Gay Teen's Coming-Out Story Censored From Yearbook
Taylor Ellis, a junior at Sheridan High School in Sheridan, Ark., was asked to tell his “coming out” story for the 2014 school yearbook. It seemed like an OK thing to do. After all, most students already knew he was gay from his coming-out Instagram post last year, and the yearbook editors had selected several other interesting students to profile in the 2014 yearbook.
This week, school officials opted to cut all of the profiles, saying that Ellis might have faced negative repercussions because his story was too personal. The school’s decision has created a national firestorm; the Human Rights Campaign has launched a campaign to lobby the school's administrators to reverse their decision.
Chad Griffin, HRC president and a Sheridan native, wrote in a letter to the school’s superintendent and principal:
“As an Arkansas native and a former elementary school student in Sheridan, I was taught the Golden Rule—about treating others as we would like to be treated. Whatever you may say about your intentions, it does not change the fact that you have failed to uphold these values that all fair-minded Arkansans share. Addressing bullying requires stopping bullies, not muzzling harmless free expression.”
Griffin's plea did not change the situation. On Tuesday afternoon, Sheridan Superintendent Dr. Brenda Haynes released a statement:
“We must make decisions that lead in the proper direction for all of our students and for our community. We must not make decisions based on demands by any special interest group. The seven profiles will not be published in the yearbook.
We have reviewed state law, court cases, and our own policies. It is clear that the adults who have the responsibility for the operation of the District have the obligation to make decisions which are consistent with the mission of our school. We have done so.”
The HRC and the Northwest Center for Equality have asked Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and the state education commissioner to intervene and reverse the school’s decision immediately. But a spokesman for the governor said, “We don't get involved in local school censorship debates.”
In the yearbook profile, Ellis said, “I use [sic] to be scared to say that I'm gay. It's not fun keeping secrets; after I told everyone, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.” He also said, "Some guys are more reserved around me now. But not a lot of people have been mean about it, thank God. I'm actually in a good situation. I'm very lucky.”
The profile explained that Ellis “struggles with depression, which has gotten better since he has come out.”
The HRC released a survey in 2012 that showed the biggest concerns for LGBT youths included “non-accepting families, bullying and harassment, and a fear of coming out.”
Charles Tadlock, a retired Sheridan principal and a former school board member, said that censorship of a student publication seems illegal. “I have a hard time seeing how you censor a student’s publication like that,” he says. “I would say it is unfair. I hate that this has happened, and I don’t think it gives the true picture of Sheridan. But it’s still south Arkansas, and things that are accepted other places aren’t accepted here.”
In 1995, state courts ruled under the Arkansas Student Publications Act that students have final editorial control over their publications. School officials may not dictate or censor those publications in any way. However, administrators can censor obscene, libelous material that is considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Randi M. Romo, executive director of the Center for Artistic Revolution, an LGBTQ-centric organization in Little Rock working for fairness and equality since 2003, called the action deplorable. She says, “Regrettably the majority of the time when we get a complaint from an LGBTQ student regarding bullying, it is often school personnel who are the perpetrators.”
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.