Indiana T-Shirt Drama Hits Home

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” This unattributed quote oft used by progressive activists sums up the controversial goings-on of late in my hometown of Georgetown, Indiana.

That conversation was launched by another saying, one that often appears on the t-shirts, posters, and home décor of the same activists: “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” This message of tolerance and acceptance induced horror at Highland Hills Middle School when an eighth-grader wore a shirt adorned with the text above. Repeatedly pulled out of class and eventually not allowed to attend her extracurricular football practice, the student was denied valuable educational time because administrators couldn’t tolerate the idea of acceptance and inclusivity.

The next day, dozens of students protested with a sit-in at the school’s common area. And while those students should be applauded, I’m personally finding it challenging to move on from the bigotry and dismissal on display from administrative professionals at the school—in large part because the decision-maker in this case is my former elementary school teacher.

As one student noted, “It’s not something you’d expect from your school or a place you’d feel safe.” But I sort of expect that. I don’t think that Highland Hills Middle School, and much of southern Indiana, is (yet) a place where LGBTQ or other socially marginalized students feel safe. And this flash-in-the-pan controversy, which will likely disappear from headlines before week’s end, demonstrates why.

When teachers report students for clothing that, objectively, does not violate the dress code, they feed a culture of distrust and anxiety. When teachers and administrators pick and choose what portions of the dress code apply and to whom, they reinforce sexist and racist beliefs, and teach students that those in charge do not view members of the student population equally. When urging tolerance is a “potential distraction,” administrators reinforce the idea that the mere classroom presence of marginalized communities is a disruption. And if you remember middle school, you’ll remember that middle school bullies don’t often miss the opportunity to target a person who attracts any controversial attention.

And it’s not just the behavior of Highland Hills Middle School educators and administrators the day the thirteen-year-old wore the “offensive” t-shirt that perpetuates these harmful messages. The next day, parents were called to pick up their protesting students, as the demonstration of solidarity was apparently deemed disruptive to the school day. In truth, there could be no better way to learn about our rights to assembly and to speech than to exercise them.

The author (second from left) as a high school student at the Kentucky Freethought Convention in 2013, where she shared her story of trying to start a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance at her Indiana high school.

Walking through the halls of Highland Hills, and its next-door neighbor, Floyd Central High School, I carried a significant amount of privilege. But that didn’t stop someone from slipping a letter into my locker as I began my freshman year promising that the devil would come to steal and rape me in the night unless I “welcomed the Lord” into my heart. And it didn’t stop my little brother from being physically hit with a Bible on the school bus when other students discovered we were the atheist family in the neighborhood. And it didn’t stop my principal from fighting tooth and nail against my attempts to form a Secular Student Alliance affiliate (and threatening to shut down all clubs once she was reminded of the unconstitutionality of her behavior).

Of course, there were teachers that countered these narratives and systems. The teacher who sponsored that secular club is, to this day, one of the bravest women I have ever met—willing to risk her career for a place where a very small group of us could be welcomed. The happily (and proudly) married lesbian civics teacher who truly changed my life, and many other’s lives, by creating a lunchtime refuge in her classroom. I hope this eighth grader finds those instructors and the others like them.

My time at Highland Hills Middle School taught me far more about our personal responsibility to be kind than about geometry or sentence structure. In unjust, unfair systems, we each have a responsibility to be a force for good, for positive change, for acceptance, and for inclusion. I was lucky to find those people in a community that never really seemed to count me as one of its own. To flip the message of the girl’s shirt: “To be accepting, inclusive, positive, and good, sometimes you have to speak up!”