Watauga High School LGBT Activism, 1999-2009
Due to Watauga County’s small population, it has only one high school, Watauga High School. Middle school classes are housed within the county’s eight elementary schools. During the 1980s through the present, Watauga County schools have seen an increase of children of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals as well as LGBT students that are out to varying degrees. Lesbian and gay teachers work within the school system; however, the climate is not conducive to any being out.
In the early 2000s, WHS students began organizing to fight school homophobia. Many students were targeted for anti-gay and lesbian taunts with some being harassed as early as elementary school. According to former students, WHS teacher intervention was minimal, particularly in specific hallways, and some comments were particularly violent with gay males feeling the brunt of it.
After the pro-LGBT Day of Silence was founded in 1996, a handful of WHS students began participating. They did not receive support from the administration and the participation continued on a small scale for a few years. Eventually, the administration required that Day of Silence participants receive official permission and threatened to discipline them. The administration eventually gave their permission; however, a small group of anti-LGBT students wore homemade anti-LGBT shirts. Some were obscene but they were allowed to wear them. Some students bullied Day of Silence participants with one student being pushed down the stairs. The following day, several anti-LGBT students participated in the Day of Truth, which is nationally organized by the Alliance Defense Fund.
In 2004, the Day of Silence was held again with protesters wearing anti-LGBT shirts including Biblical quotes calling for the execution of gay men. This year, Principal Childers suspended the anti-LGBT shirt-wearers. However, the school board overruled his decision and reinstated the students saying the non-harassment dress code was too broad.
During this time, the Day of Silence participants were also seeking to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. However, they were flatly told no. These students sought help from the local chapter of PFLAG and discussed seeking legal assistance; however, the leaders graduated and those remaining were also told no. Retiring Principal Childers subsequently sent the request to the School Board. With legal counsel, the board decided to prohibit all non-curricular school organizations if the students decided to pursue a law suit. Instead, the remaining students chose to begin a non-LGBT specific Diversity Club.
The Diversity Club, which had the support of the new principal Angela Quick, was labeled the “gay club,” and many of the original members saw it as an LGBT-themed club. Its leaders received personal support from the PFLAG chapter. However, the group intended to broaden its focus to other issues of diversity, such as racism and classism which also needed to be addressed in the school. Principal Quick worked with the Diversity Club to decrease the amount of hallway harassment and reprimanded at least one teacher for an anti-gay comment directed at a student within his class. The Diversity Club met for over one year and sponsored several projects such as a campus climate survey and the Open Arms wristband project to indicate individuals that are willing to help others in time of need. The graduation of its officers led to the end of the Diversity Club.
In 2008, the Day of Silence and Day of Truth once again became controversial. Superintendent Bobbie Short announced that students could receive an excused absence if they missed school on either day. Dr. Short made the decision based on a desire to relieve parental fears of an unsafe school environment: “We also had word that we could be picketed, although it never happened. It didn’t enter my mind [when this decision was made] that it would look like it was a tolerance issue. It wasn’t for me. It was a safety issue.” Day of Silence participants reported it was the least homophobic Day of Silence they had experienced. This school year also saw two LGBT students dropping out – one on the Day of Silence in part due to harassment.
In 2008, a new principal and superintendent were hired and within weeks, a Gay-Straight Alliance was approved without difficulty. The officers reported that anti-LGBT harassment decreased. This short-lived club ended with the graduation of its officers.
- Gabe Pagan Lopez, Interview with Kathy Staley, 22 January 2010
- James Carp, Interview with Kathy Staley, 27 March 2010.
- Nicholson, Scott. “Dress Code Dispute was ‘Unfortunate.’” Watauga Democrat, 18 June 2004.
- Nicholson, Scott. “Anti-Gay T-shirts Spark Suspensions.” Watauga Democrat, 28 April 2004.
- Comer, Matt. Students Excused for Skipping Gay Day: Watauga School Superintendent Cites Safety Concerns.” Q-Notes. 17 May 2008.
- Personal knowledge, Kathy Staley.