Yearbook creates concern

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Staff member Jessie Hardison, left, and editor in chief Maggie Chavez said they included gay couples in Clovis High’s yearbook to illustrate the school’s diversity.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Staff members of the 2008 Clovis High School yearbook say the inclusion of photos and interviews with gay couples in the annual is a reflection of the community.

A local Christian group and others strongly disagree. One detractor has threatened to stop donating to school projects while others said they plan to go in front of the school board to protest.

Student editor in chief Maggie Chavez and staff member Jessie Hardison said Thursday the decision to feature gay couples was a conscious one made with much consideration and discussion by the staff.

The staff wanted to be as diverse and inclusive as possible and wanted to make a product for all students to enjoy, they said. Though they themselves are not gay, the two said they felt strongly about including gays in the yearbook.

“We just wanted to show that there is a diversity, there (are) gay and lesbian couples in the school and they have a right to be in the yearbook just as much as anybody else does,” Chavez said.

Photos of two lesbian couples along with narratives describing their relationships were included in a couples feature section titled “Do you want to go out?” Also pictured on the two-page spread were nine heterosexual couples.

While school staff check for obscenity, libel and other matters of legal concern, yearbook supervisor Carol Singletary said it is a student-produced publication. The content featuring gay students was not stopped by administrators, because, “It didn’t violate privacy, it wasn’t obscene, it wasn’t libelous … it didn’t violate any of the district policies,” Singletary said.

Former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, who described himself as a parent and concerned Christian member of the community, said he is upset about the photos and accompanying write-ups.

“I think it’s highly inappropriate to place that in that venue. That is no place for that type of negligent exploitation of our kids,” he said. “I do not in any way believe this reflects the attitudes and values of this community.”

Chavez and Hardison said they too hold strong Christian values but the issue is a matter of discrimination.

“I believe God’s OK with it. I don’t think he cares what you wear, what color your skin is or who you’re with. I think he loves you for who you are,” Hardison said.

“This is in the community. (Students) are going to have to deal with it in their lifetime,” Chavez said, explaining openly gay couples are a common sight at school, often seen walking hand-in-hand.

Relationship spreads have been in the yearbook for several years and have featured friends and couples, Hardison said, but never gay couples. Male gay couples invited to participate declined, she said, because they feared repercussions and possible violence.

Care was taken to ensure none of the photos depicted excessive public displays of affection, which would violate school policy, and all of those photographed gave permission and had ample opportunity to withdraw their consent prior to publication, Chavez and Hardison said.

Pointing to the yearbook, Hardison said, “I’m not a lesbian but I don’t think this should be white, black, Hispanic, males and females. It should be everybody as a whole. The yearbook is for our student body, to represent them. I’m proud of it. People shouldn’t be black, people shouldn’t be white, straight, gay. People should be people.”

Reactions have been mixed. “I’ve had couples come to me crying saying ‘thank you’,” Hardison said, and she’s also received anonymous threatening letters and been approached by students, parents and even teachers expressing anger. But she doesn’t regret the decision.

“It’s time for Clovis to come into the 21st century and be OK with people … I love this town most of the time (but because of the reactions), it makes me feel sorry to be a human. … Something little like this goes a long way and if we keep doing things like this, it might change things,” the 18-year-old said.

Bradley isn’t interested in seeing the kind of change Hardison is talking about in the community.

He said he serves on a strategy team for the schools and as a businessman has sponsored and endorsed school programs. But, he said, “If this is indeed the direction that this school system is going to take and continue to promote, then don’t look to me for anymore donations.”

Will Cockrell is a member of the Christian Citizenship Team, a group at Central Baptist Church that “monitors political actions and social actions that come to bear on society that are counter to Christian doctrine.”

Cockrell said Christians throughout the community are mobilizing to attend next week’s school board meeting and speak out.

“We don’t think that it reflects anywhere close to the attitudes and the morals of the community,” he said. “I don’t have a child in school but I’m appalled. If I were the parents of those kids, I’d own that school. Those are minors.”

It was intended, “not so much (to be) in your face, so much as ‘hey, this is happening, you should take notice of it,’” Chavez said.

As to whether future classes should follow suit, Hardison said each yearbook staff has a responsibility to represent the student body and will have to make their own decisions.

“If they do it, then I think it would be good. We can’t just turn our heads for the rest of our lives. It’s part of our society and it has to come out eventually,” she said.

Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm said she has received numerous calls from community members on both sides and termed it a sensitive issue.

Essentially the matter is a three-pronged issue, Seidenwurm said, involving First Amendment rights, privacy issues and community standards, all of which are equally important and must be considered.

But the bottom line is no school policies were violated and there are no legal concerns about what was published, she said.

It is a student publication and ultimately belongs to the students, who followed the rules, she said.

“We’re trying to look at it from all sides and address the issue. What we have to do is be very careful in whatever we do not to violate any First Amendment rights and be sure all of our board policies have been followed, but we do recognize that there is a segment of our community that is upset with those two pages of our annual,” Seidenwurm said. “I have had almost as many calls encouraging us to make sure we don’t violate the rights of any children.”

Seidenwurm said the issue has not been placed on the school board’s meeting agenda.