Photo by Lucy Wimmer
By Anna Mann
The “Homeless at Home” art exhibit opens to the Sewanee public with a reception on February 26, beginning at 3:30 pm. The exhibit highlights the struggle of Tennessee teens growing up LGBT, and centers around the kids of Franklin County High School, or FCHS.
While she currently works as the assistant director of marketing and communications at Sewanee, Jennie Turrell (C’93) worked as an art teacher at FCHS last year. She said that when a handful of kids came asking for her assistance, she quickly agreed to help them begin a GSA. As she began the process of starting a school sponsored club however, the Facebook messages began to flood in.
“As soon as [the club] became public, it became hostile for lack of a better word. Hundreds of people came to the board meetings [to protest],” explained Turrell.
Kasey Marshall (C’19) remembers attending a meeting along with a handful of other Sewanee students to show support for the kids. She recalls that, “although there were some scary things like people in trucks flying confederate flags, yelling insults at these teenagers. I feel like it was an overwhelmingly positive event. The crowd supporting the GSA outnumbered those standing against it. A lot of community members came to show support, students themselves, their parents.”
Turrell mentioned what she called the “Christian flags going head-to-head.” She stated that although many of the Episcopal churches, like Sewanee’s own school of theology; supported their cause, she found the greatest resistance among members of the Franklin County non-denominational sector.
As derogatory comments found their marks both in the classroom and online, many of the kids in the GSA began to feel discouraged. Ever the problem solver, Turrell went to the very source of contention, Facebook itself, in order to contact people she knew would offer the support her FCHS kids needed. Her idea quickly gained traction, and soon the club began to receive countless letters a day, both nationally and internationally sourced.
Although the letters represented a bright spot on the horizon, many of the high schoolers still suffered from bullying in the halls of FCHS. In order to deal with the stress, some turned to art. This work currently resides along with the letters of encouragement in Sewanee’s Carlos Art Gallery.
The first room contains the letters, photographs of many of the kids in the club, and bright light to exemplify the rally of support from people around the world. The letters stand out as bright splotches of color against the wall, and the photography of the students, taken by Turrell’s husband, shows the determination of many of the kids in the club. Wrapped in rainbow flags or wearing color-drenched bandanas, the pictures capture them in power stances.
Down the hall though, dim lights exacerbated the ominous feeling of the works inside. Poetry about the pain inflicted, heady artwork about the hatred felt, and shocking quotes from FCHS parents on Facebook line the walls.
Among them a painting of a multicolored length of rope hangs, created by the sibling of a student in the GSA, the piece of art represents an image that went viral at the school. Turrell recollects that a student created a snapchat of a rainbow noose and labeled it, “for all the queers.” Although this constitutes a federal hate crime, Turrell mentioned that the school dealt with it on their own, settling for suspension of the offender.
Along the other wall rested six portraits of bisexual FCHS students, with a silver rectangle of duct tape covering their mouths. A club membered titled it, “The Faces of /B/,” and wrote insults that people had called each person on the tape. Concealing the mouths of students ranged words from “whore” and “greedy,” to phrases like, “pick a side” and “fake.” Nevertheless, despite the harsh words, the eyes of the kids seemed to tell a tale of silent strength and resolve.
Casper Kittle (C’20) felt a connection to the kids at FCHS due to the fact she started a GSA at her Chattanooga high school. She recalls the difficulty in finding support for her organization, and found it equally challenging to organize events due to torn down posters and ignored announcement requests.
She stated that “kids didn’t feel comfortable coming to meetings. It was to the point where we only had juniors and seniors because they could drive.”
However, she maintained that she felt “glad [their experience] wasn’t as actively terrible as it is in some places,” and found more apathy than discontent at her school.
“What I did at my high school was nowhere near as astounding as what these kids faced, and the fact that they can keep going through the resistance that they’re facing is amazing,” she concluded.
Turrell expressed her deep pride in her students as well, but argued that problems still remained.
“I was not fired,” she stated, “but I got a reprimand for my involvement and it was clear I should leave.”
“What’s so frustrating is that these children have only 1 or 2 faculty members that are allies. Some are quiet allies but won’t be out loud,” she stated about the issue of lack of support within the system of teachers.
“Teachers can have a really big impact if they teach everyone, but they’re afraid of losing their jobs. I work with teachers who are working in hostile schools. I wondered how do you help the children without having faculty members lose their jobs?”
Her answer? Hooking these teachers in, breaking down the isolation of areas like rural Tennessee. For example, she explained that recently a p-flag made an appearance in Winchester, along with a support group for the families of LGBT kids.
Once a month, parents of high school aged LGBT children have the ability to connect with parents whose children have already grown up.
“They’ve already been through what these parents currently are, and they can say ‘been there, done that,’” Turrell denoted.
She concluded that the “Homeless at Home” exhibition would continue to accept submissions of art and poetry from around the state in order to give a broader view of growing up LGBT in Tennessee. Additionally, if the reception falls on a busy time of day, Turrell affirmed that the art would move to the University archives afterward.
“We’re trying to find ways to help people walk through this,” Turrell commented about the purpose of the exhibit, “and it’s nice to know there’s a lot of love out there, more than you’d expect.”