Tennessee: Yearbook profile of a gay student provokes controversy

Edmund Broch May 5, 2012
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The publication of an article about a gay student in the yearbook of Lenoir City High School has provoked outrage, after one of the board members of the school wrote a blog-post asking for the journalism teacher to be sacked, and for a police investigation into the matter.

The article in question is about a student Zac Mitchell, who is openly gay, and where he describes his coming out, his family reactions, a cross-dressing experience, and donation to gay-rights organisations. A high-resolution picture of this piece, with the full text of the article, can be accessed by clicking this link.

The article was written by a female student who remains anonymous, and included for publication by James Yoakley, who teaches journalism at the school based in Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville.

However, one school board member, Van Shaver, immediately denounced the move in very strong terms on his blog, in a post titled “It’s not OK.”  He called the publication of the article “despicable,” and called for an investigation by both school administrators and law enforcement into the matter. It is unclear what law, if any, the article is meant to have broken.

Mr Shaver said in his post that while some “may believe” it’s okay to be gay, “it’s darn sure not OK for teachers to be promoting homosexuality in our schools.” He goes on to note that Mr Yoakley refused a few years earlier an article about Christianity in the Panther Press.

However, has learnt that this is not the case. While Mr Yoakley refused to publish the religious article originally two years ago (which can be found by clicking this link), it was more on account of the fact that it linked a medical issue to a religious “miracle.” It has been Mr Shaver who has been arguing otherwise. In the end, under presser, the article did appear in print, according to the Student Law Press Center. What was censored earlier this year was an article defending the rights of atheism, and the separation of Church and State, which was voted down by the City Superintendent, Wayne Miller.

Mr Shaver goes on to add:

Some might think I’m intolerant toward homosexuals but that would be wrong. If an individual wants to be a homosexual, that’s their own decision and they will have to live with the consequences of that decision. What I am intolerant of is an adult, a teacher no less, inflicting their personal beliefs and sexual orientation decisions on impressionable students.

If in fact it was Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher who allowed this article to be published in the year book, they should be dismissed from the school immediately. If it is found or known that Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher at any time has had any conversations or discussions with this student or any other student about their sexual orientation, sexual activities or anything about their private lives prior to those students being of legal age, those teachers should be charged with child sex abuse by an authority figure and arrested.

Local news media report that petitions are now being circulated not only for Mr Yoakley to be sacked, but also to deny young Mr Mitchell the right to attend his graduation ceremony.

The yearbooks were distributed Friday. By Monday, local blogs had taken up the fight both for and against the article and the yearbook’s faculty adviser, James Yoakley.

“I have received an unbelievable number of emails from parents and concerned citizens,” said Steve Millsaps, Principal of Lenoir City High School.

According to students, who spoke to local media, petitions were being circulated urging others to tear the page bearing the article from their yearbook as a sign of protest during graduation.

The 17-year-old female student, who wrote the article, said in a statement: “There have been threats made starting with, ‘If I found out who wrote the story,'” and hence, has remained anonymous.

Tennessee was about to pass a controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would have prohibited discussions of sexuality and gender identity through primary and middle schools, but it looks set to be dropped, partly due to lack of support, and partly due to assurances the sponsor said he received from school heads in the state.

More: Americas, Tennessee, US

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