The president of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign — the nation’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality — will be championing an openly gay Sheridan High School junior in a 5 p.m. press conference Tuesday on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.
HRC leader Chad Griffin will join the 17-year-old student, Taylor Ellis, who is to be accompanied by his mother — Lynn Tiley of East End — and supporting classmates.
Ellis and his backers are protesting a decision by Sheridan School District officials to withhold a yearbook profile of Ellis in which he describes his experiences in revealing his homosexuality and how he’s since been treated by others.
Ellis was unavailable for comment Monday as he was preparing for Tuesday’s event. Efforts to obtain statements from Sheridan Superintendent Brenda Haynes and SHS Principal Rodney Williams were unsuccessful as neither returned telephone calls.
The 2014 SHS annual had been slated to include profiles of Ellis and five other students, but the sketches were withdrawn after Williams purportedly related concerns that Ellis might be bullied because of the nature of his article. Ellis, Tiley and others, however, believe Williams’ decision is discriminatory and unlawful.
“I support Taylor 100,000 percent,” Tiley said. “My son’s rights have been violated. When he was talking to me, Mr. Williams said he was worried about Taylor’s well-being. He made no comment on bullying to me. Then he told Taylor something totally different.”
Tiley said a deadline on determining content for the yearbook has twice changed, from a couple of weeks ago to the past Friday. She believes the profiles can still be added to the publication.
“I’m hoping to see Taylor’s bio in the yearbook,” she said, noting that Ellis felt his profile might be inspirational to other students possibly struggling with their sexual identification. “I have so many mixed emotions right now. I’m in shock by what’s happened and how strong the response has been with all the support Taylor has received.”
Tiley said she thinks Williams simply “doesn’t care” about her son’s desires to help others by showing confidence in his sexuality.
Tiley said Ellis’ homosexuality wasn’t a quick decision and she believes he’s been gay since birth.
“I knew it in the back of my mind his whole life,” she said.
Ellis disclosed his status to his mother in 2012.
In a letter to Haynes and Williams, Griffin recommended that the administrators reverse their decision to omit the profiles of Ellis and his schoolmates.
“As an Arkansas native and former elementary school student in Sheridan, I was taught the Golden Rule — about treating others as we would like to be treated,” Griffin wrote. “Whatever you may say about your intentions, it does not change the fact that you have failed to uphold those values that all fair-minded Arkansans share. Addressing bullying requires stopping bullies, not muzzling harmless free expression.
“Fortunately, there is still time to reverse course and to send a powerful message of inclusion,” Griffin continued. “On behalf of Taylor and his family, I urge you to do whatever necessary to ensure the publication of Taylor’s story in the yearbook.”
Griffin wrote a similar letter to Gov. Mike Beebe and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell.
In a news release on Tuesday’s press conference, Griffin said he’ll display “thousands of petition signatures from around the country asking the school to reverse its decision.”
Tiley said her son is president of SHS’ Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) group and “does well” academically. She said Ellis is especially popular with female students, has a number of male friends, too, and has been “disrespected” by only a small minority of classmates.
Ellis has enlisted in the Army National Guard and will soon enter basic training. Tiley said her son believed military service would aid him in obtaining a college degree.
The 39-year-old Tiley isn’t sure what type of future awaits Ellis and her older son, but she fears she’ll never live to witness lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.
“I don’t think I’ll see the differences end in my lifetime,” she sighed, “but maybe my children will. I hope they do.”