Students face challenges covering homosexuality

Some may it call it censorship. But an interception is what a school spokesperson said occurred when a Florida high school principal seized student newspapers containing an opinion column about homosexuality before it could be distributed.

Many student newspaper staffs have faced situations like this in attempting to publish stories on homosexuality. But there seems to be just as many success stories where supportive advisers and administrators have said this is an issue that students need to be able to cover.

Homosexuality ‘too mature’

An e-mail to school board members from district spokesperson Darlene Mahla said Ridgeview High School principal Toni McCabe was able to “intercept” Panther Prints, the student newspaper with the column in question, before it could be handed out, according to The Florida Times-Union.

Ridgeview senior Katie Thompson wrote the column, titled “Homosexuality is not a Choice.” In her column she opined that homosexuality is a “biological stimulation in the brain” and Christian counseling cannot change an individual’s sexuality.

Thompson, who is bisexual, said she was called to McCabe’s office and told that her article was the reason the paper could not be distributed. Her sexuality was not mentioned in the column.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry, but your article is too mature for the paper,'” said Thompson, who left the office crying. “She said she was afraid of the backlash. I don’t think it offended her personally, she just didn’t want to offend anybody” in a religious community.

The paper was printed again and distributed the next week without Thompson’s article.

Karen Doering, an attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said it is troubling that the article was suppressed solely because of its viewpoint.

“I think it’s absurd to say this is an issue not age appropriate for high school students,” Doering said.

After being told by McCabe that her column would be censored, Thompson made copies of it and handed them out at lunch. She was again told to see the principal and was threatened with suspension if she continued to pass out her column.

Thompson said this is upsetting because “people need to talk about the issues that are going on; they need to be able to read stuff like that.”

Doering said cases like these send a terrible message to gay students. All teens have bumpy times, she said, but it can be worse for gay students struggling with their identities. An incident like this tells kids the mere mention of their sexuality is so unacceptable that it warrants destroying the school newspaper.

Thompson said she is not considering legal action because it would take too much time and too many resources.

A battle in California

The staff of East Bakersfield High School’s The Kernal also learned the difficulties of covering an issue that can make school officials uneasy.

The staff was set to run a spread on gay students at their school when Principal John Gibson ordered it pulled, even though newspaper staff had acquired permission from the parents of the students in the stories. He said he was worried that the spread could incite violence against the gay students mentioned in it.

“Our campus is no more prone to violence than any other,” said Maria Krauter, the current Kernal editor in chief and the author of one of the stories. “I think he [Gibson] underestimated the tolerance of our school and our community. I think he thought he was being cautious, but he shouldn’t have pulled the articles in fear of bullies.”

The spread included interviews with openly gay students, as well as conversations with students and a local pastor who expressed their anti-gay views. The entire feature was censored.

The articles were a well-balanced look at sexual orientation, said Christine Sun, an attorney for the American CivilLiberties Union of Southern California.

“Censoring the articles made it seem like there was something taboo about talking about sexual orientation on campus,” she said, noting that all the students in the articles were public about their sexuality. “It [homosexuality] was an issue already being discussed.”

The students sued the school district in May with the help of Sun but were denied a temporary restraining order allowing them to publish. The judge said a full hearing was needed to consider all the facts.

The students were finally allowed to print the spread in November after Gibson failed to produce evidence substantiating his claims that violence would occur.

Krauter said she did not hear any negative comments when the newspaper was distributed. She also said that the staff will continue the lawsuit.

“We’re continuing because in one month it could happen to someone else,” she said. “It won’t be a victory for student journalists everywhere until we have a precedent in the legal system.”

When students know their rights, Sun said, they can win these battles.

Getting the stories published “is a fantastic example of what happens when students fight for their rights,” she said.

Smooth sailing

Jennifer Allen, a writer at Michigan’s Dexter High School student newspaper, The Squall, said her paper has had no trouble writing about gay students.

“Our administrators have always been really supportive,” she said. Squall staff has published several articles on gay students, including Allen’s story last year about the school’s newly formed gay-straight alliance, which named members of the club.

“It’s not something you see every day in Dexter, we’re a very small community,” Allen said, noting that she did not hear of anyone who was offended by the article.

Rod Satterthwaite, Allen’s adviser, said it is important for students to be able to cover sensitive topics.

“I kind of cringe when I read stories about administrators who shy away from these kinds of stories,” Satterthwaite said. “What are you saying when you say that kids can’t write a story about gay students? What does that tell them? These are issues that they’re dealing with on a daily basis.”

Bretton Zinger, who advises The Purple Tide at Chantilly High School in Virginia, agrees that student journalists need to be able to cover issues like homosexuality that are relevant to their lives.

“I think it’s important to help them to understand the role of the press,” he said. “Students can’t just be taught freedom of the press, they need to be able to exercise it.”

Zinger said The Purple Tide ran a story written by an openly gay student about his experience trying to donate blood. The student wrote that because he admitted having homosexual sex, he was not allowed to donate. Zinger said he expected a reaction to the article and was surprised when it was published without comment, good or bad.

Breaking new ground

When a gay-straight alliance was formed at Stevenson High School in Illinois, staffers at the student newspaper decided to run two pages about what it was like to be gay at the school, the first time the issue was covered in the paper’s 37-year history.

Barb Thill, adviser at The Statesman, said administrators had concerns about the article.

“One thing they told me was that they wouldn’t want kids to be hurt by content in the student newspaper,” she said. “I think there was just a concern that people would become the object of ridicule because of what’s in the paper.”

But with a supportive department chair in their corner, the newspaper staff ran the stories, marking the first time the words “gay” and “homosexual” were ever used in The Statesman.

Thill said covering an issue like this helps both writers and readers explore and examine their world.

“I think doing these stories helps readers understand other people and their communities.”

A continuing issue

Sun, the ACLU attorney, said this issue is not going away. She said she hopes that cases like East Bakersfield’s will let student journalists in California and nationwide know that they have rights and can fight censorship.

“More and more students are going to want to write about sexual orientation,” she said, and student newspapers need to be able to cover it. “These are issues that affect young people, and school is the place to get educated about them and have discussion about what’s going on in society.”