.
‘Ask yourselves, is that what you want in our community?’
When Shelby, who has been out since she was 14, told her parents about what was happening at Berrien High and why she wanted to start a GSA there, they did not stand in her way.
“What she was describing what her peers were experiencing was devastating,” says her mother, Beth. “So we supported her and told her, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’”
Once Shelby laid the groundwork that led to the all-clear by the school board in May, several local faith leaders got involved and tried to put a stop to it.
They circulated a petition against the GSA to local residents, garnering 1,300 signatures. They got several dozen out-of-town faith leaders to sign on as well, and posted the petition in the local newspaper. Then they showed up at the school board meeting in June to make their case.
After reading the petition in front of the board, Pastor Mickey Lindsey of Flat Creek Baptist Church put up a photograph on an overhead projector. It was a picture he had found online of students at a Pride parade in California. One of the students was in drag.
“Ask yourselves, is that what you want in our community?” he said.
The school board did not change their vote that night, but the dialogue still stung. “We expected resistance but we did not expect the faith-based community to rally around it,” Beth says. “We have so many other pressing issues like the poverty rate, the teen pregnancy rate, meth labs, all these things that small Southern towns face, and suddenly, this is the issue? This small group of children?”
‘She’s become an activist. I see that in her.’
For now, the town of Nashville waits to see what will be the fate of the GSA. Beth and Shelby Hallman cross their fingers and hope the school board doesn’t buckle in the face of enormous pressure from the faith leaders.
There’s another school board meeting scheduled for July 20. School starts on August 10. While Berrien High School principal Angie Lovein initially turned down Shelby’s proposal for the GSA, both Shelby and her mother say Lovein and school superintendent Danny Hayes have not stood in the way of the club since turning the decision over to the school board. Lovein and Hayes did not respond to a request for comment from Georgia Voice.
And while it’s taken a toll on the family, Beth doesn’t hesitate to commend Shelby’s actions.
“I think my daughter is amazing. I am so proud of the person she is,” Beth says. “She’s such a kind person, she’s always fought for the underdog. This isn’t just about the LGBTQ community for her, it’s about human rights. I want her to be a 16-year-old kid and want her to enjoy her high school experience but she’s become an activist. I see that in her.”
Shelby, who has been selected to attend the Queer Youth Leading the South action camp later this month, remains undeterred.
“It hurts my feelings that holy people would feel that way about anyone in our community, and that’s why we need to be more visible. They need to know that queer people already exist in our community, and saying they don’t want that isn’t going to make us go away. We’re not trying to attack their faith, we’re trying to uplift harassed and bullied students.”
“They need to know that queer people already exist in our community, and saying they don’t want that isn’t going to make us go away. We’re not trying to attack their faith, we’re trying to uplift harassed and bullied students.”
Shelby Hallman was moved to start the Gay-Straight Alliance after constant harassment of her and her LGBT friends.