Tonight, Desiree Shelton will walk to the stage to collect her high school diploma. It was a walk four months ago, though, that changed her forever, and maybe her school.
“Freaked out,” “proud” and “big” are some of the words Shelton uses to describe the two-minute walk she and her then girlfriend Sarah Lindstrom made into Champlin Park High School’s Snow Days coronation Jan. 31. Holding hands, they were the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s first openly gay couple to participate in a school-sanctioned event together. The two have since broken up.
At the time, Shelton said she thought the moment would perhaps mean something small for other lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students. Now, with high school behind her, she said the impact of that short walk is still unfolding.
She and Lindstrom were invited in May to San Francisco, where they were honored guests at a National Center for Lesbian Rights celebration. The organization, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, helped the girls sue when administrators said they could not walk in the ceremony together. School leaders changed their minds after a mediation session with the girls and the organizations.
“I had people asking me for autographs because their daughters love me and look up to me,” said Shelton, 18. “We didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal.”
Lindstrom, 18, did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
After learning about a number of potentially gay-related student
suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, Shelton said she and Lindstrom wanted to do something.
“We did it for the kids that are closeted, the ones that are scared or feel worthless because of harassment or torment….We thought even if we could just reach two kids it would be worth it,” Shelton said.
Lauren Slind, a lesbian and freshman at Champlin Park, said their message resonated with her.
“It was really helpful,” said Slind, a friend of Shelton’s. “It just made you feel more open….People stopped saying, ‘Oh, that is so gay’ as much,” she said.
Champlin Park High Principal Michael George said Shelton and Lindstrom helped the school look at traditions “through a different lens.”
He added: “I have shed a lot of tears over this topic….I am passionate about kids feeling safe and belonging.”
Ilona Turner, a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said she hopes the impact of Shelton and Lindstrom’s walk will spread throughout Anoka-Hennepin, a school district being scrutinized for its handling of accusations of gay bullying.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center recently threatened the district with another lawsuit over its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, saying it perpetuates harassment.
District officials defend the policy, saying it is necessary to ensure staff members don’t take a personal stance on sexual orientation. They say it doesn’t keep them from intervening in gay bullying and that the prevention of such bullying remains a priority.
Shelton said the push for change now falls to the students still in school.
“I just hope that the younger kids…continue this work because kids are dying too young,” she said.
In addition to the repeal of the policy – which Shelton said makes discussion of gay issues taboo – she said she would like to see sex-education classes address LGBT students. She also thinks it would be helpful to train staff on how to intervene in gay bullying.
Shelton said her advocacy wouldn’t end with high school. After she is done applying for cosmetology school with the Aveda Institute, she said, she wants to volunteer with an equal-rights organization.
She will always remember Snow Days as a proud moment for her and her school.
“We were so nervous, we just rushed to the stage so we didn’t notice, but people told us later they gave us a standing ovation,” Shelton said of her classmates.
Shelton will give another nod to her identity at graduation tonight: hanging from her navy mortarboard will be a rainbow-colored tassel.
Sarah Horner can be reached at 651-228-5539.