Tameka Chesney was in the audience at the Union County school board meeting June 23, and she is shocked by the lack of comment by school board members.
“I just can’t believe after all the things that were said and done, the board members didn’t comment at all,” she said.
Tameka graduated from Union County High School in May 2016. Right now, she’s working in retail to help pay her way to the University of Tennessee this fall. She is starting as a sociology major but wants to transition to computer science as soon as space opens up in the program. Non-renewed teacher and former Gay Straight Alliance sponsor Chris Richeson encouraged her to go for UT instead of a community college.
Tameka was “born and raised” in Union County and identifies as heterosexual. She took Richeson’s sociology class, where she learned about privilege, “things you can do every single day that other people can’t do.”
“For one, straight privilege,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about being bullied for my sexuality in school. There’s a whole list, like white privilege, stuff you never even think about.
“I never realized that some people get bullied for these things, which is why I joined the GSA.”
Tameka said harassment of students for sexual orientation was rife during her time at UCHS. She saw and heard a lot.
“It was kind of hard not to, and really if you said anything about it then you could get bullied,” she said. “I tried to help, but I had a lot of friends that would get called ‘gay’ and ‘faggot.'”
According to Tameka, there were differences in how former principal Linda Harrell treated the GSA when compared to other clubs. For instance, posters for the GSA showing of “Philadelphia,” which brought tensions to a head last spring, were only allowed on glass surfaces, which restricted them to the lunchroom area.
“We couldn’t put them up anywhere else in the school,” Tameka said. “The reasoning was that the tape would damage the painted walls, but other clubs put things in the halls. Right next to our signs, there was a sign from another club about selling nachos, which had been up for a month on the walls with tape.
“Which was why I didn’t think the tape was the real reasoning. There was a difference in the way we were treated by (Harrell). It was obvious that she didn’t want us to hang our stuff up, but any other club could.”
Tameka colored more than 100 flyers for the GSA movie screening.
“I worked really hard. We kept putting them up, and they kept getting ripped down,” she said.
One day, she asked a student why he ripped a poster down.
“He said, ‘That’s a poster saying that we all need to be gay.’ They weren’t reading the posters, just ripping them down. So many people in this school are against homosexuals because they were raised to feel that way.”
On another day, Tameka and some friends put new posters in the lunchroom. Two minutes later, they heard cheering as someone ripped the posters down.
“I cried,” she said. “I’m a really emotional person, but all the hard work that I poured into those posters and they didn’t know what they were meant for. They were just doing it blindly. It was horrible, heartbreaking really.”
During this time, many GSA students avoided school altogether, Tameka said.
But even with the events of last spring, Tameka is glad she joined the GSA.
“I feel like it’s made me more open to the fact that there are different sexualities and different genders,” she said. “I didn’t even know that trans people existed, but right now one of my best friends is a trans male. I am more accepting, and I just feel like it’s helped me as a person because I can think outside the box now.”
Tameka said support for Richeson is not limited to GSA members.
“A lot of people who I thought hated Richeson are like no, that’s not fair,” she said.
She encouraged the GSA to remain strong. While the school board affirmed the GSA’s right to exist at UCHS, no one on staff has yet stepped forward to sponsor the club.
“I think they need to continue with fighting for their own rights, but in a calm and orderly way,” she said. “Just like Richeson said, ‘Words not fists. MLK is the only way.’ As long as they stick together, it will be OK.”