A yearbook profile about a homosexual student’s experiences at Lenoir City High School, in east Tennessee, has ignited protests among students and parents as well as calls for an investigation from some school officials.
“I have received an unbelievable number of emails from parents and concerned citizens,” Lenoir City High School Principal Steve Millsaps told the Knoxville News Sentinel. The yearbooks were distributed to students last Friday.
The profile, titled “It’s OK to be Gay,” tells the story of student Zac Mitchell. The article was written by another student who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Mitchell said his family has known he was gay since he was three-years-old.
“They knew when they saw me kissing a boy behind the monkey bars,” he said. The article goes on to describe Mitchell’s cross-dressing and being “hit on by straight guys.”
He also talked about bullying and said “he hopes “that he can help people who are struggling with coming out about being gay themselves.”
The outcry in this small Tennessee community has been significant. Students told the Associated Press that petitions were being circulated urging them to tear the page from their yearbook during graduation.
One viewer wrote television station WATE wondering why an entire page was “dedicated to someone because he kissed a boy when he was 3.”
“No one else had a full page dedicated to them and some of the school clubs did not get their group pictures put in it,” the viewer wrote. “I guess we see what is the most important in the high school.”
An email was circulated throughout the community calling the story “vile.”
“It is time to take a stand for our faith,” the email read. “We aren’t being called to risk our lives and go before a king like Nehemiah – but our walls are broken down and our gates are burning. We aren’t called to sit in a prison like Paul – but we are certainly in bondage. We can no longer sit idly by. We live in a world where soon it may be illegal just to speak the name of our Savior.”
Van Shaver, a member of the Loudon County School Board, called for a criminal investigation into the yearbook’s faculty adviser – James Yoakley.
“My concern is that if we have teachers having conservations with underage children about sexual orientation, sexual activities, or cross-dressing – that is a line that I think is a major problem,” Shaver told Fox News. “If the adviser has been found to have inappropriate communication with students, you better believe he should be dismissed.”
Yoakley defended the profile in email correspondence with the Student Press Law Center. He said it was “the right and legal thing to do.”
“The editor tried to capture the school from all the different ways and places students fit into the school community,” he wrote to the SPLC. “She did it quite well. The gay student was just one of many ‘elements’ we covered.”
This is not the first time Yoakley’s journalism students have courted controversy. In February, the newspaper editor was denied permission to publish an essay titled “No Rights. The Life of an Atheist.”
Shaver said he has grave concerns about Yoakley’s actions.
“I personally don’t think the yearbook is the place to be promoting anybody’s sexual orientation or activities – whether it be homosexuals, heterosexuals or anybody else,” he said.”
Shaver said he wanted to stress that he was not attacking the student.
“I have no issue with the young man that was featured in the annual,” he said. “If he chooses to be gay, that’s his choice. I don’t have a problem with that. Everybody can make their own decision how they want to live their lives.”
However, Shaver said that several years ago the same adviser refused to publish a story about a severely injured student who credited her recovery to her Christian faith because it violated the so-called separation of church and state.
C.E. Jackson, III, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Lenoir City’s largest congregation, expressed his concern in an email statement to Fox News.
“Any article in Lenoir City High School’s yearbook that focuses on any student’s past sexual experiences, present sexual practices, or future sexual aspirations is entirely inappropriate and should not have been included in this publication,” Jackson wrote. “This is especially true given the fact that the vast majority of students at Lenoir City High School are technically under legal age.”
However, Mitchell’s story has drawn support. More than 1,300 people joined a Facebook page called “Take a Stand Against the Ignorance in Lenoir City.”
“They have done everything except grab the pitchforks and torches to the school and it is a damn shame,” wrote on supporter. “Let’s prove that love overpowers ignorance.”
Michael Cole-Schwartz, the director of communications for the Human Rights Commission, praised both Mitchell and the student yearbook staff.
The fact is that there are gay kids growing up in towns and cities across the country and it sounds like this story reflects this reality and hopefully has opened up some folks’ minds to the experience of being a gay person in that community,” he told Fox News.
Cole-Schwartz said there was absolutely nothing wrong with the yearbook article.
“I would hope that folks would step back and understand that it is okay to be gay and the experiences of this young person in this town are something they should think about – whether or not their community is welcoming and open to all people,” he said.
Shaw said his decision to speak out has come with a price. He said he’s been getting violent threats from across the country.
He said one national news reporter began verbally attacking him during a telephone interview.
“He was ranting quite heavily about why am I picking on children – why am I not picking on adult gay people who can bash my head,” Shaw said. “The (violent) response has been unbelievable. The only thing I’ve said is that I have a concern about adults interacting with children in an appropriate way.
The Lenoir City School superintendent refused to comment – and Yoakley did not return messages seeking comment.
With reporting from the Associated Press