--- by E. Ross & Mel Green
Beyond the headline-catching absurdity of the short-lived Wasilla High School ban on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” there’s a more serious reality for LGBT students in the Mat-Su — one which hasn’t gained so much media attention.
by E. Ross and Mel Green
When the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was pulled from the Wasilla High School graduation program because a parent complained that it was written by a gay man, Freddie Mercury of the British rock band Queen, a choir student called the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Anchorage and the ACLU of Alaska, and the WHS principal backed down, saying he would allow a censored version of the song to be performed. As reported in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman,
“The whole thing was just ridiculous,” senior Rachel Clark said Monday. “They’d played the song on the school intercom and we played it at prom. It’s a great song and the choir was really excited to be singing it. And the senior class felt like it defined them.”
Choir member Casey Hight, a junior, was angry enough to contact a gay and lesbian support organization in Anchorage for help. They told her to contact an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I felt like the school was discriminating for sexual orientation and I felt it was wrong,” Hight said Monday. “It’s so stupid because there’s nothing sexual in the song. There aren’t even any cuss words.”
The absurdity of banning a popular song because the writer was gay put Wasilla in the news again this week, as the story first reported in Frontiersman was picked up by numerous news sites and blogs both in Alaska and nationally, including the Anchorage Daily News, LGBTQ Nation, the Advocate, Pam’s House Blend, and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. The Mat-Su’s own Phil Munger of Progressive Alaska, Anchorage Daily News readers, and the national blog Gawker, among others, haven’t been shy about serving WHS administrators with a spoonful of snark — in particular noting Principal Dwight Probasco’s close resemblance to gay rock star Elton John.
But while editing out a stanza of a well-known song is also absurd, at least the Wasilla Symphonic Jazz Choir got to perform it in the end.
And beyond the headline-catching absurdity, the incident reflects a more serious reality for LGBT students in the Mat-Su — one which hasn’t gained so much media attention. Just a few weeks earlier, students were banned from bringing same sex dates to the Wasilla High prom, and were required to uphold a gender dress code of suits and tuxes for boys and dresses for girls. Not feeling any support in their local community, gay students just didn’t go to the Wasilla prom. Amber Sawyer, volunteer adviser for Wasilla High School’s Gay/Straight Alliance, and a recent UAA graduate, told Bent Alaska:
The students at Wasilla don’t feel like their school or really anyone in the community supports them….They told me the first time I ever met them that they felt like the principals at Wasilla didn’t even want their club to exist. They did not mention contacting anyone and they did not feel like they could do anything to change the policy.
Their fears were not unfounded. The Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) club at neighboring Colony High School in Palmer, where Sawyer attended, was shut down by administrators when the GSA students asked for protection from the harassment members faced at school. Sawyer told Bent,
The high school I graduated from for example, Colony High, their club was shut down about two years after I graduated because of hazing and violence that happened against club members. The administration, rather than stopping the violence, stopped the club from existing.
Sawyer learned about the problems at Colony from friends who still went there. She elaborated:
[Colony High GSA members] had students singling them out in class and in the hallways, calling them names that were insulting and inappropriate. When the students complained the insults just started happening more out of the view of the administrators. Some teachers reportedly did not stop it but when the complaints from the students regarding harassment continued they were told the only way to completely stop being singled out was to disband the club. They were told that there was no way to completely stop the harassment so they needed to stop from having the club which created a way for them to be singled out.
And so, instead of attending their own hostile school proms, Mat-Su LGBT students on April 23 drove an hour south to Anchorage to attend Pride Prom, where they could dance together among friends and allies.
But even in Anchorage, students were targeted. While 187 LGBT and allied youth from the Mat-Su and Anchorage were dancing inside at Out North Contemporary Art House, where the prom was held, vandals tore down the rainbow flags decorating the outside of the building, throwing some of them in the mud and hanging another upside down.
Bent Alaska posted a story and video about the incident, and the Anchorage Press followed up after discussion with Out North executive director Scott Schofield, who had sent out a press release about the vandalism the day after the prom. The Anchorage Press story also noted that Schofield’s press release was ignored by the Alaska mainstream media, none of whom reported on the incident.
Sawyer was concerned about both the vandalism and the silence. She wrote a letter to the Anchorage Assembly, also posting a copy on Bent Alaska’s Facebook wall:
The weekend before my graduation [from UAA], this happened. [link to the Anchorage Press story about the vandalism].
These were HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS too young to vote and too young to be taken seriously by most politicians when they ask for help with anything. That is why some of them came to me.
In between completing my degree and living in Anchorage, I have been the advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance club at Wasilla High School. The students came in to this event [Pride Prom] here in Anchorage because they were banned from their own prom. They were not allowed to bring their dates, they were not allowed to dance together. This was the only place where they could celebrate the way kids are supposed to at a prom.
This is proof that discrimination happens. No one can say this was not intentional or that it was an accident. One flag is an accident. Every single flag, the only external decorations that the building had, were torn down and vandalized.
I have seen vandalism and hatred at the university but this cannot be ignored. Obviously the people are not going to be caught and therefore are going to get away with what they did. Calling no attention to it in addition to them receiving no punishment sends the message that they did nothing wrong.
If your child or niece or even one of your staff members were there, would you want the perpetrators of such vandalism to be allowed to be there as well? Next time will they stop with the flags or will they attack the cars of the individuals at the event? Something needs to be done. At this point there is no way to deny that the violence is happening. It is your responsibility as a representative of our community to address it.
Anchorage Assembly members Patrick Flynn and Elvi Gray-Jackson responded, thanking Sawyer for contacting them and saying they were committed to ending discrimination for all members of the Anchorage community. However, Mayor Dan Sullivan has made no sign that he would respond any better to protecting gay students than he did to protecting gay workers or renters. (In 2009, Mayor Sullivan vetoed Anchorage Ordinance A0-64, passed by the Anchorage Assembly, which would have prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and education on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.)
As for Wasilla High School and Palmer’s Colony High School, they’re located in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which is outside the governance of the Municipality of Anchorage. And Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District does not even realize it has a problem with discrimination. Its Safe School Helpline reports that 22% of its calls involve harassment but — incredibly — 0% involve discrimination.
Bent Alaska is left with a few questions.
- 22% of the calls involve harassment. What kind of harassment? Is anti-gay bullying a component of that? How much? And what is Mat-Su Borough School District doing about it?
- How about the 6% of calls involving threats? Might those complaints of threats include the threats aimed at GSA members at Colony High School by hostile classmates, which Colony administrators chose to ignore — instead forcing Colony’s GSA club to shut down? Did that action by Colony administrators actually end the problem of antigay harassment and threats at the school, or did it merely shove it under the rug, so that Colony teachers and administrators and school district officials could ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist?
- What about at Wasilla High? If administrators were so sensitive about a song written by a gay songwriter, how sensitive are they to ensuring the safety of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans students, and ensuring they have a reasonable learning environment?
- And if school and school district administrators are closing their eyes to problems at Wasilla and Colony high schools, how are they doing with all the other schools throughout the borough?
- 2% of the calls were related to suicide. Are Mat-Su Borough School District officials aware of that kids who are bullied and harassed because they are (or are perceived to be) gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans are at increased risk for suicide? Have they taken any steps to counter antigay bullying in the wake of the national publicity about the problem over the past year?
We hope and assume that there are staff members, teachers, and administrators throughout Mat-Su Borough School District who care about the safety and learning environment of LGBT students and their friends, as much as for non-LGBT students.
But the “Bohemian Rhapsody” incident — and everything else we’ve written about in this post — doesn’t lend us confidence that those who care are the ones making and enforcing policy.
We hope our readers — especially those who live in the Mat-Su and maybe even have children — will write to the school district and ask these questions too. And make sure, while you’re at it, that the Wasilla Warriors will be able to keep celebrating sports victories to the tune of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”