Two lesbian high school students who fought for the right to walk together as part of a royalty court made their entrances Monday to the cheers of hundreds of classmates.
Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree Shelton wore matching black suits with pink ties and held hands as they entered the Snow Days Pep Fest at Champlin Park High School in Minneapolis' northwest suburbs.
The reaction came as a relief to the couple and school administrators. The district has been stung by criticism of its policies toward homosexuality and the alleged bullying of a gay student who killed himself.
"It felt amazing," said Shelton, adding that she was too nervous to notice dozens rise to give her a standing ovation as she walked in with Lindstrom. "I think we were too focused on getting to the stage."
If there were any boos, they were drowned about by supporters. "I feel so much better," Lindstrom said while surrounded by friends after the rally.
Sarah's mother, Shannon Lindstrom, camera in hand, joined the other mothers of children in the royalty court after the rally.
"They had a lot of courage," she said Shelton and her daughter. "Look how far we've come."
Students voted onto the royalty court traditionally enter the assembly in boy-girl pairs. After Lindstrom and Shelton, both 18, were elected, school officials last week announced a change in procedure: court members would walk in individually or accompanied by a parent or favorite teacher.
School officials said they merely wanted to prevent the two from being teased. But on Friday, two human rights groups sued on their behalf.
On Saturday, in federally mediated talks, school officials relented. The two sides agreed that members of the royalty court would be escorted by anyone meaningful to them, regardless of gender or age.
"This is a new chapter for the district," said Sam Wolfe, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and local assistance from the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre and Benson.
Young women in evening gowns and young men in dark suits walked through a makeshift arch and to the stage during the Monday afternoon pep rally complete with cheerleaders, dance teams and the school band. So did two young women in suits, and the crowd cheered for each one.
"They did great," said Principal Mike George. "I'm proud of our students."
Several of the students in the crowd didn't understand what all the fuss over the lesbian couple.
"Some people are against it, but they don't care if they walk down a stupid runway," said Maggie Hesaliman, 14.
Melissa Biellefe, 16, said, "We're a pretty respectful school. Our rule is just let people be who they are."
Champlin Park is part of the Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota's largest, which has been in the spotlight in the past year for its handling of issues involving gay and lesbian students.
It has been in the crossfire for its policy of "neutrality" in classroom discussions of homosexuality.
It was reached in 2009 as a way to balance the demands of liberal and conservative families, but neither side has been completely happy with it.
The issues flared again last year after a gay student, Justin Aaberg, killed himself. His mother has said she heard too late from Justin's friends that he had been harassed.
Aaberg was one of six students who committed suicide in the district since the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, and advocacy groups have linked some of the other deaths to the bullying of gay students.
However, the district said last month its own investigation did not find evidence that bullying contributed to the students' deaths.