Franklin County is a quiet place, with serene wilderness and traditional values: you’ve likely passed through it on your way to Chattanooga or Atlanta. Since the end of 2015, young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in Franklin County have been at the heart of controversy that has drawn attention, and inspired activism, from all over the world.

Just before the dawn of 2016, students at Franklin County High School were approved to start a Gay-Straight Alliance—a student-led club designed to provide a safe and supportive environment for LGBT youth in schools. Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, empower LGBT students and engage the entire school community to create a more accepting and inclusive climate.

In Tennessee, there are approximately fifty GSAs currently registered and supported by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of Middle Tennessee, a local chapter of a national organization that has championed LGBT issues in K-12 education since 1990.

Before the fledgling GSA in Franklin County even could call its first meeting in the new school year, a storm started to brew. At the February meeting of the Franklin County School Board, supporters and opponents of the GSA showed up en masse, provoked by social media activists calling for the elimination of the club. Over 300 people filled the auditorium of Franklin County High School, where the meeting had been moved due to the expected crowd.

About two-thirds of those in attendance were filled with pride inside and out as they waved their rainbow flags and help up signs with messages of support. The other third held flags symbolizing Christendom—a field of white with a red cross inside a blue square in the upper left corner. Many hissed condemnations as children with vibrantly colored hair or gender expansive attire walked past.

Prior to the meeting, students and supporters of the GSA rallied outside the school. This was more than the first event planned for the GSA: it was the first LGBT pride event ever organized in Franklin County.

After hearing testimony, the eight-person board chose to speak generically of policies and practices pertaining to all school clubs rather than take a stand for their students. The fate of the Franklin County GSA was left hanging by the school board, but the storm continued to rage outside of the school and on social media.

On Facebook, a key GSA opponent called upon Franklin County citizens to “ban[d] together and stop this B.S.,” warning that, if the school board failed to act, the next logical step was for students at the school to establish “F.I.M.A. (Future ISIS Members of America).”

The same man later called in the cavalry for help with his crusade:

Its time to get to work, its going to take all of us to stop this attack on our County! We need to get everyone we know to email a member then copy all other members in the email... Then we need to get all our family members, Churches and people we work with to do the same thing.

I have a group called MassResistence that I am working with that fights against gay activists all over the US that is willing to help us…

MassResistance, designated as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, rallied alongside opposing community members at the second school board meeting. Attorneys from the Liberty Counsel, also a designated hate group, joined the fray and offered legal support if the school board chose to disband the GSA—a clear, established violation of students’ rights that would have immediately resulted in a lawsuit.

Supported by outside organizations more aligned with the values held by Klansmen than the best interest of children, outraged citizens and school board members in Franklin County railed against “seasoned leftist homosexual activists,” such as GLSEN and the ACLU, whom they felt were trying to interfere with their schools and conspiring to convert their youth.

Though numbers of activists on both sides diminished for the second school board meeting, GSA supporters remained most vocal. Another rally was held where students shared their stories, local supporters praised their resilience, and a Franklin County alumna read encouraging messages that had come to the GSA from all over the world. Again, the board focused not on the rights of students, but on the micromanagement of student organizations in general. And once again, they remained indecisive.

At the third and final meeting of the Franklin County Board of Education where the GSA would be discussed, supporters and opponents divided the room—now back to the original location of a much smaller cafeteria in a local middle school. After some discussion, the board voted 7-to-1 on regulations that would require students to have parental permission to participate in any school club and would limit faculty advisors to little more than monitors, unable to provide any programmatic support or guidance.

The new regulations weren’t necessarily a victory for the GSA, but they were certainly far from a defeat. It meant that many students at the school would still have access to the potentially life-saving club and its resources.

As Tennessee’s only GLSEN chapter, our leaders were present for all three school board meetings to provide whatever support possible to the students, faculty and supporters of the GSA. For many of us, it reminded us why we do this work—for the students.

Among the GLSEN contingency present for the first board meeting was chapter co-chair Del Ray Zimmerman. For Del Ray, whose own experiences of bullying and harassment brought him to join GLSEN, it was powerful moment.

I originally hail from Franklin County, where standing out or being different is not necessarily appreciated. That’s why I was so proud when students at Franklin County High School founded a GSA. And that’s why I’m so proud GLSEN could support them in when they were being threatened by parents and school board members. I was horrified to find such angry people – some I know personally – who are willing to dismiss these young people and deny them the opportunity to create their own safe space.

As I’ve gotten to know some of these students better, I’m amazed at how resilient they are. They’ve exhibited heroic courage in the face of bullies, protesters, and a conservative school board. They are smarter and much more aware of their place in the world than I was at their age. I want them to know they can live with authenticity, dignity, joy, and purpose, and I will continue stand with them and future generations so they have what they need to flourish in school.

In a flash, life has come full circle for me. I have a responsibility to give these students encouragement I wish I’d had. I’m thankful to be able to bring the research, tools, and positive influence of GLSEN home where they are so desperately needed.

Allie Faxon, a sophomore at Franklin County High School, emerged as a fearless voice for her fellow GSA members throughout the entire ordeal. Allie has become a close friend of GLSEN Middle Tennessee and has worked with the chapter on issues in and outside of Franklin County over the few months of the controversy. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Allie’s voice would soon reach a new, incredible volume.

In the midst of the controversy, the Franklin County High School GSA had received multiple well-deserved nominations for the recognition of GLSEN’s GSA of the Year. The GSA was contacted by GLSEN’s National Educator and Youth Programs Office and participated in several interviews to help narrow down the field of nominees.

In the end, though they did not receive the top award, they were featured on GLSEN’s GSA Honor Roll and were invited to New York for GLSEN’s Respect Awards, where they would share the story of their triumph and perseverance on stage in front of hundreds of advocates. Allie ventured to the city with her mother, sister, GSA vice president and faculty advisor Jennie Turrell, who since day one had risked her job to advocate for her students.

From a quiet classroom in Winchester, Tennessee, to a black-tie event in New York City, Allie reflected on the journey that she, her advisor, her GSA members, and their supporters shared.

We quickly realized that this wasn’t just for us anymore. At some point we understood that we were now in the middle of something much larger than us, that the eyes of LGBT youth from all over the place were watching. They were looking to us for courage, for inspiration, to blaze a trail and show that even in a tiny place like Franklin County, the voices and lives of LGBT students matter and that we cannot be silenced.

Standing on that stage, we knew we had been part of something that would change Franklin County forever and for the better. And now GLSEN had given us a platform to once again spread it further.

That makes it worth it. The tears. The name-calling. That uneasy feeling when you aren’t sure you’re safe no matter where you. All the challenges that our students had to endure in school and outside of school. They were all worth it if it meant that others students somewhere else could look to us and see that they could make it through the storm.

 

Justin Sweatman-Weaver is Co-Chair of GLSEN Middle Tennessee.

 

 

 

 

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