By Jeff Walsh
No one will have to remind Kelli Peterson that high school is a time she won't forget. And even if this 17-year-old did forget her senior year, she can just look back on the newspaper and local television clippings, and -- of course -- there was also that MTV News segment.
Peterson, who has been an out lesbian at East High School in Salt Lake City, UT for two years, decided to work on starting a club for gay students last winter.
There was some resistance. Some other students asked to start an Anti Homosexual League to balance Peterson's Gay-Straight Alliance, but despite the obstacles, she and other openly gay students had a place to be themselves when this school year began. "It's a social group, and a support group and a political group all in one," she says.
In February, however, the school board voted 4-3 to ban all extra-curricular activities rather than allow a gay student club to exist. Students protested, staged a massive walkout, and Peterson found herself in the eye of the storm.
The oldest member of the group of roughly 20 openly gay students, Peterson became the voice of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Newspapers around the country featured her name and thoughts about the conflict, and she became a media darling. Over a month later, she still gets about two interview requests a day.
"I've been the most visible," Peterson says. "We've had a lot of adult advisors as far as legal things and media things. And they decided that since I was the oldest and I would be out of the spotlight soon enough, I should probably be the one doing the speaking. In the beginning, I was the only one willing to go on camera and be open about it. That was how the press started recognizing me. That was the start of the whole media circus.
"It's very hectic, very bizarre and very time-consuming," she says. "I was not prepared for any of it. It's weird. It's gotten to the point now where I'm in the newspaper, my mom glances over and says, 'Oh, you're in the paper today.'
'They were going to kill me'
Through the end of this school year, the Gay-Straight Alliance and every other extra-curricular group will meet regularly. Next year, depending on election outcomes (a majority of school board seats are up for grabs), all the clubs might still be banned or allowed. For now, everything's calmed down at the school, she says.
"We are a recognized organization and we're participating in everything the other clubs do," she says. "We're just seen as another part of East High School. Everything's settled down here. I think if people left this up to the students, it wouldn't have been nearly as much a problem. Students would have just gotten used to it and gotten over it like they always do."
Instead, the school made national headlines, and made gay equal rights a hot topic for its students.
"I think, overall, there has been a positive influence over the school," she says. "There are teachers who have posters up in their rooms now that say: 'Degrading, disabling, ethnic, sexist and homophobic remarks are not allowed in here.' And I see those pretty commonly around the school.
"There are also posters that say: 'We are for difference, for accepting difference, for allowing difference, until difference no longer makes a difference.' I memorized that. Those are encouraging. And every now and then, somebody breaks onto the PA system and gives a little quote from the Constitution about Freedom of Speech and Assembly."
Peterson also says several students have come out because of the attention. She thinks many students just want their clubs back, and are not doing this because they are pro-gay. But Peterson says she thinks "it's a little of each."
Nearly one third of the school's 2400 students walked out of school one day, and several hundred took it as a sick day, and marched to the state capitol to protest. "I think the biggest part of the walkout was that students wanted their clubs back at any cost," she says. Peterson stayed in school for the walkout.
"I didn't participate in it, I wasn't allowed to," she says. "Our school administration had gotten wind that there was going to be a walkout, and they didn't do anything to stop it. But, they received a call that said if I walked out and someone saw me, they were going to kill me. So, they hid me away deep within the school and they wouldn't let me out of their sight for about three hours."
But Peterson admits the biggest deal to her was being on MTV News. "I don't know, I'm a teenager, so that's cool," she says, laughing. Although John Norris, who interviewed her for the segment, didn't impress her.
"He was kind of a jerk," she says. "He was bragging a lot and he got all ticked off when we didn't seem all that impressed with him."
Peterson says the school board's decision isn't being challenged.
"We have pretty much given up on them. They're very irresponsible about dealing with their decision," she says. "One of the conditions for walking back in is the head of the clubs and the student body officers got to meet with three members of the school board. When the school board came, I was allowed into the meeting, and one of them said, 'It was a moral decision,' and later said 'It had nothing to do with how he felt about homosexuals.' They did a lot of finger pointing, and whose fault it was. They said it was outside pressure, basically admitting they did this because of their opposition."
Peterson feels more people have supported the students over the board throughout the state. "There have been so many things everywhere, all over Utah saying they don't support it, and they said they made a mistake," she says. "I don't think this is going to be over for a long time, until a decision is made and stuck with."
'That's when the first domino went off...'
Peterson's first problems in school were in her freshmen year, when people began assuming she was gay.
"I know a lot of people whose lives are just like that, people just assume they are gay and they have problems long before they come out," she says. "I wouldn't say Utah is necessarily as violent as some of the other high schools, but we do have our share of people who don't seem to understand it."
Eventually, Peterson confirmed their rumors.
"There was a bunch of guys in drama bugging me that I liked this guy in there, and I finally just said 'No, I'm gay.' I don't think it was made as public though," she says. "It was more just rumors going through the school, nobody would really act on it.
"I really started putting a name to what was going on with me when I was about 12 years old. I'd always had very close relationships to my friends who were girls. And I just was not interested in guys," she says. "I don't know, it was when I was in seventh grade and I took health. There was this brief mention of homosexuality, of liking a person of the same sex when I really started to put a name with everything else. I wouldn't admit it then, but that's when the first domino went off in a line of thousands."
Peterson also started reading "The Pillar," a local gay newspaper. "I'd get copies and I'd hide it," she says. "I'd look at it when I didn't think anyone was going to catch me."
'It's like the Salem Witch Trials...'
Peterson told her family she was gay last June. Fortunately, her parents had a problem with the church in their very-religious area, so it wasn't too bad for her.
"My parents were baptized LDS (Latter Day Saints), but they're very angry at the church. I don't know why, but they are," she says. "They had me baptized, so I'm sure when I turn 18 there'll be a whole new media circus when I'm ex-communicated, so I'm preparing myself for that.
Peterson says religion is a dominant force in Salt Lake City.
"In Utah, nothing is open on Sunday. There was this little market that opened up a couple blocks away from me. And it was owned by an agnostic family, and so they stayed open on Sunday," she recalls. "All these families from the neighborhood around it gave it petitions asking it to close on Sunday in honor of the Sabbath. It's a very heavily religious place. The only thing I can compare it to is 16th Century Massachusetts, it is scary. It's like the Salem Witch Trials at times.
"I have this ongoing internal debate as to whether I should stay here or not. I don't want to stay here, but I think I should. Physically, Utah is incredibly beautiful. But politically, it's getting to be the ugliest place on earth."
'We're going to win this one'
Peterson is currently dating, and is planning to go to an alternative prom sponsored by her group and others. She says the demand on her by the media and her studies has made it difficult to spend time with her girlfriend.
"This has really forced us closer. We've had to work to spend time together," she says. "If this did us anything, it's improved our relationship."
Fortunately, Peterson's girlfriend was already out to her parents, so they didn't get "shocked" to see their daughter's "friend" on TV.
But the demands on Peterson have taken their toll in other areas. "My body is breaking down. I have been constantly sick at some level or another for the last few months. I didn't get sick during the heavy firing line things, but now that it's starting to slow down a little bit more, I'm starting to really feel it," she says.
Peterson will be attending college in the fall, and is looking toward a very appropriate vocation. "I've always wanted to be a teacher, so I'm going to try and get my degree in that," she says. "I'm not sure if I'll be able to teach in Utah."
Many teachers end up being role models for the young minds they shape, so in that capacity, Peterson's getting some good experience, however unplanned.
"I didn't intend to be anybody's role model. And I didn't look to myself as the stuff for role model material," she says. "I think I've been forced into that position, and I'm trying to deal with it as best as I can."
Her advice to other teens? "High school has been really difficult for me. I just would tell other kids to be patient and someday or another we're going to win this one."
Peterson will probably stay on the front lines, since she's been an activist for a while, just not for gay issues. "I was more interested in political injustice, and I didn't look at this as political injustice at the time. I looked at this as more of a civil rights movement," she says. "I was fighting more for the release of Leonard Peltier, and Indian rights, different things like that."
But with national exposure in politics before she can even vote, Peterson isn't sure what her role will be in gay equal rights issues.
"I don't know what kind of effect this is going to have on my future," she says. "But, if I'm needed in gay rights that's where I'll stay."