Gay-Straight Alliance Arouses Controversy in Rural Tennessee

Franklin County High School student Allie Faxon
Franklin County High School student Allie Faxon says the GSA is needed.

The formation of a gay-straight alliance at a high school in rural Tennessee has sparked backlash from the community, and its continued existence will be the subject of debate at a school board meeting tonight.

Officials at Franklin County High School in Winchester OK’d the group in December, reports the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal. It has been meeting weekly, with about 50 students attending last week’s session. But as word of the club has spread, several district residents have spoken out against it, with some using extremely harsh rhetoric.

One of them, John Wimley, wrote on his Facebook page in January that if the GSA is not quashed, “the next thing you know they will have F.I.M.A. (Future ISIS Members of America).”

Wimley set up an event page on Facebook in addition to his personal page, calling for a rally in conjunction with tonight’s board meeting, but it has now been taken down, according to a page for supporters of the alliance. But the Franklin County School Board has placed a review of school club policies on the agenda, notes the supporters’ page, which urges allies to come to the meeting.

Wimley told the Daily News Journal that anti-LGBT discrimination isn’t a problem at the 1,500-student high school. “It’s everyone else that’s trying to make it a problem,” he said. He also said clubs dealing with sexuality or religion should meet off-campus only, and of the ISIS comment, he said, “Maybe it was a mistake. But it was a statement that needed to be made.”

Jennie Turrell, faculty adviser for the GSA, called the statement “outrageous” but said she encouraged students not to respond in kind. “When I talk to my students about it I say, ‘OK, folks. This is outrageous. You don’t need to get worked up about it because you know it’s outrageous,’” she told the newspaper.

Turrell and others said there is indeed anti-LGBT harassment at Franklin County High School. “This is a particular group of students that’s found hostility in the community,” Turrell told the Daily News Journal. “If we can’t give them a safe space in their faith community or in the community, then where else are they going to find it but in a public school system?”

Student Allie Faxon, who has been dating another girl for two years, said schoolmates have directed slurs at her, and posters for the GSA have often been torn down. “We all have common troubles,” she said of her fellow GSA members. “By having the club, even people who aren’t out can come and have a place to be themselves.”

Last month, posters advertising the GSA were torn down, with some vandalized, crossed out with a circle akin to a "No Smoking" sign, and the words "straight pride" scrawled across the top. After administrators took down the posters, several students pinned them to their shirts — and were not punished for doing so

Franklin County Schools director Amie Lonas said GSA organizers “followed the proper procedure to establish the club” and that it has a right to be on campus under the federal Equal Access Act of 1984. She also took issue with the assertion by Wimley and other opponents that the club is focused on sexuality. “It’s a safe environment for students to get together and just talk,” Lonas told the Murfreesboro paper.

The Franklin County School Board will meet at 6:30 tonight. Representatives of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network are scheduled to be on hand to support the GSA.