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.
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.