Pennsylvania high school students’ “Anti-Gay Day” represents social conservatism’s desperation

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is a national network of summer camps and school clubs that the Religious Right uses as a vehicle to put prayer in public schools. My high school had one. Rest assured, they never played soccer.

Instead, they prayed. Hard. My junior year, when our Gay-Straight Alliance participated in the national Day of Silence, an event that highlights and condemns decades of anti-gay bullying and intimidation, the FCA prayed not just for my high school’s gay students, but for all straight allies participating in the event. Through our status as allies, we were just as sinful as the gay students themselves.

That was April of 2008. George Bush was President; national support for marriage equality stood at 40 percent, with 56 percent opposed; and no one in the conservative movement took seriously the idea that only a few short years later it would be socially unacceptable to openly bully someone — in high school or in the real world — on the basis of their sexual orientation. They felt that the Day of Silence was unfortunate, but that God — and society — would judge its participants appropriately.

Since then, as the LGBT movement has made steady advances in the fight for equality, the conservative movement has lashed out. They have — with varying degrees of consciousness — correctly perceived that they don’t run the show anymore, but have misinterpreted this fact not as a leveling of the playing field, but as a form of marginalization in their own right. They can’t pick on gay people without people speaking out against them anymore, and they’ve taken it to mean that the world is out to get them. Because, apparently, someone always has to be in charge.

So while victories over “religious freedom” bills and an impending Supreme Court affirmation of marriage equality, etc. represent two steps forward, events like McGuffey High School’s “Anti-Gay Day” represent one step back.

Unlike my high school’s FCA, which limited their response to benign (if misguided and insulting) prayer, a group of students at the Pittsburgh-area high school organized a full-blown protest of the school’s Day of Silence observance on Thursday. About 50 flannel-clad high schoolers wrote “anti-gay” on their hands, put Bible verses in homosexual students’ lockers, physically and verbally intimidated classmates and even circulated a “lynch list” of students who had participated in the Day of Silence. One teacher found a noose was tied to a flag in their classroom. The students also shamed gay classmates by posting Bible verses to Instagram and tagging them.

As McGuffey junior Zoe Johnson told Buzzfeed, “I got called a dyke, a faggot…They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

The flannel outfits were the first in what was supposed to be a series of clothing-inspired anti-gay events:

Instagram photo supplied to Buzzfeed noting that the next day they would wear red to oppose gays. Faces blurred by Buzzfeed.

Instagram photo supplied to Buzzfeed noting that the next day participants would wear red to oppose gays. Faces blurred by Buzzfeed.

While anti-gay bullying of this scale is nothing new, I think there’s something significant in the way in which this episode played out that makes it fundamentally different from how it would have seven years ago.

Rather than letting their bullying take place in one-off incidents, carried out by individuals or small groups, the students at McGuffey felt the need to organize a school-wide anti-gay event. This wasn’t a group of buddies picking on one kid; this was a counter-protest organized around Christian conservatism. Rather than disorganized hate for hate’s sake, it was hate multiplied by identity. That made for an amplified, more offensive episode, but it required a shift away from the assumption that the rest of the school “got it.” In grouping themselves, the participants in Anti-Gay Day set themselves apart from the rest of the school, staking out their claim as an interest group rather than a part of the accepted cultural norm.

In this sense, the outburst of hate at McGuffey High is a representation of the broader conservative movement we see today. We are losing ground, they say, and we need to fight back. High schoolers that they may be, these students listen to their parents, who listen to their socially conservative thought leaders at the pulpit and on the air. I can guarantee you that at some point during the Anti-Gay Day’s planning and execution, the event was justified by its organizers along the lines of “they get their event, so we get one, too.” It’s like similar calls for White History Month, but with more tangible expressions of bigotry.

As painful as it may be, this is a sign of progress. As I wrote during the fracas over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act:

That religious conservatives are all of a sudden discovering the language of identity politics — seeking to carve out protected status of their own as their cultural hegemony erodes — is only further indication that this battle of the American culture wars is ending, and they’re losing.

The very fact that these students felt the need to organize a hateful event is a sign that the students involved feel, in some sense, insecure in Christian conservatism’s dominance of even a small-town high school in Western Pennsylvania.

There’s a reason that stories like these are being reported by mainstream national outlets like Buzzfeed and Slate. There’s a reason why I heard about this story not because I got an email tip from a reader, but because it was trending on Facebook. To an increasing degree, anti-gay bullying — both in schools and in our wider culture — is becoming unacceptable, and LGBT citizens and allies are speaking out.

To be sure, we aren’t there yet. It has to get better. It will get better. It’s getting better. And the dynamics surrounding Anti-Gay Day at McGuffey High are an indication, however hateful and painful, that the dynamic is shifting in our favor.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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39 Responses to “Pennsylvania high school students’ “Anti-Gay Day” represents social conservatism’s desperation”

  1. Andrea says:

    These are businesses, darlin. Southern IN, Sellersburg/New Albany area.

    Virtually everyone I deal with.

  2. Indigo says:

    See, I’m an umpteenth generation Hoosier since 1812 or so and a graduate of Indiana University-Bloomington so, yes, I get what my fellow Hoosiers are up to and I think they’ve jumped the shark. No point defending nonsense. Hoosier hospitality is warm and sincere but there’s an undercurrent in the state, the only southern state in the North, and a harbor of KKK for years. Notice I didn’t even mention the rural meth labs. It’s nice that your friends are welcoming but don’t close your eyes or turn your back.

  3. 2karmanot says:

    Holy snark, Bat Person! :-)

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  5. dave3137 says:

    Now they know, but they don’t understand.

  6. Andrea says:

    Yep. For every bigoted, hateful action, there is to be an equal and out-of-proportion reaction. One that shames the bigots and undoes their efforts a thousandfold.

    That’s just the social dynamic as bigotry falls away from us.

  7. Andrea says:

    I would like to defend my fellow Hoosiers. MOST of them do not seem to be approving of this nonsense. I say this with confidence because I’ve been openly transitioning to female for the last 10 months. I have been warmly greeted in the haunts I frequent, as if they are telling me very loudly, you are welcome here.

    I think the political system in these states is corrupt to high heaven. Time for an Enema.

  8. UncleBucky says:

    So does almost every straight guy… I think…

  9. 1nancy2 says:

    PA is looking a lot like Appalachia. Hate is strong and the Fox Hate Channel is #1. They have a lock on “Hate Speech” and it sells, big time. Sad and Sick. My T.V. is off: Used to watch MSNBC, but Comcast and Griffin totally destroyed it. Now, it is boring and unwatchable, esp. that Chris Hayes; awful, just awful.

  10. WildwoodGuy says:

    Pathetic is right! I grew up about 90 miles NE of Los Angeles… and I had NEVER seen the ocean until I was 21 years old. My oldest brother (he turned 66 last Sunday) is coming here to WA state to visit in July. It will be the first time he will EVER have been outside the state of CA… and he’s going to go see TWO new states!! (OR and WA) You would truly be amazed at how many people never get far from their home towns.

  11. rmthunter says:

    What does the scarecrow say about it? ;-)

  12. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    We’re in the process of moving to Southern California, and my flannel is going with me. That includes the shirt that my husband swears I took off a scarecrow.

  13. rmthunter says:

    “They have — with varying degrees of consciousness — correctly perceived that they don’t run the show anymore, but have misinterpreted this fact not as a leveling of the playing field, but as a form of marginalization in their own right.”

    I don’t know that they’ve misinterpreted their waning influence, necessarily, but they’ve certainly flipped it on its head and propagandized it as persecution. I don’t know how familiar you are with backwoods Baptist preachers, but they are masters at manipulating language. (The same holds true among black pastors.) One of the hallmarks of a good preacher, at least in the part of Appalachia where I have family, is how colorful the language is, and how impassioned the delivery. Grounding in reality is not so important.

    The downside, of course, is that if they’re not bound by factual accuracy or any sort of honesty — hallmarks of Anti-Gay, Inc. — they become masterful propagandists. Add in the arrogance and self-absorption of evangelical Christianity, and the natural result is that, if they are losing their privilege, they are being persecuted, because everything, always, is about them.

    And so, of course, an observance of support for a persecuted minority, a persecution in which they play a key role, gets flipped on its head: they counter a protest against bullying by bullying, because they are merely asserting their rights to free speech and religious freedom, which are abridged by the mere existence of people who don’t agree with them.

  14. rmthunter says:

    High of 50 forecast for Chicago — and wind. Flannel and a sweater.

  15. rmthunter says:

    A point: We aren’t doing the framing; what we need to be doing is calling them out on it: they’re not pushing for “protecting religious freedom,” they want to establish religious supremacy.

  16. rmthunter says:

    See Thom Allen’s comment above — the administration is not sympathetic to the bigots and is investigating — and taking names. That’s the point: this is not the sort of thing that gets swept under the rug any more.

  17. rmthunter says:

    I grew up in a small town half an hour by car southeast of Chicago’s Loop. Most of my friends had never been to the City. It’s not all that unusual. As Thom Allen pointed out, the focus is local, the view is limited, and experience is circumscribed — and there’s not a lot of emphasis on broadening one’s perspective.

  18. Daddy Bear says:

    Seeing as how some of them want the right to shoot any suspected Gay in the head on sight, I’d say they aren’t ANY different at all!

  19. Helen Damnation says:

    Never been to 45 miles away Pittsburgh? Are you kidding me? Truly pathetic. I feel horribly sad for those people. Rather sort of like jungle natives, aren’t they?

  20. Andrew Reinert says:

    With due respect, those FCA members weren’t praying for anyone. They were praying against others. Using prayer as a threat and a weapon seems to me a great sacrilege.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    They should call it douchebag pride day because that’s what it is. it’s not about celebrating something. It’s about being against other people and their rights. No, that’s not cool. But whatever. At least the other kids at school now know what jerks they are. Oh, and so do the girls they might want to go out with. Is being an anti-gay bigot an attractive trait to women these days? Not to most.

  22. Thom Allen says:

    This school is located in Claysville, about 45 miles southwest of Pittsburgh near the PA-OH-WV borders. Claysville proper has a population of < 1,000. I worked in that area briefly several years ago. Some of the people in this area who are middle-aged have never even been to Pittsburgh. Many live a very insular existence. Their lives focus on small town issues: high school, local sports, christianity, a job at the local gas station, village politics, etc. Areas like this are sometimes referred to as Pennsyltucky for obvious reasons.

    Having said that, I stumbled across a Facebook post from a kid who actually attends McGuffey. He posted some awesome thoughts about the anti-gay "protest." Take a look here:

    Also, a few people from the area reported on their meeting with the McGuffey school administration. Their feelings are that the superintendent and her staff are really upset over this and are sympathetic to those who were harassed over the "Day of Silence." They are investigating what happened (noose in classroom, bible verse positing, social media outings, etc.) They do have the names of many of those students who were involved in setting this up. The local folks seem to think that the administration will do what is necessary to remedy the situation. But that remains to be seen.

  23. Indigo says:

    Don’t the theologians call that “Divine Retribution”?

  24. Indigo says:

    Yes, they do. It’s called Bible Belt, it’s pervasive, and it’s powerful. Look what it did in Indiana. And there’s more on its way.

  25. NATHAN AMAL says:

    oh they know-almost every gay guy knows before puberty

  26. Zorba says:

    Yes, they are running scared. They’re on the wrong side of history, and they know it.
    Their “religious rights” stop when they publicly denigrate and bully gay people, when they refuse to serve or make cakes or pizza, or whatever the hell, for gay couples, and for that matter, going beyond LGBT rights, when they refuse to fill prescriptions for women for birth control or the morning after pill, and on and on and on.
    These Christo-fascists are not so very different from the radical Muslims who want to impose Sharia law. They would love to impose their own Christian sharia law on this country.

  27. emjayay says:

    The distressing thing is that the bullying hate tactics like the signs on lockers probably won’t be actually dealt with by the administration, which is probably more prone to ignore it and hope it blows over and maybe sympathetic besides. It’s high school. Figuring out who did what isn’t all that hard.

  28. emjayay says:

    They are in high school. Many people of that age haven’t had time to figure a lot of things out.

  29. caphillprof says:

    That’s my though as well as the lesbian flannel. Guys don’t wear flannel when they want to protest the gay.

  30. Naja pallida says:

    After the failure of their Anti-Jew day and Anti-Black day, they’re running scared, and being Anti-Gay is still an acceptable prejudice. We need to stop framing bigoted nonsense as simply a protest for religious rights. If this were reversed, and a bunch of gay students organized an anti-Christian day, calling Christian students hateful things and threatening them, it wouldn’t be called a protest, and those students would likely have been suspended.

  31. Jon Green says:

    Most of the time, they operate just like any other club in the high school, so the meeting frequency/level of activity will vary depending on how much space the high school creates for club activity. Ours, like the FCA and other clubs, was student-run with teacher sponsors, met weekly and held few events. Day of Silence is normally the big one.

    More generally, though, they’re a safe space/social group for LGBT students who otherwise might not have a group of friends to fall back on. And in that respect, they do a TON of good.

  32. Hue-Man says:

    I would be grateful if you could tell me how GSA’s work in practice. I grew up before gays and GSAs existed and don’t know any high schoolers. I’ve read the How to GSA websites but don’t know what the practical result is.

    Who organizes, students or teachers? Lesbian/gay/bi/straight/other split. Mission statement/objectives. Frequency of meetings. Topics of discussion. GSA organized events. Social acceptability within school. Leadership and leadership transition. Worthwhile?

  33. Jon Green says:

    Mid 50s in Boston and I’m wearing flannel today. It’s comfy!

  34. ComradeRutherford says:

    These are True Christians filled with Godly Hatred.

  35. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I live in a place that’s very cold. For cripes sake, it’s snowing today. I wear flannel from November to May. Last time I checked, I was male. However, I did have the same thought.

  36. Tom Tallis says:

    Interesting that they felt that they had to dress like lesbians to stage an anti-gay protest.

  37. Macbill says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one male in the above photo is gay and in the closet. What better “beard” to hide you’re gay?

  38. Glen Thompson says:

    Hmmm, seems to be a lot of man on man body contact going on in that photo.

  39. iamlegion says:

    organized a full-blown protest of the school’s Day of Silence observance on Thursday

    On the bright side, these cretins basically turned one Day of Silence on LGBT issues into an entire week of LGBT awareness, complete with active demonstrations of what abuse looks like and why awareness is needed. Thanks, bigots!

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