It’s been a tumultuous few weeks in the history of the Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance. Heck, I think the club’s history as a whole has been a bit of a wild ride. But at this moment it seems like the school’s administration has done the right thing, and the club is on a good path.
At the beginning of August, I posted that the GSA still had no sponsor to replace Chris Richeson, whose contract was not renewed for another year. The next week, I announced what I learned from my editor at a local newspaper where I freelance, that the GSA had a new sponsor assigned. And the week after that, Richeson and many GSA students were decrying the choice of sponsor. You can see Richeson’s post on my Facebook page. They said the sponsor had many harassment complaints, that it was an attempt to “chill” participation in the GSA.
Here’s a quote from one female student who spoke with me via Facebook:
“There have been about three instances of where I wore a dress to school and I was unfortunate enough to cross his path. I can only describe the way he stared at me as absolutely lecherous. It was unnerving and repulsive to say the least. …Honestly, I and many others are considering not going because the guy is so creepy. I’ll probably still go, but I’ll definitely be wary.”
To make matters worse, a teacher sponsor who volunteered and would have made a much better choice according to students was told he could not because he had a homeroom.
This requires some explaining, for which I reached out to Richeson. According to him, while he was teaching at UCHS, clubs met during the homeroom period, 30 minutes starting at 8:15 a.m. Clubs are assigned Club A or Club B, and every other week Club A or Club B would meet on one day that week.
For this reason, he said, he was told that he could not sponsor the GSA because he had a homeroom. However, he said, other clubs had teacher sponsors with homerooms and met in those homerooms.
I checked this out with sources at the high school, and they told me that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Science Club both have sponsors with homerooms. In fact, they said every club except the Beta Club had a sponsor with a homeroom. My request to principal Carmen Murphy for comment on this topic went unanswered.
So, was the GSA being unfairly targeted by this rule that didn’t seem to apply to anyone else? I started flexing my typing fingers for another blog post on the subject.
But, around lunchtime last Friday, I got a message from Richeson. GSA students contacted him saying that they’d had their first meeting with a totally different sponsor, this one named Jennifer Pointer, a guidance counsellor at the school. They said that principal Carmen Murphy and assistant principal Lance Lay attended the meeting, that they had elected officers, president Josh McBee and vice president Briana Crowley, who granted me an interview earlier this summer for the Voices from the GSA series.
Soon after, Josh McBee sent me an email confirming what Richeson had said. He said the meeting was positive. He said he wants to get the GSA on both Club A and Club B so they can have more meetings per month, that he wants to get last year’s GSA activities going again, and maybe plan some after school activities. With his permission, I gave his email address to some folks I’ve met through all this at GLSEN, PFLAG Maryville and the ACLU, people with resources, people who can help.
And I asked him if it was OK for me to stay in touch. And I will.
I’m optimistic, and you should be, too. In rural East Tennessee, it’s not easy to be LGBTQ, and it’s also not easy to be seen as an ally. In many people’s eyes, that’s just what the UCHS administration are by allowing this club to continue. It took courage and a heart for kids to do what Mrs. Pointer, Mrs. Murphy and Mr. Lay did on Friday, and they deserve encouragement and support. Also in need of kind words are Josh and Briana, and all the GSA students. I hope their year will be full of fun and learning.