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High school lesbian urges bullies to let them 'participate like everybody else'

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Desiree Shelton, Sarah Lindstrom
Desiree Shelton, left, and Sarah Lindstrom talk to a reporter prior to the Royalty Court procession at the Snow Days Pep Fest at Champlin Park High School Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 in Champlin, Minn. The school district agreed to let the lesbian couple walk together after a mediation session Saturday, one day after the teens filed court papers.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

A lesbian student who sued her high school for the right to participate in a winter dance event with her girlfriend said bullying takes a toll on gay teenagers.

Champlin Park High School senior Desiree Shelton said several of her gay friends have transferred or dropped out of school because of bullying. 

Shelton spoke with MPR News this week about the impact of discrimination and bullying. The high school senior and her girlfriend, Sarah Lindstrom, gained national attention when they sued their school for not allowing them to participate in the Snow Days pep rally. The couple had been elected to the winter dance royal court, but the school objected. A federal mediator resolved the dispute in the students' favor.

MPR's Tom Crann spoke with Shelton this week. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

Tom Crann: I want you to take us back to January 1st. You were allowed to walk in the Snow Days pep rally after suing Champlin Park. It went to federal court, and you spent some time with a judge in mediation. So after all that, what was it like when you finally got to be Snow Days royalty? Tell me about the experience.

Desiree Shelton: It was kind of scary because there'd been so much attention, so going into it we were just really nervous and most of the people did some funny thing when they walked, and we just kind of rushed it along, and I guess didn't enjoy it as much as we could. But it was still fun, and we got a lot of support for it, which was really nice and surprising.

Crann: One of the things I read from the school board is that some people said they were worried about teasing, that you'd be teased, and they wanted to, if you will, shelter you from that. What do you make of that argument? Did you hear people say that?

Shelton: Yeah, I kind of thought it was just kind of ridiculous because we're both out and everybody knows, or they knew we were a couple. And nobody had a problem with it, so I mean it would've gone just fine, I think, if there wasn't all the attention.

Crann: When you say nobody has a problem with it, is that true universally, pretty universally, of students at Champlin Park? 

Shelton: I know a few of my friends have had some trouble with bullying.

Crann: Over sexual orientation or other things?

Sarah Lindstrom, Desiree Shelton
Desiree Shelton, right, and Sarah Lindstrom walk as a couple into the royalty court procession as students cheer in the background at the Snow Days Pep Fest at Champlin Park High School, Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 in Champlin, Minn. The school district agreed to let the lesbian couple walk together after a mediation session Saturday, one day after the teens filed court papers.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Shelton: I've known a couple male students that actually transferred or dropped out because of the bullying towards them. And I had a couple lesbian friends that because they looked more androgynous, there were boys shoving them into their lockers and stuff, but they actually had help from the staff, who got that resolved.

Crann: When you say help from the staff, from the school, from teachers or staff members?

Shelton: Yeah, they let one of the assistant principals know and he kind of cleared that up for them.

Crann: Have you been personally bullied yourself?

Shelton: Up until the Snow Days thing, no. I guess my appearance, since I'm more androgynous, I've had some people, like, 'Yo, dyke,' or stuff like that, but up until Snow Days, there hadn't been anything. During the time of Snow Days, there was some online messages from people saying, like, 'You better watch your back,' and stuff, but after it blew over, there was nothing.

Crann: Now you know that things have changed in that regard from your parents' generation, my generation, and that is you might be threatened in person at school at your locker or you'd be made to be afraid that something might happen after school, but now online it takes on a totally different, at least to someone in my generation, a totally different thing. Do you regard the in-person bullying or online as the same? Or is that more threatening, less?

Shelton: I kind of think that online is a little bit more threatening, especially when it's anonymous because you're not aware of who it's coming from, so you don't really know what to expect. But as far as the online bullying, I've never had anyone actually approach me, so I guess it's just like them being too afraid to show their face, so it could go either way with that.

Crann: What do you make of the people behind those anonymous threats? Does it bother you that there are people who are willing to do that, whether they're anonymous or not?

Shelton: I guess it would only bother me because I feel like on this subject they're a little bit ignorant and they don't know the whole story and they're just making assumptions, or they have certain beliefs that they're closed mind about and they're not willing to see it any other way. And I mean I guess it could go a lot of ways for other people because I'm kind of ignorant on their way of thinking. 

I can't expect them to accept it, but as far as the threats go, that's not necessary. You can have your opinions, just be, I don't know, courteous with them. I don't know if that's the right word, just respectful conversation. That's what I'm about is I'll respect your opinion, you respect mine, and no anonymous threats.

Crann: And what do you think is under that, that people are willing to make threats over this or other differences? You mentioned ignorance. So, what would you say they're ignorant of?

Shelton: I know girls at school can be catty, so when ... they saw me and Sarah doing the whole suing the school thing, they just kind of took it as, 'You guys just want attention. That's what you're looking for. You're just making this all about yourself.' 

And that's where I think that the ignorance comes in because they don't understand that it's not about that. We don't want attention. We didn't ask for it. We just want to participate like everybody else, and we feel that it's what we deserve, so we're going to fight for it.

Crann: For students at either your high school or other high schools who may be dealing with bullying or intimidation about their sexual orientation, what would you say to them?

Shelton: I guess just be yourself and this is who you are and you're not going to be able to change it, and you shouldn't have to hide it because you deserve the same rights and respect as everybody else. And just be proud of who you are and represent it with everything you have. 

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)