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SPLC Salutes Students Standing Up For Their Rights

As the school year draws to a close, the SPLC salutes just a few of the students this year who fought the good fight, challenging homophobia and gender discrimination in their schools.

As the school year draws to a close, the SPLC salutes just a few of the students this year who fought the good fight, challenging homophobia and gender discrimination in their schools. If it’s true that young people are our future, the future is looking pretty diverse, free and fabulous. We hope you are as inspired to read about them as we at the SPLC have been to work with them.

Kiera and Shay, Davidson High School, Mobile, Ala.
JROTC: Do ask, do tell
For JROTC cadets, the annual military ball is the highlight of the year – very much like the prom but with a heavy dose of military tradition and etiquette. Like any good cadet, Kiera, a graduating senior, went up her chain of command for permission to bring her girlfriend, Shay, who wanted to wear a tuxedo.

Kiera and Shay at a military ball

Kiera was surprised and disappointed when her commanders told her Shay would be required to wear a dress because that’s what girls wore. One commander also suggested that some students and parents would be so upset at seeing a girl wear a tuxedo that it would be like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Armed with knowledge that a federal court in Mississippi ruled that a lesbian student had the First Amendment right to wear gender non-conforming clothes to a prom, Kiera wrote us for help – just one day before the ball. We quickly sent a letter to the school explaining Kiera's and Shay's rights, and the school relented a few hours later.

Anoka-Hennepin students with their lawyers

The Students of Anoka-Hennepin School District
Baby, they were born to survive
When Kyle Rooker sang "Born This Way” to a packed studio audience of the Anderson Cooper show on CNN, it was hard to find a dry eye in the house. Kyle and his classmates had just finished describing the years of verbal and physical abuse they had endured because they identify as (or were perceived to be) LGBT. In July 2011, the SPLC and our co-counsel sued the school district for failing to take effective measures against anti-LGBT harassment, and for maintaining its mean-spirited "sexual orientation curriculum policy." Our lawsuit – and the bravery of these students – paid off when the district agreed to a five-year consent decree that includes comprehensive training programs for all students, teachers and school officials. The decree also requires the district to enact new policies mandating that allstudents are entitled to a respectful learning environment. As did all the students we represented, Kyle proved definitively, "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track, baby. I was born to survive."

Sara Couvillon, a sophomore at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., was told by school officials in August that she could not wear a T-shirt that displayed the slogan “Gay? Fine by me.”

Sara Couvillon, Hoover High School, Birmingham, Ala.
Free speech? Fine by us
"Gay? Fine by me" seems like a pretty innocuous statement. But when Sara Couvillon, a sophomore, wore her T-shirt proclaiming that sentiment, school officials apparently found the message so distressing they pulled her out of class. The officials claimed they were fearful other students would be so enraged by Sara's message they would threaten her safety – even though Sara routinely had worn the same shirt the previous school year with nary a harsh word from her classmates. The SPLC explained to the school that the right to freedom of expression doesn't stop at the schoolhouse gates, and later the same afternoon, school officials agreed that Sara could wear her shirt. Maybe they finally got the point of her shirt?

Elizabeth Garrett

Elizabeth Garrett, Brookwood High School, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Warning: Students have free speech rights

Earlier this year on a chilly winter day, sophomore Elizabeth Garrett decided to wear her new sweatshirt to school. On the front, the shirt humorously proclaimed, "Warning, This Individual Infected with ‘The Gay.’ Proceed With Caution." Elizabeth didn’t expect any trouble, so she was surprised when a school official told her to take it off or be punished. With the help of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, we told Elizabeth's school that students have a First Amendment right to peacefully express their support for LGBT people. The school responded with a statement affirming Elizabeth’s right to wear her sweatshirt and free speech rights for all students at school.

Hunter Mahaffey

Hunter Mahaffey, Hueytown High School, Birmingham, Ala.
Studly behavior
One Friday after school, junior Hunter Mahaffey went to the mall to get his ears pierced and fitted with small, metal stud earrings. He didn't think it would be a big deal; after all, plenty of students at school wear jewelry. That Monday, though, school officials ordered him to take out the studs, citing a policy that says only girls can wear earrings. To Hunter, the rule sounded as silly – and as discriminatory – as mandating that only girls could wear the color pink. On Hunter's behalf, we explained that the school's policy reflects unlawful sex stereotyping about males and females and that we will file a lawsuit unless the district changes its policy. The district has until June 15 to respond.

Isabella Nuzzo

Isabella Nuzzo, Hardin County High School, Savannah, Tenn.
Worth a parade
Savannah, a small town in Tennessee, lies between Florence, Ala., and Jackson, Tenn., and it's definitely not on the gay pride parade circuit. Isabella Nuzzo, a senior, and her friends wanted to change that. They organized a Week of Pride at school, during which students could peacefully express their support for LGBT rights through slogans and gay pride symbols, such as rainbows. Isabella, who is not gay, made a shirt that said, "Gay Pride. Speak Up, Speak Out, Be Proud." An assistant principal quickly put the brakes on the festivities, citing a school policy against speech that "promotes" or "advertises" sex. (As if rainbows equal sex). On Isabella's behalf, the SPLC demanded that school officials stop censoring students or face a federal lawsuit. The district has until June 12 to respond.

Curious about your rights at school? Find out more here.

Christine P. Sun is deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.