Updated with comments from Sundown Superintendent Mike Motheral and Murray Lipp, who runs Gay Marriage USA's Facebook site.
On Wednesday morning, an eighth grader at Sundown Middle School approached Morgan Sisk, a senior at Sundown's high school. The 1,400-strong town, located just west of Lubbock, is small enough that the students of all ages pass by one another with regularity, so it wasn't an entire surprise when the tween struck up a conversation with Sisk.
However, this eighth-grader wasn't looking for any form of educational advice. Rather, she wanted to share a bit of thanks, with a personal twist.
"This eighth-grader came up to me and she was like, 'I completely agree with what you're doing,'" Sisk told Hair Balls. "Then she said, 'The principal told me I should probably not let anybody at school know I'm bisexual.'...I've heard some instances of stuff like that before, where they tell people they should probably just save that stuff when you're not at school."
Stuff. Their sexuality. Their identity. As ingrained in them as their height or hair color. Something, according to Sisk, that the administration has encouraged remain hidden while students are on school grounds.
And Sisk should know. The senior, who will be pursuing history at the University of North Texas this fall, was recently named 'Most Political' as one of the senior superlatives. For the attendant photo in the yearbook, Sisk had the notion of an image in which she debates a fellow student about a topical political issue. Sorting through the magazines at the library, Sisk came across the now-famous image TIME used but a few weeks ago to illustrate just how far gay marriage had come.
Sisk posed in front of the camera, ready to pose. And then the students behind the lens said that they wouldn't take the photo. Find any other magazine, they said. Find any other cover. But we're not taking a shot with those two women -- with that wife and wife -- for Sundown High School's 2012-2013 yearbook.
"They said, 'I refuse to take your picture if you're going to have that magazine,' and I was like, 'Well, you're just taking the photo, and it's kind of my choice for the photo,'" Sisk said. "I said we should go talk to the yearbook teacher, see what she thinks, and she said she thought it was fine. But then the kid was like, 'I'm going to tell the principal.'"
And so, they approached the principal. Sisk didn't want to share his name with Hair Balls, but according to Sundown's site, the man charged with running the high school is Brent Evans, who didn't respond to Hair Balls' phone calls.
"So we went and asked him, and he basically told me gay rights is not a topic that we need to be discussing at school," Sisk continued. "He basically just told me flat-out, 'No.'" Sisk, while earning the 'Most Political' moniker, says she's not been terribly outspoken about gay rights on campus. The issue is clearly important to her, but it's not as if the principal's decision was some culmination of frustration with Sisk's flouting school codes in pursuit of publicizing instances of antigay bigotry. This was a simple photograph, one that would only show up on a single page of a yearbook. And it's for a school that continues to allow a Day of Silence protest for students opposed to abortion.
Still, the principal -- Evans, presumably -- said that a magazine cover of the most seminal American weekly was simply too much for his school.
Rather than swallow her frustration, Sisk decided to display her reaction to the principal's decision. The next morning, arriving an hour before school, Sisk took the time to decorate her locker in gay-rights paraphernalia. She taped up the magazine cover(s); she pasted flyers detailing students who have died "[b]ecause of sexual orientation discrimination"; she covered her locker with a plea to "[not] infringe on my 1st Amendment Right." This was her locker. These were her last few weeks at school. This was the message she wanted her fellow students to see.
However, not even an hour after I had finished the decoration on my locker, the principal tore it down and when I protested that in an argument with him, he claimed that it was "distracting."
Mike Motheral, Sundown's school superintendent, noted that the principal was within his right to remove the material.
"When we have distractions, they will be dealt with," Motheral told Hair Balls. "And anything with sexual connotation, heterosexual or homosexual, we're going to deal with it." Sisk agreed that it was within the principal's jurisdiction to remove the material.
Following the removal, however, the principal then proceeded to call Sisk's mother, "expecting to, you know, get her very upset with me," Sisk told Hair Balls. "But she wasn't."
Indeed, it seems Sisk's mother was in her daughter's corner through the entire ordeal. "The [principal] said, 'She shouldn't be talking about this -- this is not something I want to be discussed at school,'" Sisk said. "And mom said, 'She should be able to talk about it. If others are able to voice their opinions, she can voice her opinion.'"
The principal eventually relented, and Sisk was finally allowed to take the photo for the yearbook. But while some students, such as the eighth-grader, have approached Sisk to note their support, others have offered assorted comments chiding her for bringing this new light to a school that prides itself on both scholastic and athletic achievement. "People around here do tend to feel Sundown is a little stricter than other public schools," Sisk said, noting that there's no organized LGBT organization on campus. "This is probably the first big thing that's ever been said at school...They tend to think there's q little bit of an issue with LGBT kids just because they don't want us thinking of it as a gay school but seen as a nice, upstanding Christian school."
As for the tale of the eighth-grader, Motheral noted that the school remains supportive of each student. "We're very supportive of our kids and who they are...One of the things you learn in this business, you don't believe everything you see and hear," he told Hair Balls. "You just have to understand that you have to take who we are, and what we try to be -- an advocate for every child."
But that new light's not going to dim anytime soon. Murray Lipp, who runs the Gay Marriage USA site, said he receives notes like Morgan's on a daily basis -- and that the nature of social media requires schools and institutions to be far more aware of their actions than they would otherwise be.
"School administrators (like everyone) have to understand that just about any actions an organization takes could potentially be subjected to public scrutiny through social media, in the same way that Morgan shared the story about what happened to her," Lipp wrote to Hair Balls. "While schools and other organizations may previously have been able to make certain decisions without any public scrutiny, today's social media culture means that just about any story or event or occurrence can now end up being shared to thousands and millions of people via Facebook, Twitter and related sites."
Indeed, Sisk's note on Gay Marriage USA's site eventually wound its way to Wendy Morehousell, one of the women on the TIME cover. Suddenly a national figure was taking note not simply of Sisk's actions but of a school where discussion of gay rights is seemingly kept in the dark.
As Morehousell wrote, "My wife Kristen and I are the women on the cover picture of TIME magazine. We would like to let Morgan know how proud we are of her and what an inspiration she and her mother are. We hope we can approach every day as bravely and honestly as she does. Thanks for fighting for equal rights. Sarah and Kristen."