The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Come this fall, it will have been 10 years since I took my first step into gay activism. As a freshman at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, I started a gay-straight alliance (GSA) barely two weeks after students at nearby West Forsyth High made history with the first such club in our district.
By the time I graduated in 2004, the system had GSAs at West Forsyth, Reynolds, Mt. Tabor and East Forsyth. Students at other schools were interested in organizing clubs, but they never got off the ground. Now, only one GSA exists in the county — Mt. Tabor High School’s GSA has managed to survive and thrive for years.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Mt. Tabor’s GSA in March. I was thrilled to see how well their club was doing. I told them a bit about my organizing at Reynolds and clubs which used to exist at other schools. Unfortunately, student leaders today are battling the same issues we fought when I was a high schooler.
As students, we often ran into obstacles when we tried to become more active on campus. We were denied the opportunity to put announcements in school publications and were denied participation in the student clubs component of our student government. According to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools policy, political and religious student groups aren’t allowed school sponsorship. Somehow, the school system managed to interpret GSAs as “political” in nature. Yet, the school sponsorship policy was never enforced fairly from club to club within an individual school much less from school to school within the larger district.
Today, the story remains eerily similar. Mt. Tabor GSA leaders are forced to keep their announcements limited to word-of-mouth and the few opportunities they get for tabling during lunch periods, even though the school has let other non-school sponsored clubs take advantage of official school announcements in the past. And, according to a West Forsyth High School senior I also met in March, clubs at his school that should be non-school sponsored — such as the Young Democrats and Republicans — enjoy all the benefits of a fully-sanctioned club.
Such lackadaisical and inconsistent policy enforcement is nothing new in Winston-Salem. LGBT students’ well-being and fair treatment have never been a real concern for school leaders here. Of all the state’s urban school districts, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System is, perhaps, the most conservative and most anti-gay. Time after time, year after year, community members, students, teachers and parents begged the board of education to adopt more inclusive anti-bullying policies or include questions regarding anti-gay harassment on the system’s annual school climate survey. Each time, the board either ignored or outright rejected the requests.
Longtime school board member Jeannie Metcalf has been the most outspoken. During the height of LGBT-related conversations with the school board in 2003, Metcalf was quoted by The Winston-Salem Journal from two emails she sent to constituents.
In one, Metcalf compared LGBT people to murderers and rapists: “I told him we shouldn’t be making concessions to homosexuals because it is clearly portrayed in the Bible as sin… And believe me, I know we all sin but what other sin can you think of that has been so white-washed? Let’s have murder-pride marches, rape-pride marches etc.”
In a second email, Metcalf said anti-gay bullying was a-okay by her: “I think homosexuality is a sin. If they want to make fun of them, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Thankfully, 2009’s School Violence Prevention Act forced the board of education’s hand. Last August they brought their anti-bullying policies in line with state law, making them inclusive of sexual orientation and gender-identity, among other characteristics. Conservative board members Buddy Collins, Jane Goins and Metcalf voted against the state-mandated changes.
Given the history and public anti-gay attitudes held by its leaders, it should come as no surprise the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System continues to be a place where LGBT students are treated unfairly. With or without the School Violence Prevention Act, LGBT students will continue to be victimized by a board of education that has no regard for their right to learn and grow in a safe and supportive educational environment. : :