The Teenage Plaintiff

15-year-old LGBT rights activist Bryanna Shelton stays cool amid a firestorm of online criticism

When the ACLU filed a lawsuit May 19 against Knox County Schools demanding that it cease and desist filtering educational lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender websites on school computers, 15-year-old Bryanna Shelton says she had no fears about being named as one of two Knoxville-based plaintiffs. "First off, I'm out, and second, everybody at my school, Fulton High School, has been nice about it and very supportive," she says. "Plus, I have people to talk to if I need to."

But the television appearance on WATE after the news of the suit broke? "Now that was scary!" says Shelton, who prefers goofing off at the lake and chatting on Facebook to answering questions in front of a television camera. "It was nerve-wracking, even though everyone on set was really nice."

Some who commented on the story on the WBIR and WATE websites, though, weren't so nice. Remarks on alone number in the 600s, and one particularly galled her: "‘Gays, queers, and lesbians should not be allowed to attend the same schools as normal people.' It's just one of the many that are crazy!" she says. "We're not a different species. I'm not gonna rub off on them. They were born what they are, and they're not gonna just wake up like, ‘I'm going to start liking girls today.'"

Shelton did post a link to the WATE news segment on her Facebook page, but there a typical comment from about 20 from friends and family read, "You go girl!" and an entire conversation was devoted to whether Shelton did or did not sound country on the video clips ("You saying that I have no accent just kinda made my day!" she writes to a friend). Within a week, a more typical post from her after a trip to the beach reads, "just got back.... wondering how I can be peeling but have no tan at all?!"

Only three schoolmates seemed to notice she'd even been on the air, says Shelton, and she's convinced that all will be forgotten quickly. "I think by the time next school year comes it won't even be in the news for it to hurt me," she says.

She refuses to let the remarks she has read bother her, says Shelton. "But I think there's at least one gay person in every [extended] family," she says. "So those commenters should really, just... watch what they say." And the teen, who is an A student, loves math, and aspires to become a psychologist, notes that she's never had a similar confrontation with an anti-gay adult face to face. "Online, they don't have to live up to what they say. Their face is hidden. They don't think about how I'm just 15, that they're talking about a freshman in high school, telling me I'm so wrong for living this lifestyle. But I didn't choose this, I didn't choose to be born gay."

The teen was tapped as a plaintiff in the suit because as a ninth grader, she'd still be enrolled in high school if it dragged on, and because she had a support system in place and an accepting school environment.

"I know that one of my teachers isn't for gay people, but that day [after the broadcast] he was like, ‘Hey Bryanna, I saw you on television. I'm proud of what you're standing up for!'" Shelton says. "I'm one of the lucky kids I guess. I know at other schools they would have gone through a whole bunch of crap."

Another plus: Shelton had legal permission from her mother, Angie Wright, to participate. "It's very easy for her to be who she is," says Wright, who moved to Knoxville from Pennsylvania about six years ago. "She has a nice little network of support. She has some friends who can't tell their parents and can't speak up and have to stand by and watch things happen, so she's also speaking for them."

Wright is still plowing through the online comments. "I probably read 30 pages yesterday," she says. "Most are very off-topic. I know this is a very Christian area, but I didn't expect it to be so closed-minded. I thought there would be more of a discussion, but it's really a lot of name-calling."

The commenters who bother her most? "The ones who say, ‘Why do these schools even have a GSA? We should be teaching the Bible in school,'" says Wright. "What they don't seem to realize is that we do have Christian after-school organizations. If that's what their kid chooses, fine. Why shouldn't these other kids be able to have a GSA?"

Wright thinks that some of the negative commenters are able to distance themselves emotionally when they make remarks like, "They want to get to your kids and tell them that a wicked perverted sodomite lifestyle is okay."

"I don't think they remember these are real kids; they're so preoccupied with the concept of gay being right or wrong. I feel so sad for them. They're not thinking about the LGBT kids who need help and can't get it. If a kid wants to go to school and look at, they can, but GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network] is blocked. I can just see one of these kids coming home after their parents posted a comment on WBIR, saying, ‘Hey, I have something I need some help with.'"