Community Journalism, UCHS GSA

Voices from the Other Side

About a week after Chris Richeson and several GSA students spoke to the Union County school board, I got into a Facebook discussion with someone who thought I wasn’t hearing “the other side.” In these screenshots, the commenter was defending the Union News Leader’s coverage of the event, which I criticized.

Screenshot 1Screenshot 2

Maybe I’m dense. Or maybe I was a bit caught up in the moment. You see, this is a question of journalistic philosophy that I struggle with sometimes. I have no problem championing a cause as a journalist. I have many times, but never on this scale, and never with this much attention. The closest I got was getting smoking banned in Maynardville City Hall, and that didn’t even hold a candle to exposing what appears to be the attempted destruction of the Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance last school year.

So, when I’m on the side of the angels, what other side is there? Should I give a voice to bigotry and harassment of children? I asked for comment from the administrators, and that was it.

What other side is there? Should I give a voice to bigotry and harassment of children?

The answer, and what this poster was trying to communicate, came to me last Monday on the steps of the Union County Courthouse. A young man who attends UCHS talked to me about the GSA. I’ve known this person for about a year, and I don’t think he’s hateful. I don’t think he’d harass anyone. But he was on the other side of the fence on this issue.

He shook his head as he spoke about the GSA. I asked what that was about. He said he had heard (not witnessed) that a GSA student had torn down a poster for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer meeting. No one saw who did it, but “everyone knew,” and this incident touched off the tearing down of GSA posters for a showing of “Philadelphia,” he said. He also claimed that GSA students would confront “random” students about joining the club.

In short, the harassers felt harassed themselves.

I didn’t push him too far for more info. But he did give me food for thought.

I reached out to Richeson for comment. Here’s his response.

“FCA did not have any such posters to my knowledge. One poster associated with the Bible Club, which didn’t exist and was the student attempt at an anti-gay club, was torn down. When I became aware of it I made sure students understood that we wanted to respond calmly, not through tit for tat. That is it as far as I know.

“I can’t speak to whether any student confronted someone over LGBT rights. I never witnessed or heard about anything.  I would think someone aggressively confronting random people would have been noticed.”

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I’ve always said that perception creates reality. The rest of the student body was in no danger from the GSA, but at least some of them perceived a threat. And then there’s this quote: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Students who have enjoyed freedom to express their sexuality and religion at school their entire lives were confronted with something that disagreed with their religion, were confronted with people of other sexualities claiming that sexuality openly. It felt like oppression.

The students who perceived a threat from the GSA Club were incorrect. But for any human, and especially a teenager, some adult telling you something isn’t a threat doesn’t necessarily make it feel less threatening.

What’s the takeaway from all this? I should remember there’s always another side, even if it’s mistaken. And there’s healing that needs to happen at Union County High School. Keeping the GSA active and intact is just one step towards that healing, and I challenge parents, students, teachers and staff to find ways to bridge the divide between these kids.

If you’re religious, and I know the majority of you in Union County are, how about reminding them about grace and love?

They don’t have to agree with each other. They just have to coexist.

2 thoughts on “Voices from the Other Side”

  1. Thanks for sharing this side of the story… I can only imagine how difficult and heartbreaking it is to live in this community and see the division when you know there are people on both sides with good intentions. In the end, the job you are doing is thankless and without true compensation. Please know that we have all learned sooooo much about the individuals fighting to be represented by the GSA and about the courage of these students. I hope they find a teacher who is as courageous as they are who will sponsor the club, but if they do not, I am confident these kids will continue to thrive and survive in Union Co. Union County is lucky to have them as future leaders!!


  2. One of the problems with confronting issues like this is the reflexive belief in the false dichotomy that both sides of an argument have equal weight. That is simply not the case. As you said being accustom to privilege makes one feel slighted when things reduce to the mean. IF someone tore down an FCA poster that’s bad, but it doesn’t justify any retaliatory actions.

    I am always suspicious when a highly homogeneous, group of people in the majority, who all share views that are considered normative by the community they live in cry foul when an oppressed minority simply asked for the same share of respect and dignity that the majority enjoys. It’s self insulating protectionism that allows them to claim they are having their right’s infringed on. This community is well invested in that way of thinking in many areas.

    Those “values” and I use that word generously, have hobbled our communities and worst our children in many ways. Watching the culture shock as young adults face a world they are unprepared for is tragic. Many are simply what they were exposed to, and that is not their fault, but the fault of a system that self censor “difference” be it in the name of religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual preferences or local social standings.

    The shock of learning that few if any of these things are rewarded across county lines I’m sure will be jarring for some of these kids. They will have to adapt and grow, or somehow find equilibrium in a world that is putting more value on talent and education over the color of your skim, what god if any you pray to, and who you love. I can only hope that they come to see that everyone deserves equal respect, and that to hate is something more harmful to oneself than it is to the hated.

    For many of these children who have suffered time will prove them out and things will get better. For our community we need to accept that we have done them wrong and do our best to make things right by them, or we could forever lose them to more accepting communities. These maybe our best and brightest, any one could be the next innovator, entrepreneur, politician or humanitarian that forever changes our lives and the direction of this community… if only we show them we care.


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