Covering sexuality -- carefully

When student journalists write about sex it almost always raises administrative eyebrows, but when the topic turns to homosexuality, the reaction sometimes escalates from concern to alarm.

Over the years school officials have censored student speech and expression ‘ in the student newspaper, in the yearbook or on a T-shirt ‘ that brings up sexual orientation. But lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations say it is vital to allow youth to have a respectful discourse about LGBT issues. Censoring based on that content is illegal and could be detrimental to students representing that part of the community, they say.

“There’s a consensus that we can sort of control what young people are talking about,” said Daryl Presgraves, a spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “The reality is young people are so far ahead of adults and they are talking about [gay rights].”

Censoring a story because it brings up the LGBT community makes those students feel unsafe and apart from the community, Presgraves said.

“Is it fair to say to [LGBT] students that they aren’t as good as those students who meet the approval of community guidelines?” he asked.

The GLSEN helps set up Gay-Straight Alliances at high school campuses. The network also helps schools find appropriate ways to approach issues about sexual orientation and harassment.

Presgraves said administrators often censor stories in school papers out of a general misunderstanding. When students write about harassment based on sexual orientation, for example, principals often react solely because they see something about sexuality in the article.

“Regardless of what your beliefs are, you can’t ignore that there are LGBT people in schools,” Presgraves said. “Regardless of their opinions of them, they deserve to feel safe.”

In Florida at Ponce de Leon High School, students were told they could not display messages or symbols supporting gay students. Principal David Davis told students that homosexuality was a sin. He forbid known gay students from speaking to younger students and suspended 11 people for standing up for gay rights.

In May U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak ruled against Davis and the Holmes County School Board. In his written opinion, issued in July, Smoak said Davis is entitled to his opinion of homosexuality but is not permitted to stifle speech. The judge also pointed out that while rainbow symbols were forbidden at the school, students were allowed to display swastikas and the Confederate flag. This clearly is viewpoint discrimination, he said.

In New Mexico at Clovis High School, the student yearbook, The Plainsman, is facing a battle against the community and the school board after including pictures of two lesbian couples on its relationships spread.

Critics said the pictures were not representative of the community. The school board is considering changing its policy so student publications will be considered closed forums, which would give the administration more control over content.

While it is important to include LGBT students in the school community, articles in student publications have to be done for the correct reasons, said Tom Avila, deputy executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Writing a story about LGBT students just to “make a check mark in the diversity column” or to make people feel proud or empowered is a common pitfall, Avila said.

“Sometimes I think the problem is one of having reached that level in doing journalism where you’re able to direct the passion you have for the subject in the ways necessary,” Avila said.

Sometimes, because reporters are so passionate about the topic, they begin to “compartmentalize” their stories and forget to do the basic reporting work that goes into any story, Avila said. Stories about religion, immigration, LGBT or a lunch menu change should all be treated with the same basic reporting steps.

Avila suggests talking to advisers or administrators ahead of time to explain the story’s importance and get their support.

Students often think they know more about the subject than they really do, especially those who are passionate about LGBT rights, Avila said. But those students should step back and ask questions.

“This is a struggle for anyone in a minority,” he said. “We run into problems when you tell a story believing you know all the answers. Find out who might know more about the subject than you.”

Using the basic steps of journalism and taking time is essential when writing about a sensitive subject and can often make the difference between a story being censored by the administration or not, Avila said.

“I fully recognize and believe in the fact that there is additional guidance required when you’re looking at a student scholastic publication,” he said. But administrative guidance cannot imply that that there is something wrong with people who are LGBT, Avila said.

“When we’re eliminating a population from the student press, we’re sending a message, and that message is that the news and media is not about the full community,” Avila said.

Fall 2008, reports