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Name: Kelli Peterson

What She Did: Caught flak after forming high school club for gays

Claim To Fame: Sparked a national debate over student rights

Kelli Peterson hardly had revolution on her mind when she started a group for gay students at Salt Lake City’s East High School. A struggling student who occasionally got beaten up, the 18-year-old Peterson says she was simply looking for a peer group. “I hated high school. I didn’t feel like I had anything there.”

After attending a speech by Candace Gingrich, the openly gay half-sister of House Speaker Newt, Peterson became inspired, and she and 25 other students formed the East High Gay/Straight Alliance in November. But in February, the school board banned all noncurricular clubs rather than allow a gay group to meet. In April, Utah’s state legislature voted to let school boards ban student clubs that “involve human sexuality.” The ACLU is considering a lawsuit. Peterson shied away from the media spotlight, but detractors sought her out. She received a death threat, hate mail, and scorn from relatives. Still, she has no regrets.

She finished high school on a high note–“I really felt like I had friends who understood me,” she says, and her grades improved. “People should not always take the middle ground, because you definitely need to take sides on issues,” she says.

Though the school didn’t recognize the alliance — it won’t appear in the East High yearbook, for example — members still met informally every Friday, and teacher Scott Nelson, who co-sponsored the group, says it’s likely to continue. “Kelli’s definitely a pioneer spirit,” he says. “I think she’s paved the way now for others to follow.”

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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