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True to life

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A budding playwright, Samantha Gellar, then a 16-year-old Charlotte high-school sophomore, was encouraged by a teacher to submit an original play to a contest for young writers. Her play, Life vs. the Paperback Romance, won top honors in the Charlotte Young Playwrights Festival. Winners were told their plays would be produced for live audiences.

In Gellar's case, however, there was a catch. Since her 30-minute production included "lesbian content," contest sponsors told Gellar her play would not be performed. Since the contest was in part sponsored by the school board, certain themes are considered off-limits for child-writers. Masturbation, birth control and sexual orientation are taboo. Other youth plays that won included violent themes and heterosexual intimacy, Gellar said, but two women falling in love and exchanging a single play-ending kiss was a no-no--and a no-show.

At first, Gellar, a lesbian who has been an advocate for gay and lesbian equality at her magnet high school, Northwest School of the Arts, didn't realize she was being censored. But, when the word got out what had happened to a talented teenager in one of the South's largest cities, Gellar became an overnight celebrity, and Life vs. the Paperback Romance became a cause célebre in the fight to eradicate censorship and prejudice.

Gellar knew her play had caused a stir when the day after the story broke locally, her mother, Sandra Gellar, awakened her daughter and said, "In half an hour the BBC is calling back. You have an interview."

On Feb. 5 in Durham, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina honored Gellar with its ACLU-NC Award. The award noted that Gellar "took full advantage of her limelight to work against discrimination, ignorance and the hatred of gays and lesbians, which persists in our society."

Although not produced by the young playwrights' group, Gellar's play has now been produced for audiences in New York City, Toronto and Charlotte. About 100 people, including ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, attended a production of Life vs. the Paperback Romance performed before the awards banquet. Gellar provides the script free of charge to gay and lesbian advocacy groups.

The play is a touching story of two women meeting on a bus, one blind and unworldly, the other a lesbian romance-novel writer. The two develop a meaningful friendship and fall in love. Gellar does an exemplary job exploring themes around blindness. She said her inspiration for using a blind character came from The Miracle Worker, the life story of Helen Keller.

When the play ended, Glasser announced that Gellar, now a high school senior, would receive a $1,000-per-year college scholarship from the national ACLU.

Ironically, censorship has given a boost to Gellar's career, a boost she would gladly forego to live in a just society.

"In my career, yeah, it's a wonderful thing, but I would give it up any day just to be able to live in a city or world where this didn't have to be a problem," Gellar said.

Also honored by the ACLU-NC was Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, which received the Paul Green Award for demonstrating congregational leadership in opposing the death penalty and Durham attorney Melinda Lawrence, who received the Frank Porter Graham Award for her outstanding civil rights work.

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