Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with members and former members of the Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance. Thank you in advance to all the brave students who have and will share their stories. Please sign their petition to reinstate teacher sponsor Chris Richeson and follow some of these suggestions for ways you can help. You can read my original post about the UCHS GSA here.
Gus Simpson graduated from Union County High School in May 2016, and he credits non-renewed teacher and Gay Straight Alliance sponsor Chris Richeson with changing his life.
Originally from the Chicagoland area in Illinois, Gus and his family moved to Union County, Tennessee, when his mother remarried.
“The whole scenario was pretty rough for us,” he said. Gus came to Union County with some preconceived notions about the South, and he wasn’t afraid to voice his disdain. But, after taking Richeson’s philosophy class in his junior year, Gus changed his tune.
“After having his class, I kind of rethought a lot about myself,” Gus said. “I was judgmental and rude towards people I didn’t agree with.
“I remember thinking ‘Wow, I’m a jerk. Would I want to be treated the way I treat other people?'”
Now, Gus says he makes sure “I’m not doing harm,” when he interacts with others.
“If we went about things without trying to do harm to one another, we could be a better society,” he said.
Gus, who identifies as heterosexual, said he was spared much of the direct harassment that plagued GSA members when the GSA proposed an after-school screening of “Philadelphia” in March 2016, but he witnessed its effects. One GSA member was reduced to tears when anti-GSA students tore down posters she had created.
“She said, ‘Why are people so mean?’ That really got to me because she is probably one of the kindest people I ever met.”
Gus said most of the GSA membership were what he called “allies,” students who did not identify as LGBTQ or who were not out yet. During the tense times last spring, GSA students were angry and scared.
“We didn’t want them to be subjected to discrimination,” he said. “MLK all the way is what Chris (Richeson) used to say.”
But the harassment did start to affect the allies in the GSA.
“I personally was very frustrated by it,” Gus said. “It got to the point where I wanted to drop out of school because I was so frustrated with it. Being in an environment that was so prejudiced, it makes me feel like I’ve got a stain for coming from that school, and it’s so totally against everything I stand for.”
While the situation did not turn violent, Gus said, “It was very much on the brink. Some people were very aggressively harassed.
Harassment didn’t stop with LGBTQ issues. Gus said UCHS has racial problems as well.
“People would say horribly racist things just in normal conversation,” he said. “While I was there, there were several people of color who would join the school and after a couple of weeks they would be gone.”
And often, the hate followed kids home.
“One of my close friends, he could not mention the GSA at all at home,” Gus said. “He was an ally, he had a girlfriend, but when his father heard that he was in the GSA, he threatened to kick him out. That was the scenario for a lot of kids. I know of one kid who was physically abused because of his LGBT status.”
Gus has some very real concerns for his former schoolmates if there is no GSA at Union County High School in the upcoming school year.
“If Chris doesn’t get his job back or the administration isn’t replaced with people who will support the GSA, I fear that the fate of a lot of kids will be very dark,” he said. “Many of them suffer from a lot of negative mental conditions like depression or anxiety. Being able to come into Chris’s classroom and not having to worry about what people thought of them, it was a great relief. Not having that would be hard on them. The amount of harassment is high.
“I am very afraid for the lives of some kids.”
Gus ended our conversation with praise of Chris Richeson as a teacher.
“I want to say how much Chris has been a positive influence on me,” he said. “I feel like over the past two years he and I have formed a bond that will last well after high school. I think the fact that he was let go is more detrimental than positive for Union County High School.”
If you are a current or former UCHS GSA student and would like to add your voice to this blog, please contact me. I will protect your identity if you wish to remain anonymous.