You open the door for one group, you open the door for them all. That’s what Assistant Superintendent of Knox County schools Donna Wright told any high-school principal who was approached by students and faculty sponsors looking to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, a group that can offer students support, champion political causes, or simply promote awareness of LGBT issues.
“I’d ask, well, do you have YOKE [a Christian group]? The Ecology Club? Follow the same procedure,” Wright says.
The first GSA to form was at West High School. “When Conrad Honicker approached Sallee Reynolds, who was still West’s principal then, about creating a GSA, she automatically said, ‘We’re going to do this like any other club that would benefit our students,’” remembers West assistant principal Donna Fielden. “She took some grief. The staff here was totally supportive, but we got ugly phone calls for weeks.
“A lot of them of course did not want to identify themselves. We’d always ask if they wanted to come in and sit down and talk it over, but no one took us up on the offer. I give a lot of credit to Mrs. Reynolds for having the guts. Kitty Hatcher, the principal at Fulton who approved their GSA, is a lot like Sallee. They know that what’s right is not always popular, and what’s popular is not always right.”
Librarian Karyn Brinks heard about the GSA at West about the same time she and a group of students were dwelling on a book called The Geography Club, about a group of LGBT students who meet using the falsely named club as a front. “They were like, ‘Let’s have our own geography club,’” she says.
Colton McClain, a junior at Central High School, helped get that school’s group off the ground last fall and now serves as the president. “I was afraid for his safety,” says his mother, Robin McLain. “But there are so many kids who are shoved back because they don’t have a place to go to talk about their issues. They would if they were an athlete, or part of a Christian group at school. The more I thought about that, the more proud I was. As scary as it is, someone has to make that first step.”
At the Central GSA’s first meeting, 50 kids showed up, remembers English teacher and faculty sponsor Kevin Thomas. “As we went around the room to share why we were there, it turned out only about one-fifth came because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The rest were just there for support. Some may have been there to disapprove, but if so, it was a very small percentage.”
At Fulton, the GSA draws ire from some who think it’s a recruiting tool, says Brinks. “But it’s not mandatory. And if someone were to say to a heterosexual person, ‘You know, really, heterosexuality is not what’s OK, so we’re gonna need you to change,’ that’s not going to happen. In the same way, you can’t convince someone to be gay who isn’t.”
One parent went so far as to attend a GSA meeting at Central. “A student brought her father and she stood up and said, ‘I think homosexuality is wrong even though Colton is a good person,’” remembers McClain. “The next week, we still asked her, ‘Hey, are you coming to GSA?’ and she said, ‘No, but my dad will be there!’ But the school put someone out to watch out for him, and he wasn’t allowed in.”
Wright is proud that despite such opposition, Knox County has provided the means for GSAs to emerge. “I cannot guarantee the success rate or the sustainability, but they do have the opportunity,” she says.