BRUNSWICK, Maine — When Brunswick High School teacher McKell Barnes hung a T-shirt on her classroom wall that read “gay? fine by me,” she suspected it might elicit some reactions.
What Barnes didn’t expect when students arrived last Monday morning was for dozens of them to say they wanted a T-shirt like that of their own. So Barnes ordered 160 more, which she plans to sell at the school and on Facebook with profits to benefit Brunswick High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
“I was completely taken off-guard,” said Barnes, a first-year math teacher who has launched the project with three other faculty members with whom she team-teaches the school’s Sophomore Academy program. “The response has been incredible.”
On March 16, Barnes and the rest of the school’s faculty attended an in-school workshop on the topic of creating a safe and accepting school environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students. She was given the T-shirt at the end of the workshop, and with the agreement of the other teachers who use her classroom, decided to pin it to her wall. After the strong reaction from students, she posted her effort to sell the T-shirts on her Facebook page.
“At first I just sent it to my close friends and they encouraged me to spread the word,” she said. “Within a week, close to 600 people had joined [the Facebook page] and another 4,500 have been invited.”
Rights for gay people in Maine has been a controversial topic in recent years, including a gay marriage bill adopted by the Legislature in 2009, which was repealed later that year. This November, Maine voters will broach the subject again when they weigh in on a citizen-initiated bill that would allow same-sex marriage.
But none of that has anything to do with the T-shirt project at Brunswick High School, said Barnes and senior Julia Brown, who is president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
“This has zero political agenda behind it,” said Barnes, who is a 2007 Brunswick High School graduate. “It’s more about school bullying and learning to care about other people who are different from you. This has nothing to do with the referendum.”
Brown, who said the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance has about five active members, agreed. She said the alliance, which has about $21 in its bank account, will use the revenue from T-shirt sales to print more T-shirts and literature and perhaps to invite speakers to address the student body.
“Do we need the high school to be a comfortable place for LGBTQ youth to walk around? Absolutely,” said Brown. “I think it’s needed everywhere, to be honest. In this high school specifically there are always institutionalized places that are not safe for LGBTQ students, but then there are also individuals who need to be persuaded to acceptance and compassion. I think those are all universal traits that any school or community or society should be fostering.”
But there are some, such as Pastor Bob Emrich of Plymouth, a well-known opponent of past gay marriage initiatives and chairman of a group called Protect Marriage Maine in opposition to this November’s referendum, who don’t think a public school is an appropriate venue for such a conversation.
“I think this is way out of line for a teacher to be advocating a particular lifestyle,” he said. “The irony of this is pretty striking. The biggest criticism we had in the last campaign was that changing the definition of marriage would change discussions within our schools. That’s exactly what they are doing.”
Asked whether Barnes’ and Brown’s contention that the T-shirt project is about the wider issues of acceptance and bullying, Emrich said there are lots of ways to get that point across without bringing homosexuality into the discussion.
“The fact that people mistreat each other, whether it’s bullying or anything else, is just wrong,” he said. “To turn it into an issue of gay or straight minimizes that. Why not have T-shirts that say ‘Overweight? Fine by me’? Why don’t they do short or tall? You don’t see a tall-short alliance, do you? If this is really about bullying and people being treated fairly, why not do that? I would support that 100 percent.”
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said there is nothing wrong with promoting conversations about alternative lifestyles in public places. In fact, she said the 2005 Maine Won’t Discriminate referendum protected such efforts in schools, workplaces and in publicly funded housing.
“This teacher’s actions support school safety, freedom of speech and respect for all students,” said Bellows. “The teacher’s expression in this case reflects a spirit of tolerance for gay students without doing any harm to anyone else. The first amendment of the constitution protects the right of students and teachers to wear this T-shirt and it protects the right of opponents such as Mr. Emrich to disagree. ”
Barnes isn’t alone in the project. Other faculty members, such as science teacher Andrew McCullough, who team-teaches with Barnes, also support the effort.
“To see these students come together in support of this cause is really amazing,” said McCullough. “I think we’re lucky that we have this group of students who want to latch onto this.”
Brunswick High School Principal Donna Borowick said having workshops in favor of creating a welcoming environment for gay students are hosted by the school every few years.
“I’m really proud of the kids for stepping up and seeing this as a way to support their fellow students,” she said.
Brunswick High sophomore Sierra Coomes said seeing the T-shirt on the classroom wall last Monday was “inspiring.”
“People here get harassed [for being gay] all the time,” she said. “I think this will help stop that.”