Gay students in Winchester, Tennesse, wanted to start a club where they could safely discuss issues important to them: sexual orientation, bullying, and equal rights. They did what students across the country have done. They started a Gay-Straight Alliance, where students of all sexual orientations could meet in a safe place to discuss such issues together.
Winchester is in southeastern Tennessee, the heart of the Bible Belt. Some of the other students and their parents took offense to the notion of a gay students club on school grounds. They went to the school board to complain. They never anticipated that their complaints would go viral. Until now, Winchester, Tennesse, the county seat of Franklin County, has been best known for its Dogwood Festival every May and being the birthplace of singer/actress Dinah Shore. Now, the small town is finding itself at the center of a national controversy about traditional values vs. bigotry.
Franklin County High School (FCHS) has approximately 1,500 students. Roughly 50 students, some gay and some straight, have attended the Gay-Straight Alliance meetings. That’s only 3 percent of the school, but that’s enough to worry some parents. According to CBS News, parents and other concerned citizens in the area worried that gay students were trying to force an unnatural agenda on the other 97 percent of the school.
“There’s really no place for discussion of sexual orientation in a public high school,” Robert Widelick said.
Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal quoted several parents who were opposed to the Gay-Straight Alliance being an on-campus club. Parent Chris Ball said the Gay-Straight Alliance goes against the purpose of a modern high school.
“Schools are for learning the basics we need to get a job after high school or get a secondary education. We’re here to teach subjects, not to promote certain ways of life.”
John Wimley, a leader of the protest, compared having a club to gay students to having a club for would-be terrorists.
“The next thing you know they will have F.I.M.A. (Future ISIS Members of America).”
Wimley has since taken down some of his more controversial Facebook posts and conceded that his ISIS statement might have been “a mistake.” He suggested that clubs dealing with sexuality or religion should meet off-campus, not on school grounds. Wimley insists that there is not a problem with harassment or discrimination for gay students.
“It’s everyone else that’s trying to make it a problem,” he said.
“The response by some students and parents to a new gay-straight alliance club in a rural Tennessee high school exemplifies the actual need for the club’s existence. GSAs exist to promote understanding, acceptance, knowledge, and tolerance, and at Franklin County High School in Winchester, Tennessee, those values are sorely lacking among the local anti-gay crowd.”
Jennie Turrell, the faculty advisor for the Gay-Straight Alliance, says that bullying and harassment against gay students is a real problem at Franklin County High School. Given that posters advertising club meetings were vandalized, she appears to be correct. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gay students are more prone to experience teasing, bullying, assault, and harassment than their straight classmates.
“LGBTQ youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7–12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.”
Franklin County Schools Director Amie Lonas, the Franklin County Schools director, wanted her students to avoid those problems. All she and the gay students wanted was “a safe environment for students to get together and just talk.” The parents opposed to the Gay-Straight Alliance want to protect their children from what they interpret as unnatural perversion. Neither group expected the problems of gay students in a small town high school to go viral and be debated across the nation.
[Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images]