Journalist covered high school's censorship of a coming-out story while 'tears ran down my cheeks'
I first heard of Taylor Ellis’ story while meandering through one of the news apps on my phone. I immediately clicked on the story and began reading about the Arkansas high school student and the decision by administrators at Sheridan High School to pull the profile written about his coming-out story from his junior yearbook. As a gay man who came out in high school, the story resonated with me.
Nearly a week later, I was sent by my newspaper here in Little Rock, Ark., to photograph a press conference happening on the steps of the capitol building. Headed by Chad Griffin, the president of Human Rights Campaign, the press conference struck chords with me as Ellis and his mother spoke. She got choked up at the idea that, because of who he was, he was excluded from the yearbook. Ellis stroked her hair and Griffin gave her words of encouragement and she continued without her script.
The whole time I took photographs, tears ran down my cheeks.
When I was 15, a freshman in high school in Indiana, I decided to come out to my family and friends. I had a very supportive family and was mostly accepted in high school. I had friends who stood by me. There were some hard times as I walked the school hallways, not hiding who I was. But I had more good experiences than bad.
Senior year, I got a message from a friend on Facebook. She also happened to be the yearbook editor. She asked me if I would be interviewed for a profile in the yearbook to talk about my coming-out experience and with being openly gay in high school.
“I was proud that you were willing to share that because there were others that maybe weren’t that confident and it would make them feel more able to talk about,” said my mother, Jana Amaro, when I called home and asked her about it on Wednesday.
When the story was published, I was able to read it down the side of P. 120 of my yearbook. I heard compliments, and even mothers of friends approached my mother, telling her how proud they were of me and that I was brave and strong.
The story read as follows:
“I knew I liked guys at an early age, around 2nd grade…” said Matt Amaro. The difficulty of being gay in a predominately straight country is an obstacle that Amaro has quickly learned to overcome. Since ‘coming out’ to friends and family during freshman year, Matt has faced discrimination and harassment. “I’ve been called derogatory names and yelled at,” said Amaro. The hatred from the outside community tends to not be a problem while in school; Amaro feels that for the most part Pike is very accepting among students, staff and coaches. Along with being involved in GSA [Gay Straight Alliance], Matt has been on the swim team and Pike’s Symphony for four years. Despite being part of the minority, Amaro doesn’t let anything hold him back from being a well-rounded and active student. –- By Melissa Stritch.
My high school was large, and I knew quite a few openly gay people there. The yearbook editor and I didn’t foresee any challenges with my profile. No one complained, and no one had any negative reactions that I knew of. I wanted my experiences to be heard, and it was important to me to be included in something as monumental in high school as the yearbook.
Standing on the steps of the Arkansas capitol on Tuesday, I thought of that story. Ellis is amazingly lucky to have the support of his parents. While I also had supportive parents, many who come out in the LGBT community don't.
Being a gay journalist, I know that Ellis' story is echoed across the gay community. In journalism, we are taught to be fair and unbiased. But as journalists, we’re also a voice for people. Ellis, whether I know him or not, is a part of the gay community and discrimination is something that I do not take lightly. I tweeted shortly after the event saying, “I #StandWithTaylor because everyone deserves a voice. I was included in my high school yearbook.” I believe that, especially when adults deny young people a voice that not only hurts free speech but it also sends the message that this should never be talked about.
— Matt Amaro (@MattDAmaro) March 18, 2014
When asked about what was happening here in Arkansas, my mom said, “To me, so many kids struggle with being gay and especially at that age, to be not allowed to speak about it basically diminishes him and other gay youth. It’s a fact of his life and they’re basically denying who he is.”
I totally agree. But I’m also proud that Ellis and the yearbook assistant editor are willing to stand up for what is right. I'm proud not only for what he is doing for the countless other gay youth afraid to talk about it, but also proud for the young journalist that won’t give up when her story is censored.
Matt Amaro is a senior photojournalism major at Ball State University. He's currently working on an internship with Arkansas Times, an alt-weekly.