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High Schooler Censored By School Administration Over Saying He's Gay

Tyler Johnson
Screengrab via CNY Central

The high school's principal told the 17-year-old that he couldn't say his biggest challenge growing up was being gay and having to come out.

When Tyler Johnson was called into Tully High School's principal Mike O'Brien's office on January 6, he was caught off guard.

Johnson had recently been selected by his Syracuse, New York school's newspaper Knight Insight to be highlighted in its Senior Spotlight series. The paper sent the 17-year-old several questions to answer, including one that asked about the biggest challenge he's had to overcome.

In a viral TikTok video, which has been seen more than 65,000 times, Johnson said he had responded: "The biggest challenge I faced was growing up gay and coming out. I had to learn how to become comfortable in my own skin and how to stay strong through bullying and all the negative experiences I had while trying to navigate through life."

After Johnson submitted the responses to the newspaper, O'Brien stopped him in the hall and asked to see him in his office. The principal proceeded to tell him that he had to re-write his story: specifically the part about the challenges he's faced, the part where he's gay.

When Johnson asked why he said that O'Brien responded that it was nothing personal and it was only due to policies in place at the school. It was just out of his hands. Johnson told the principal that he would rather the school paper not run the story at all than change it.

The policy, O'Brien told Johnson, prohibits any references to "sexuality, orientation, religion, or illegal drugs" in the Senior Spotlight.

"You're such a unique student, such a positive face in our community. We want you in the Spotlight, but you can't say you're gay or that overcoming bullying is your accomplishment," Johnson said O'Brien told him, paraphrasing the principal.

When Johnson's mother, Pamela Custer called O'Brien for an explanation the principal refused to back down and repeated that he could not go against formal district policy.

O'Brien spoke again to Johnson last Friday saying he was sorry he didn't feel welcomed at the school, that he supported LGBTQ+ students, and had even approved of the GSA (Gender and Sexual Alliance) club that Tyler and other students had been putting together. He said he had pursued a change to district policy and that Tyler's full answers would be published in a future Senior Spotlight.

The policy O'Brien referenced was a lie, according to Johnson. Johnson and his mother said that O'Brien had called district superintendent Robert J. Hughes to ask him how he could get away with removing Johnson's answers about being gay and battling depression stemming from years of being bulled. Hughes suggested they invent one.

The response from the Tully community, however, was immediate, overwhelming, and supportive. The president school's Board of Education even texted Johnson saying she believed what was happening to him was wrong.

Not only was it wrong but could be illegal and a violation of both New York State Education Law as well federal Title IX civil rights law.

According to the latest 2021 survey from The Trevor Project, a national non-profit whose mission is to be a supportive resource for queer youth, 42 percent of LGBTQ+ youth aged 12-17 seriously considered suicide. LGBTQ+ youth commit suicide at more than twice the national average than their heterosexual counterparts with 52 percent experiencing severe bullying.

For Johnson, the homophobic encounter resulted in severe anxiety, he tells The Advocate.

O'Brien did not respond to phone calls for an opportunity to explain what's going on in Tully.

Tully resident Joshua Gallagher told me although he's seen no evidence of an outright anti-gay agenda on O'Brien's part but noted he's not surprised at his thuggish bullying behavior towards Johnson. Gallagher said that as of Monday evening he'd received no response from queries to the principal, superintendent, or school board members.

Other Tully residents were out in full support Monday night at the school where the board had convened for an emergency meeting to formulate a response to their demand for an explanation for O'Brien's actions and accusations of homophobia.

In a letter to the district Monday afternoon, Hughes explained the emergency meeting was a response to O'Brien's treatment towards Johnson, "Clearly, as a school district, we have to do a better job of supporting our LGBTQIA+ students. I have room to grow in this area as well. I am committed to growing in this area and taking the necessary steps to forge substantial, enduring changes. I am looking forward to having the district's and the community's support in accomplishing this goal."

Hughes promised a follow-up letter that would outline a formal and actionable accounting of O'Brien's actions would be coming and expressed happiness at the community's outpouring of support.

"I'm glad they're supporting Tyler. I really am. He needs their support," he said.

An exhausted Johnson told The Advocate Monday night that he was hopeful after speaking to two local news outlets who ran segments that night but that neither Hughes nor O'Brien had reached out to apologize directly. He expressed that the entire situation made focusing on his schoolwork difficult.

Johnson said he was feeling the frustration that many feel these days: being told how good he has it as if oppression and anti-gay discrimination are a thing of the past.

The experience has inspired Johnson to become more active as his high school career ends. Next year, he'll be an undergrad at Oswego State College where he's been accepted into their joint five-year BA/MBA program.

"You think we're, you know, making progress and then something like that happens and you realize we're not as far as we think we are," Johnson said.

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