An openly gay student from Sheridan High School in Arkansas was left reeling recently when he was told that his yearbook bio wouldn’t be published, all because it talked about the fact that he is openly gay and happy.
The student in question, 17-year old Taylor Ellis, had wanted to include his coming out story — in the same way that many other students who had been approached about having their biographies featured had included personal details about their lives — as a way to share with other LGBT students that since his coming out two years ago, he’s found acceptance and a greater strength in his own identity.
The Human Rights Campaign has Ellis’ full bio, which was written up by another student, junior Hannah Bruner, who helps to edit the yearbook. An excerpt reads:
“I use to be scared to say that I’m gay,” Taylor Ellis, junior, said. “It’s not fun keeping secrets; after I told everyone, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
Although the thought of coming out, and the repercussions of doing so, frightened Ellis at first, he found that most of the student body, as well as the teachers, were very accepting of him. “I wrote about it in Mrs. Williams class; it was when I first came out,” Ellis said. “She told me she was glad I shared that with her. We had a stronger bond after that, I think.” ”He had poured himself into it,” Summer Williams, sophomore English teacher, said. “It was one of the best ones I read. I was just so proud of his openness, and his honesty. It was a risk; sharing that with his classmates, but they were very accepting. It was good for him. I could tell he felt better after writing about it.”
There is nothing in the bio that is even remotely political, nor is there anything that at any point reflects badly on Sheridan High School. And yet, a short time after Ellis’ bio was submitted, Bruner and Ellis were informed that the school principal and superintendent thought the bio would encourage other kids to bully Ellis and therefore it would not be published.
Ellis is quoted as saying that his school principal had told him the things in his biography were “personal” and therefore weren’t appropriate for the yearbook. Ellis took exception to this, saying that as he came out via social photography site Instagram, most if not all the students with whom he was likely to come into contact with would already know about his identity. He simply wanted to put out the message that his coming out had been a positive experience. The school has so far refused to budge, though.
Having heard Ellis’ story, however, campaign groups including the Student Press Law Center and the Human Rights Campaign haven’t taken kindly to the school’s line of reasoning and say this act smacks of discrimination.
Last weekend, the Human Rights Campaign sent a strongly worded letter to the school’s Superintendent Brenda Haynes and Principal Rodney Williams, outlining that this act appears to violate Ellis’ constitutional rights.
HRC President Chad Griffin, who in fact has personal ties to the area, said in the letter:
“The censoring of Taylor’s story sends a dangerously strong message to all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students — that their experience is not valid and they shouldn’t have the ability to speak about their true self.
“Growing up in Arkansas, and in fact attending school in Sheridan for a time, I learned the Golden Rule — to treat others as I would like to be treated. Hiding behind misleading claims about your intentions does not change the fact that you have failed to uphold these values that fair-minded Arkansans share. Addressing bullying requires stopping bullies, not muzzling harmless free expression.”
The school district, however, is sticking to its story, with Superintendant Brenda Haynes quoted as saying:
“We must make decisions that lead in the proper direction for all of our students and for our community. We must not make decisions based on demands by any special interest group. The seven profiles will not be published in the yearbook.
We have reviewed state law, court cases, and our own policies. It is clear that the adults who have the responsibility for the operation of the District have the obligation to make decisions which are consistent with the mission of our school. We have done so.”
The fact that the superintendent has labeled the HRC a special interest group does the school’s case no favors, as this is the term that is often used by anti-gay groups and those antagonistic to gay rights. What’s also interesting is the grandstanding in this statement. The line “We must make decisions that lead in the proper direction for all of our students and for our community,” is especially telling. Until this point, the school could have been judged as well meaning — wanting to spare Ellis any bullying — but wrongheaded. One fights bullying by confronting bullies, not by silencing potential victims. Now though, this statement reads dangerously close to the superintendent implying that being gay is the “wrong direction” for students and the “community,” and that it is against the “mission” of the school.
While no suit has yet been filed, it now seems likely that Tyler Ellis’ case will be the subject of legal proceedings. That doesn’t help Tyler Ellis in the short-term, however, whose education has now been disrupted by what was at the very least pointless censorship. It also doesn’t help the dozens of other LGBT students within the Sheridan school district who must now surely feel that they too have been slighted by this pointless act and who might fear that, should they too come out, they could also be discriminated against.
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