An Arkansas High School Tried to Silence a Gay Student. He Spoke Even Louder.

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
March 20 2014 11:27 AM

When An Arkansas High School Tried to Silence a Gay Student, He Spoke Even Louder

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Taylor Ellis.

Courtesy of the Ellis family.

Last week, administrators at Arkansas’ Sheridan High School censored a yearbook profile of Taylor Ellis simply because Ellis, an openly gay junior, had discussed his coming out story. (Sheridan’s superintendent insisted that the piece was not “consistent with the mission of our school.”) But Taylor and his profiler fought back against the school’s censorship, leading to national media attention and a publicity disaster for Sheridan. Within days, the Human Rights Campaign also got involved, petitioning the school to reinsert the profile and turning Ellis’ fight into a rallying cry for gay high schoolers across America.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

After extensive negotiations with Ellis’ admirably protective mother— “they pissed the wrong momma bear off,” she told me—I spoke with Ellis on Wednesday about the media circus, the high school’s reaction, and the struggle of being a young gay high schooler in Arkansas.

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What inspired you to submit your coming out story to the yearbook?

It wasn’t even my idea. My friend Hannah wanted to do a profile on how it’s been since I came out [last year]. I was willing to let her do it because I’m glad someone was interested in my story and about me. I don’t get that very much. I don’t get as much attention as everybody else. So it surprised me that somebody wanted to hear about me.

Hannah was the one who pushed it; it was her thing. But she never asked me anything too personal. She was really nice about it.

How did the press first learn about the story?

Hannah posted it on the Student Press Law Center at the beginning of 7th period—that’s at 1:25. When class got out at 3:05, Channel 4 News was waiting outside for me. I didn’t even know that Hannah was putting it out there. She didn’t tell me. But it’s not like it bothered me that she put it up.

At first, I didn’t see how important it was to her. But when she learned that it’s not going in [to the yearbook], it really upset her. And that upset me. It’s a big deal now.

What has school been like since the story broke?

Horrible. Today was my first day back [after a school trip]. People were talking about it while we were on our trip, texting all of us, making comments. I was about to lose it...

At first, everybody kept quiet. I’m in choir—that’s a good group. All the guys were nice. People were telling me I’m doing a good thing. My teacher said if I had any problems in any other classes I could just come back and sit in her room. … Geometry was fine, too. The teacher was fine with it; she understood and talked to me a little bit. She told me, “it’ll all pass, it’ll all be fine.” She’s a really good teacher. I don’t think she said anything negative to me.

[By] fifth period I was ready for the day to be over. All these people were negative, quiet—just weird.  I was ready to be home, just trying to get away from everything. Then I got in the Instagram page someone made that said “Sheridan School = No Gays.” I was looking at all the people [at Sheridan] who liked it and who followed it—people I don’t need to talk to. Three of them were in that class, sitting right across from the room from me. One of them was like, “I have the same lotion you have.” My friend wanted me to flip her off. But I’m not that kind of person.

Did anyone confront you about the story?

One girl started going on this rant that I did not want to hear. I didn’t ask her to tell me what she thought about it. She’s sitting here telling me I’m giving the school a bad name and I’m blowing the school out of proportion. But I don’t even like seeing myself on the news! I don’t like being on TV. I just like posting pictures. I thought this would be fun. But it’s not…

I asked [a few other students] why they were following this hate page [on Instagram]. And my teacher said, you don’t need to be talking about that in class. You need to go sit down. You have assignments to do. This teacher has never gotten onto me, never had a problem with me. But now she just kept saying stuff and I was just sitting there, shaking and crying. That’s what I do when I get mad—I shake and cry.

I just sat there waiting for the bell to ring. Then after class I stopped in my old Spanish teacher’s room. She helped me with everything last year. She does this year, too. But I haven’t had as many problems this year. I’m out and everything’s good. She hugged me and we prayed together. When you hug people, you cry, you know?

Then my teacher said, “we’re going to the counselor’s office because this is bullying and they don’t need to be doing this.” So I sat with the counselor and talked for thirty minutes about everything and about how there are really dumb people in the world. And they’re going to have to accept you whether they support you or not. We’re in America. This is where you express yourself. You don’t hide who you are.

Then I needed to get back to class.

What would you say to other students in your situation?

I’d say it’s OK to be gay. If you ever have any problems, resolve them and don’t give up. If you feel defeated, do not give up. Because I feel defeated right now. But I know I’m not. It’s not done. I know it’s not over. I’m not giving up. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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