published Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Tennessee: Yearbook story on gay student ignites controversy

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By Hugh G. Willett/Special to the Knoxville News Sentinel

LENOIR CITY — An article in the Lenoir City High School yearbook describing the life of a gay student has ignited a storm of controversy that has spilled over onto local blogs and is threatening to disrupt upcoming graduation ceremonies.

The article — “It’s OK to be Gay” — was written by the yearbook’s student staff to profile the experiences of gay student Zac Mitchell.

The interview includes Mitchell’s description of how he and his family have dealt with the issues of coming out in public and being bullied by others. He also describes extracurricular activities, including cross-dressing and being “hit on by straight guys.”

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 Lenoir City High School Principal Steve Millsaps.

According to students, petitions were being circulated urging others to tear the page from their yearbook as a sign of protest during graduation or to deny Mitchell the right to attend the ceremony.

The 17-year-old student who wrote the article said she was afraid to have her name published.

“There have been threats made starting with, ‘If I found out who wrote the story,’” she said.

On his blog, Loudon County school board member Van Shaver called for a criminal investigation into the faculty advisers. Shaver said he believes in being tolerant of anothers’ life choices but said he is concerned that the students are being unduly influenced.

“What I am intolerant of is an adult, a teacher no less, inflicting their personal beliefs and sexual orientation decisions on impressionable students,” Shaver said.

The journalism student said she was given the assignment to write the story by the student editor of the yearbook. The faculty advisers did review the suggested topics but did not try to influence the students, she said.

“My journalism professor never once pressured us to have certain beliefs,” she said.

Millsaps said he did not personally approve the content for the yearbook. Faculty advisers are responsible for reviewing the content, he said.

Yoakley, who has been teaching at LCHS for 11 years, according to the school’s website, was not available for comment. In the past few months Yoakley’s students have been involved in other controversial issues.

Krystal Myers, editor of the school newspaper, was denied permission to publish an essay titled “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist.” The essay, which drew protests from some local Christian groups, was subsequently published in newspapers across the country.

The student who wrote the Mitchell article said there is a connection between the incidents.

“I don’t think this would have happened if there hadn’t been the issue over the atheism article,” she said.

Millsaps said he also thinks it’s possible that the intersection of the two issues may have added to the controversy.

“It’s kind of like the perfect storm,” he said.

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