OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — The message to gays in this rural cattle town is spoken politely, sometimes with a drawl, sometimes quoting the Bible, but the meaning is anything but hospitable.
High school senior Yasmin Gonzalez has been hearing it a lot lately — from kids hanging out bus windows shouting, "Are you the one that's gay?" to the teacher who said homosexuals should die.
Gonzalez, 17, has become something of a target since November, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf against the Okeechobee High School principal and school board for refusing to let her establish a Gay-Straight Alliance, an after-school club that promotes dialogue and tolerance.
"There's so much discrimination here," she says.
She is suing under the 1984 federal Equal Access Act, which ironically was initially pushed by evangelical Christians after some public schools banned after-school prayer meetings and other religious gatherings. The law states that if a public school allows any extracurricular activities to meet on campus it must allow all groups to do the same.
Similar challenges have been mounted by other groups in Utah, Georgia and North Carolina.
But public sentiment runs against Gonzalez in Okeechobee, a town of about 5,500 residents and around 60 churches 70 miles northwest of West Palm Beach.
"I don't think it's right. If they're going to let that in school, it's showing it's OK. In the Bible it says it's an abomination. (A Gay-Straight Alliance) is not a message you want to give your kids," 31-year-old Dave Mangold said, sitting on a picnic bench in the heart of town on a recent afternoon.
The father of three said most people feel the same way in this "small, hick town."
Gonzalez doesn't believe in God or pray anymore, "because you can only be told you are going to hell so many times," she says.
She has never really fit in here anyway. She wears short, spiky hair and dresses like a boy.
Because the school won't recognize Gonzalez's club, she holds meetings at an athletic complex about a mile away. The club claims about 50 members, but only Gonzalez and Jessica Donaldson, who is straight, were there on a recent Wednesday. Gonzalez says most supporters are afraid to talk to the news media or banned by parents who fear it will affect their community standing.
At the same complex, she points to a few kids she's known since elementary school. Some of them, like senior Chris Curtis, don't think her group belongs in school.
"We don't want any part of it. I really can't stand the homosexual mind-set. I see it as a big problem in today's society," said Curtis, who plans to attend the Citadel.
Gonzalez says she never set out to make news, she just wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom. She gathered 500 signatures when the school told her they wouldn't allow same-sex couples, but nothing changed.
When Gonzalez tried to register her club, she said administrators first told her the school didn't allow any (despite listing more than a dozen on its Web site, like Future Farmers of America and Key Club). Later Gonzalez said she was told there were too many clubs, and finally that the school had an abstinence-only policy.
Despite numerous telephone calls, Superintendent Patricia Cooper declined to comment to the Associated Press. The school's attorney, Barbara Weller, also did not return several telephone calls.
Cooper, who attends a Baptist church in the area, did grant an interview to the Florida Baptist Witness, where she requested prayer from fellow Christians about the lawsuit.
"My position was then and remains that we are an abstinence-only district, that our clubs are primarily dealing with curriculum or curriculum-related clubs and organizations and we would decline the request," Cooper told the newspaper. "We are an abstinence-only district and it's abstinence from any kind of sexual behavior, whether it's heterosexual or bisexual or homosexual, whatever it is."
She said she's happy "conservative family values" remain strong in the town.
The school filed a motion in December to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the club is not a "person" protected under the federal act and that the principal was wrongly named.
But attorney Ron Rosenwald, who has been handling the lawsuit for the ACLU, said, "The message that Okeechobee County is sending is that anti-gay harassment and discrimination is an acceptable policy there and that their gay and lesbian students are second-class citizens."
Legal experts say Gonzalez's case is strong.
"It seems that the ability of the schools to deny this student's rights is kind of limited," said Robert Volk, professor of law at Boston University Law School. "A school board acting like this gives free range to individuals who are out there harassing gay and lesbian students."
Gonzalez knows she won't benefit from the suit. By the time anything is decided, she'll be off at college, hopefully studying mechanics.
"You shouldn't have to grow up feeling like you're alone," she says. "It was just terrible. I saw that something was wrong and I'm trying to change it."