South Ge­or­gia teen’s GSA fight gives a glimpse of the fu­ture of the LGBT rights move­ment

GA Voice - - FRONT PAGE - By PA­TRICK SAUNDERS psaun­ders@the­

As LGBT peo­ple across the state came down from the late-June high of the U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion on mar­riage equal­ity, lit­tle did they know there was a fight brew­ing in South Ge­or­gia that would give a peek into what the fu­ture of the move­ment will look like post-mar­riage.

The con­tro­versy was about the pro­posed for­ma­tion of a Gay-Straight Al­liance (GSA) at Ber­rien High School in tiny Nashville, Ge­or­gia. The in­ci­dent pit­ted stu­dents against stu­dents and par­ents against par­ents, with a group of faith lead­ers spread­ing a pe­ti­tion across town to stop the for­ma­tion of the club and a school board un­der fire and fac­ing le­gal ac­tion if it didn’t fol­low fed­eral law.

Stand­ing tall in the mid­dle of the fra­cas—all 5-foot-3-inches of them—was Mars Hall­man. The now 17-year-old Ber­rien High stu­dent, who re­cently came out as non­bi­nary and prefers they/them/their pro­nouns, led the charge for cre­at­ing the GSA af­ter be­ing fed up with the way them and their LGBT friends were be­ing treated by fel­low stu­dents.

A town di­vided

It’s hard to imag­ine there could be such an up­roar over the 10 or so stu­dents who have been meet­ing this fall as part of Ber­rien High School’s new GSA.

“I main­tained the la­bel of les­bian to try to make the tran­si­tion of adding a GSA to my com­mu­nity eas­ier for my­self and for other peo­ple around me, and I re­al­ized that I don’t have to sac­ri­fice my­self to wait around for other peo­ple to catch up to me.”

—Mars Hall­man

“We’ve had a lot of very good dis­cus­sions about how it’s okay to be your­self and we’ve mostly just been hav­ing fun,” Hall­man tells Ge­or­gia Voice.

The GSA just pre­sented a check to a lo­cal an­i­mal shel­ter. Next se­mes­ter they’re team­ing up with other GSAs to do park cleanups.

It was a long way to get to this point since the day Hall­man ar­rived home from school in spring, tired of hear­ing the words “fag­got,” “queer” and “dyke” ring out in de­ri­sion through­out the halls of Ber­rien High. In­stead of wilt­ing, they sprang into ac­tion, looked on­line and dis­cov­ered GSAs.

They re­searched what was needed to start one at their school, re­viewed school sys­tem pol­icy and looked up fed­eral laws. They lined up a club spon­sor and pre­sented ev­ery­thing to their school prin­ci­pal, who gave them a “maybe” but later came back and turned them down.

Un­de­terred, Hall­man called a meet­ing with the prin­ci­pal and the school su­per­in­ten­dent and cited the Fed­eral Equal Ac­cess Act, which re­quires that fed­er­ally funded pub­lic schools pro­vide equal ac­cess to ex­tracur­ric­u­lar clubs. That did the trick.

The school board ap­proved the club in May, but lo­cal faith lead­ers cir­cu­lated a pe­ti­tion against it, gath­er­ing 1,300 sig­na­tures. One pas­tor read the pe­ti­tion at the June school board meet­ing, but the board held firm, nudged along by a strongly worded let­ter from the ACLU. Ge­or­gia Voice broke Hall­man’s story in early July when there was one school board meet­ing to go and one fi­nal shot for op­po­nents of the GSA to fight its cre­ation be­fore school started in Au­gust. The club stayed.

GLSEN awards ‘a bit mind-blow­ing’

Look­ing back on that tu­mul­tuous time, Hall­man says, “There was a lot of mixed and highly emo­tional re­ac­tions, some of it very per­sonal. I think that for ev­ery per­son who signed a pe­ti­tion against my ac­tions or who had a prayer rally against me and stu­dents like me, there were two more peo­ple who would send mes­sages of sup­port.”

Hall­man’s story cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the Gay, Les­bian & Straight Ed­u­ca­tion Net­work (GLSEN), which hon­ored them as the na­tional Stu­dent Ad­vo­cate of the Year at the group’s 2015 Re­spect Awards in Oc­to­ber.

They met a string of celebri­ties at the ritzy Bev­erly Hills af­fair, in­clud­ing Ju­lia Roberts, Jim Par­sons, and Zachary Quinto. Justin Tim­ber­lake and wife Jes­sica Biel even name checked Hall­man twice while ac­cept­ing GLSEN’s In­spi­ra­tion Award.

“It was a bit mind-blow­ing to know that the peo­ple around me that I hero wor­ship turn around and tell me that I was a hero,” Hall­man says of the night. “It was a re­di­rect­ion of en­er­gies that I never ex­pected.”

But while hang­ing with celebri­ties stood out, Hall­man’s fa­vorite part was eat­ing din­ner with who they call “the real celebri­ties for me,” the Na­tional Youth Coun­cil for GLSEN.

“They were just th­ese nine kids like me who stood up for them­selves and LGBT com­mu­ni­ties in their towns,” they re­call. “They’re from all over the place and they’re like me, they’re my age. I have friends who are activists!”

The next fight and be­yond

But the work con­tin­ues for Hall­man and other LGBT stu­dents at Ber­rien, who say that anti-LGBT in­ci­dents con­tinue at the school, with one dif­fer­ence from be­fore the GSA be­gan meet­ing.

“The stu­dents who are out, or even the stu­dents who aren’t out, are a lot more com­fort­able re­port­ing the in­ci­dents and get­ting help now that they know there’s al­ready a con­ver­sa­tion started,” the now-se­nior says.

Next up on the GSA’s agenda is adding gen­der ex­pres­sion to Ber­rien’s anti-bul­ly­ing pol­icy and adding a gen­der-neu­tral re­stroom. They’re work­ing up a game-plan for that and will present the pro­pos­als to Ber­rien Prin­ci­pal Angie Lovein when school gets back in ses­sion in Jan­uary. The pro­pos­als, just like the one for the GSA’s cre­ation, will then likely go be­fore the school board for a vote.

But the GSA fight wasn’t the only sig­nif­i­cant event for Hall­man this year. Shortly af­ter the club was ap­proved, they came out as non­bi­nary. It would have hap­pened sooner, but Hall­man says they held back out of fear that it would hurt the chances of the club’s cre­ation.

It made them re­al­ize some­thing the 17-year-old will take with them to UGA, Emory, the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, Prince­ton or one of the other schools they ap­plied to when they leave for col­lege next fall.

“I main­tained the la­bel of les­bian to try to make the tran­si­tion of adding a GSA to my com­mu­nity eas­ier for my­self and for other peo­ple around me,” Hall­man says, “and I re­al­ized that I don’t have to sac­ri­fice my­self to wait around for other peo­ple to catch up to me.”

Mars Hall­man says the GSA is plan­ning to pro­pose adding gen­der ex­pres­sion to Ber­rien High School’s anti-bul­ly­ing pol­icy and adding a gen­der-neu­tral re­stroom in Jan­uary. (Photo by Wenda G. Bai­ley)

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