By Sarah Horner -
Couple march together; 'I didn't care about winning; I just wanted to walk'
It was a tough fight for a short walk, but Desiree Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom said it was worth it.
After nearly losing the chance last week, the openly gay Champlin Park High School couple walked hand in hand into the school's annual Snow Days pep fest Monday. Hundreds of students cheered them on.
Following a sea of satin dresses worn by other female students elected to the royal court, Lindstrom and Shelton, both seniors, wore matching black suits, pink ties and big smiles as they made their way to the stage at the front of the school's fieldhouse. Neither was named queen, but both said the occasion marked an important victory for the couple and the broader gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
"This was about more than just me and my school," Lindstrom said. "I didn't care about winning; I just wanted to walk."
Lindstrom and Shelton almost didn't get that chance when school officials decided last week to change the format of the procession after learning Shelton and Lindstrom wanted to walk in together.
Traditionally, members of the school's 24-member royal court march in as male-female pairs. When Lindstrom and Shelton asked to participate as a same-sex couple, school administrators decided it would be more comfortable for everybody to have students instead enter individually or with an adult considered important in their lives.
The pair sued the Anoka-Hennepin school district with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a Twin Cities law firm, and administrators changed their decision during mediation Saturday. The issue was the latest battle for the district, which has been under a spotlight the past few years for its handling of gay issues.
The royal court was allowed to walk in Monday with any person meaningful in their lives, said Samuel Wolfe, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lindstrom and Shelton chose each other.
"It's a bit of a relief," Shelton said after the coronation. "We were really nervous anticipating what might happen ... but it felt amazing."
Champlin Park Principal Michael George said the school was glad the issue was now in the past.
"I have seen this as an opportunity, really as an opportunity for reflection," George said. "I am feeling really good about the situation. It allows us to continue our mission to honor and respect some wonderful students."
He said community feedback about the decision has been mostly positive and the district would continue to discuss how to handle such events in the future.
Lindstrom and Shelton weren't the only same-sex pairing at the coronation. Two sets of male students marched together, and a lesbian student was escorted by her girlfriend. When Lindstrom and Shelton entered, students cheered. Some even stood and waved signs in support.
Wolfe said the response was encouraging.
"I am really optimistic that this will be the start of a new chapter for the district," Wolfe said.
Emily Boevres, a senior, said she was impressed with the response of her peers.
"I think people enjoyed it a lot more than they expected," Boevres said. "After four years of pep fest, I think this is the most unified I've seen everybody."
Darryl Davis, a sophomore, said that although he was raised to disapprove of gays, he didn't mind watching Lindstrom and Shelton walk in together.
"I guess it was cool, but I say they should have dressed up in dresses and not those suits, because they kind of looked weird," he said.
Lindstrom said that the past couple of weeks have been whirlwind for the couple and she was excited to have life slow down again. It was all worth it though, she said, particularly because she no longer has to hide who she is.
"A couple weeks ago, nobody really even knew I was gay, and now I'm out to the whole nation," she said. "That feels good."
Gay rights organizations have closely watched the Anoka-Hennepin district in recent years.
In July, parents and community leaders gathered at district offices to urge changes to anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies after Justin Aaberg, a gay student, committed suicide. He was one of seven students — five from the district and two from affiliated area schools — who killed themselves over the past 15 months. Four were reportedly bullied for being gay or thought to be gay, activists said, although the district had argued that bullying was not a factor in their deaths.
In 2009, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights ordered the district to pay a student $25,000 after two teachers allegedly called him a cross-dressing homosexual with a "thing for older men," according to the department.