Allowing gay teens to have a support club is a slippery slope to establishing ISIS training camps in our schools. At least, that’s the logic of people like Winchester, Tennessee, resident John Wimley, who, after learning that local students had formed a Gay Straight Alliance earlier this year, wrote on Facebook that “the next thing you know they will have a F.I.M.A. (Future ISIS Members of America).”
Franklin County High School students formed the Gay Straight Alliance in January to provide a safe space for teens to gather and feel accepted for who they are. This is critical in the tiny town, which is an hour’s drive from the nearest LGBTQ support centers in Chattanooga and Nashville.
The club was met with immediate backlash within both the school and the community at large — from people like Mr. Wimley comparing the GSA to ISIS and calling for meetings to defend so-called traditional marriage, to others posting “straight pride” signs in school hallways in protest.
The story garnered national media attention from LGBTQ news outlets, which has aided in creating a groundswell of support. The group’s Facebook page has exploded with over 2,000 likes from people applauding the GSA students and faculty advisers, and some have even written letters encouraging the students to continue claiming their safe space. One such letter reads, “You are loved, you are powerful, and you are going to change the world!”
On Monday night, during the Franklin County School Board meeting, supporters and opponents of the GSA will discuss its future — and students will learn whether the resource they created to feel safe at school will be protected by their community.
In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges and strides in LGBTQ visibility and acceptance over the past year, it’s perhaps easy to assume that the fight for equality is over. But what’s happening in Winchester mirrors what’s happening across the country, as LGBTQ youth remain under attack — and are in need of official spaces of love and support as much as ever.
Since the beginning of 2016 alone, South Dakota, for example, has advanced bills that force transgender people to use bathrooms associated with the gender they were assigned at birth, deny transgender student athletes the ability to participate in sports activities aligned with their identities, and allow tax-funded discrimination against LGBTQ people and single mothers. States like Virginia and Washington have introduced similar “bathroom bills” designed to police transgender people’s use of public facilities. Of Oklahoma’s infamous 25 anti-LGBTQ bills submitted over the past month, at least six could negatively impact LGBTQ youth and their families.
The Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA Law that conducts independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity, reported in 2012 that 40 percent of homeless youth reporting to service organizations identify as LGBT. And according to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide-prevention organization, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, making the need for access to safe spaces all the more urgent.
Before the school board meeting, GSA supporters and advocacy groups from across the region are holding a rally in the school parking lot. Justin Sweatman-Weaver, co-chair of Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network Middle Tennessee, said that the school system officials and school community itself have shown “extraordinary support for the GSA and the students.” He continued, “The opposition has come from outspoken members of the [Franklin County] community who are not directly tied to the school.”
Students have also found support from the ACLU, which, in December 2015, posted a handy open letter to principals and school administrators across the country about why GSAs have a legal right to exist in every school. What’s more, the scene in Winchester is “creating momentum for new efforts to support the LGBTQ community in rural areas” across the state, said Charles Whitmer, director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace.
A decision to disband the student organization will surely be devastating to those who only a few weeks ago created a place for themselves in their own school. But the outpouring of love and compassion being shown to these students has let them know that they're not alone. And should the school board maintain the GSA’s status as an official group, it will be a much-needed victory for students both local and across the nation; if they can find victory in a small high school in a rural Tennessee town, then perhaps the fight for LGBTQ equality can be won anywhere.