Bul­ly­ing in South Ge­or­gia

A les­bian high school stu­dent's coura­geous fight

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS

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

(Photo by Wenda G. Bai­ley)

Shelby Hallman was moved to start the Gay-Straight Al­liance af­ter con­stant ha­rass­ment of her and her LGBT friends.

AT­LANTA

NASHVILLE

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