Desiree Shelton: Why I Fought Back Against Discrimination

Desiree Shelton is an out lesbian and a senior at Champlin Park High School, in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District.  She and her girlfriend, Sarah Lindstrom, were elected to the school’s Snow Days royalty court for the winter formal dance. They sued their school district—with the help of lawyers from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Faegre & Benson LLP—after school officials said they couldn’t walk together in the traditional couples’ processional for the royalty court at the school-wide Snow Days Pep Fest assembly. The district settled the case, and on Monday, January 31, 2011, the two girls walked in the procession hand in hand as their classmates cheered.

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By Desiree Shelton

Lately, everyone seems to have a strong opinion of this whole Snow Days controversy, and I feel like it’s important for me to explain why we did what we did. This was more than a high school Pep Fest—it was about basic rights and the ongoing fight for equality that seems so hard to win, even in 2011.

In the beginning, after Sarah and I found out that we were both nominated as royalty, a couple of people suggested that we should walk together during the procession, matching tuxes and all. We thought this was a great idea, and we talked to two straight male friends, who were also on the royalty court, who agreed to walk together so that no one was left out. Sarah and I were really looking forward to being able to share this occasion together and also thought this would be a great opportunity to send a positive message to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and its allies (after all the bad media the school had been getting about the gay-related suicides) by showing other students that LGBT students can express ourselves, defy gender roles, and still be treated as equal to other students, and not feel ashamed or hide “in the closet” for fear of harassment. We felt that even something as small as having two lesbians walk in the procession together could have a big impact on other LGBT students.

But then, last Tuesday, January 25, 2011, the week before the procession, we were told by the administration that we were not going to be allowed to walk together. They had a number of ridiculous excuses, such as “the tradition was one boy and one girl” and “it could make some kids uncomfortable.” I don’t think they expected us to question why we couldn’t walk together, but I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal.

The next day, Sarah and I went in with a couple of supportive teachers to meet with the principal. The principal did thank us for coming to him with our concerns and giving him a few things to think about that could help him become a better principal for all his students, which I appreciated. He said that he would have to talk to the district superintendent and school board about it, though, so we scheduled another meeting for the next day.

Later, we heard that they were thinking about having everyone walk individually instead being paired up. So much for tradition! We were angry that they were changing the procession only because we wanted to walk together. What kind of message was that going to send to LGBT students and allies, and the rest of the student body—that we didn’t deserve to be treated as equally as everyone else? That is blatant discrimination.

On Thursday, we met again with the principal after school. He and the school district had come up with what they thought was a solution that they thought would be comfortable for all the students: to cancel the procession and have the royalty already onstage at the beginning of the Pep Fest. But they were only coming up with these changes because they didn’t want us to walk together. That was discrimination. It was also denying us the chance to send out a positive message to the LGBT students and allies, which was the main reason I wanted to participate in the Snow Days royalty court.

I couldn’t just sit back and let that happen. I wanted to do my part for the LGBT rights movement, no matter how small. Also, they were getting rid of a part of the Pep Fest that I know a lot of the other people on the royalty court were looking forward to. I didn’t want that taken away from them either, because they deserved to have their moment in the spotlight as well.

Later that afternoon, Sarah and I were put in touch with some amazing lawyers at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). When we told them what was going on, they wanted to help us out. That night we met up with a fantastic lawyer from the law firm of Faegre and Benson, who was working with NCLR and SPLC, to talk about the situation and figure out if there was a possible case. Our lawyers worked at amazing speed all night on Thursday to get everything in order. We couldn’t have asked for anyone better to help us.

The next morning, they sent a letter to the school and the district, asking that they change the procession back to the way it was traditionally, and allow Sarah and me to walk together. The district had until noon to respond, but they didn’t, so the lawyers filed the papers for the lawsuit.

Later that night we were told that a court hearing had been scheduled for Monday morning, but first there would be a mediation session on Saturday. It would be one last chance to see if there was some way to find common ground and create a solution that worked for everyone.

To our surprise, at the mediation, the school district worked with us—with the help of the judge—to come up with the solution that any member of the royalty court would be allowed to bring any significant person in their life to walk with them during the procession. Not only could Sarah and I could walk together, but our friend Chelsea could walk with her girlfriend, and any other member of the court could bring a boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend/parent/etc. to share the experience with them. How could anyone be upset with that? On top of that, the school district also agreed to include Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and other groups in event planning to make sure that all school events were inclusive to all students and that no one was left out. The outcome of the mediation session was absolutely phenomenal and was everything we asked for, and more.

One thing I would really like people to realize is that this was never about getting attention. This was only about Sarah and I wanting to share a special event together, and about showing other LGBT kids that they don’t have to be afraid to be who they are because they are not alone. We were denied a privilege that straight couples have always received, which is not only against the law but also was sending a very hurtful message to LGBT students that we are not equal to our heterosexual peers. Sarah and I are human beings who deserve the same respect, rights, and opportunities as everyone else, and when push came to shove, we were ready to shove right back. We stood up for something we believe in, and out of that came an amazing change for the school district that I hope will continue to change a lot of things for LGBT students in the future.

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

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