The Facebook discussion is dated Nov. 13, but it wasn't brought to Jackie Kittrell's attention until Jan. 13, when a friend showed it to her son Conrad Honicker, a junior at West High School. The group: W.A.S.P., aka We Are Straight People. The topic: "gay kids at school." A typical post from the discussion: "At west high school the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] is getting on my nerves, they are banning phrases such as ‘thats so gay.'"
The post that really caught Kittrell's attention: "f---ing fagots sucking dick and what not. we need assassinate conrad. ... just needs to f---ing choke to death on a ..."
The post's author, Glenn Pulliam, who turned 18 in July, clearly stated on his profile that he was a graduate of West, 2008, which left little doubt that the Conrad referred to is Kittrell's son, a gay teen who formed his school's Gay Straight Alliance, the first in Knox County, at the start of his ninth-grade year. He has been a vocal—and highly visible-—supporter of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights at his high school and in the community in the two-plus years since.
"The group was kind of going on about ‘straight power,'" says Kittrell. "I believe in freedom of thought and speech, and while I would have been horrified, I wouldn't have reported just that. Where it crossed the line for me was the use of the word ‘assassinate' next to ‘Conrad.' Of course I was concerned. Who wouldn't be?"
Kittrell, an attorney who is head of the Community Mediation Center, posted a link to the discussion as a note to her own Facebook friends. Many of them reported the language to Facebook, which decided to remove the discussion and relieve Pulliam of his administrative position with W.A.S.P. In quick succession, an LGBT-rights advocate joined the open group and ascended to administrator, renaming it Where All Souls Prosper and inviting like-minded people to join, and most of the original members dropped out and the group folded.
West High School administrators are aware of the language used on the posts. "It's not something that makes me happy, but we can't do anything unless they did their entry from a school computer," says Donna Fielden, West's assistant principal. "What students do off campus on their own time, we have no control over. It doesn't excuse it, but at least it was on a blog, not at school.
"I did talk to the parties involved who attend West, which is something us administrators do with all sorts of stuff—when we learn of a conflict between two students in the neighborhood, for example. I am trying to make sure the outside actions won't create a hostile education environment. I talk to the parties so they don't bring it here. We're trying to do our due diligence."
The Knox County school system does have one of the most progressive and comprehensive anti-harassment policies in the nation, and is making other strides in protecting and supporting its LGBT population. Bearden High School, for example, formed the county's fourth GSA just three weeks ago.
"It's not a real big deal," says John Bartlett, the principal at Bearden. "It's a student-led club and as long as they meet the regulations we set up for all our student organizations, it was not a problem for them to start this group. We value every student in our building, and I haven't received any threatening or unhappy phone calls about the club."
A similar emphasis on LGBT-awareness education may be one of the primary reasons that W.A.S.P. originated with a former WHS student, says Kittrell. "Earlier this school year, for a class, Conrad developed and passed out a page-long guide on how teachers can set ground rules for what will be tolerated and what will not in terms of treating fellow students with civility and without harassment," she says. "Remarks on the W.A.S.P. site about, ‘We can't even say, "That's so gay," without getting in trouble' may only mean that the teachers are probably doing a good job. The thing that seemed to trigger the whole group forming around that same time, in October, was straight kids were feeling like their ‘rights' to call people fags were being infringed upon."
Other members of the original W.A.S.P. protest that the aim of the group was solidarity, and they were as surprised as anyone when discussions started veering into the mean-spirited and obscene. (Glen Pulliam agreed via Facebook e-mail on Jan. 26 to be interviewed for this article, but repeated phone calls and e-mail messages were not returned before the publication deadline.)
"I honestly wonder what happened to the group," says 2008 Maryville Christian graduate C.J. Rose in an e-mail interview. "I thought it would be fun, because it was being advertised to us as a group for straight people, not to bash gays, but simply a group where straight people were able to come together and be proud of being straight. I thought this was a good thing, because every group of color, preference, and lifestyle has a voice on Facebook that they can speak through, so why not the heterosexual voice?
"The group wasn't what I thought, though. There was some gay-bashing, which didn't surprise me, but disappointed me. I had hope for the group, though, and even was made an officer... Glen was banned from the group... and we were told it was because he was gay-bashing and making threats. I knew nothing of this, so I was shocked."
Others say that, like any Facebook group, they didn't dwell on the decision to join the first time. "I'm friends with Glenn, he invited me, I'm straight, so I didn't have any reason not to join the group," says Lucas Graham, a 2008 WHS grad. "It's funny, one of my best friends in the whole wide world is gay. On my 18th birthday we went to the Carousel [a local gay bar]. W.A.S.P. was a chill thing—it wasn't supposed to be an angry thing."
Graham says he lost consistent Internet access late in the fall, and was basically gone from the group when the problematic language and discussions began. But when, two days after Facebook removed him as administrator, on Jan. 17, Pulliam formed W.A.S.P. 2.0., a closed discussion group that's invite only, Graham signed up anew, with an entirely different motive than "chilling."
"I didn't like the fact that the other one got shut down, taken over—we have a freedom of speech, too," he says. "We're not trying to incite riots or anything. There's a lot on Facebook that caters to minorities or gay or transgender—they have boards. It's not hard to be straight, but you don't get nearly as much attention.
"And it's not really even that. On 2.0. you can say stuff without people jumping down your throat. It's freedom of speech. We're not so much worried about what's PC. Like a lunch table. Just sitting around with people you have a common bond with."
Ten days after forming, W.A.S.P. 2.0. has 55 members (see box), the majority of them from Knoxville, and more than half self-described as current or former students of West. Since the group is closed, the general Facebook public can't see discussions. Up until Jan. 26, when Pulliam was first contacted for this article, the description for the group was also visible, stating in part, "... the golden rule is not to be gay. If you are a flaming homo sexual, we will find out ... I promise to all members of this group, that it will be done right this time. We will not be taken over by the fags this time."
As of Tuesday, Jan. 27, the description was removed and replaced with the numeral 1.
Rose, who also joined W.A.S.P. 2.0 and was listed as one of three group officers before those descriptions were removed from Facebook Tuesday afternoon, says the private discussions continue in the same spirit as the first group. "I do still feel we as heterosexuals deserve a voice," he says, "However, I hate what this group is, full of hatred, fighting, and gay bashing. It was supposed to be about heterosexual pride, not bashing the homosexual nation. Just because you don't agree with the homosexual lifestyle does not mean you should try to tear down people like that on a public forum. If things continue as they are, I will leave. Perhaps there is another group out there that would be what I am looking for, and if not, perhaps I need to make one."