Mary Elizabeth Lennon, a senior at Charlotte’s Providence Day School, remembers some of the first meetings of her school’s LGBT and straight ally student club.

“We weren’t recognized by the school. We had to meet in the loft above the theater and we sat in the dark,” she said. “We couldn’t have the lights on because we didn’t want anyone to know we were there.”

A lot has changed at Providence in the few short years since. Lennon, 18, was among several student leaders who successfully petitioned her school’s administration for recognition of their “Human Rights Alliance,” or the HRA.

For her work as the HRA’s president, she’ll be awarded the Equality Award at this year’s HRC Carolinas Gala. She was shocked when she found out.

“My parents had nominated me without telling me, so I had no idea I was in the running for it,” she said. “You don’t even know that you’re making a difference until someone else recognizes it. I was just doing what I thought was the right thing to do.”

The journey from darkened lofts to fully-recognized student club required Lennon and her peers to work around conservative parents and a cautious school administration.

Read the rest of this print exclusive. Be sure to pick up a copy of the Feb. 20 print edition at any of our hundreds of Carolinas distribution points.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.