Teen turns tables: After being silenced, gay teen speaks out

TULLY — After being selected as a featured student for the Tully Junior-Senior High School’s Senior Spotlight, Tyler Ray Johnson, 17, was told what he wrote would not be published because he talked about his sexuality.

He was picked for the January newsletter, and one of the questions asked what his biggest challenge in life has been.

“The biggest challenge that I’ve faced was growing up gay and coming out,” Johnson wrote. “I had to learn how to become comfortable in my own skin and how to stay strong through bullying and all the negative experiences I had while trying to navigate through life.”

School administrators told Johnson he could either rewrite his answer and not mention his sexuality, or remove the question.

“So I said I would rather not be featured at all if that can’t be put in,” Johnson said.

At a school board meeting Monday night, he took it a step further, calling for policy changes and increased sensitivity and anti-discrimination training. Superintendent Robert Hughes said that’s what he’ll do.

Closeted years

Johnson spent most of his teen years hiding his sexuality but had found acceptance among his Tully peers. When Principal Mike O’Brien told him he couldn’t talk about his challenges as a gay person in the newsletter, it felt like a slap in the face.

“So many people in this school are going through the same thing that I’ve gone through,” Johnson said. “It could have made them feel that it’s OK to speak up about things you believe in and be unapologetically yourself. That was taken away from them in that very moment.”

After getting the news from O’Brien, Johnson called his mom.

“When I saw him, he was just so sad. That took me back to the years he struggled to be himself, and I was not OK with that,” said Johnson’s mother, Pam Custer. “I will never let someone take his handsome smile away again.”

From spotlight to limelight

Johnson posted a video Jan. 6 to TikTok explaining his situation. It had 10,000 views in 12 hours. By Monday, 78,000 people had watched it.

Within days, Tully Superintendent Hughes released a statement, saying he originally chose not to include Johnson’s answer because of concerns it would stir up controversy, hindering the school’s work related to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.

“In hindsight, this was not the right decision for me to make,” Hughes wrote. “It was not fair to this student, who has demonstrated great courage and honesty in revealing his struggles and in being true to who he is as a person. I do admire him for that. This was also a decision that also goes against values we are teaching our students, specifically tolerance, acceptance and resiliency.”

But Johnson said that’s not enough; he wants change.

Community support

With support from his mom and stepdad, Rocky, Johnson decided to push back against discrimination and homophobia, and advocate for policy changes, including training and investigations into incidents.

Pam Custer said the Tully community has supported Johnson’s effort for acceptance and to create a better future for LGBTQ students, and many are calling for O’Brien and Hughes to resign.

Johnson spoke Monday evening at a school board meeting.

“I’m not here just to speak for myself. I’m here to speak for all of those that aren’t able to speak — whether they have been told not to, are too afraid, or whatever their circumstance may be,” Johnson said. “What happened to me wasn’t a mistake, a dumb decision or a decision made just because it was a stressful day. It was an act of discrimination and hate.”

Johnson said the discrimination came from individuals who are supposed to ensure that the school was a safe, open and welcoming environment for students, faculty and staff.

“However, quite the opposite happened. Before I was asked by administration to hide the fact that I am gay, this school was somewhere that I’ve felt comfortable and accepted,” Johnson said. “But now, I dread walking through those doors every morning.”

The district acts

Before the board meeting, Hughes said the district is committed to developing solutions that ensure that LGBTQ students and faculty feel welcomed and supported.

“It is clear we need to do more in this regard, and we are,” Hughes said Monday afternoon.

After more than a dozen residents spoke during the meeting’s privilege of the floor, Hughes addressed the board to recommend additional training for himself, the board of education and the district’s administrators, an awareness workshop for faculty and staff, funding for support services and the creation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee.

“I have met with Tyler and his family as well as members of our Genders and Sexualities Alliance club and I reaffirm my commitment to taking steps to ensure our schools continue to be safe space for all members of our school community and create a school climate and culture based upon tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion,” Hughes said.

A common tale

Before coming out, Johnson dealt with depression and anxiety from hiding his sexuality, he said.

“I’m really proud of where I’ve gotten over the past 2 1/2 years and the person I’ve become,” Johnson said. “So when they asked me to take out my answer, it felt like they were trying to put me back in the spot I was in before.”

Johnson’s story is a common one, said Sam Adams, program coordinator at the Cortland LGBTQ Center.

“Representation is vital for LGBTQ youth,” she said. “The principal’s attempt to silence Tyler’s identity is part of what leaves so many LGBTQ youth feeling isolated and alone — and contibutes to the heartbreaking rates of depression and suicide in this community.”

Adams said she wants LGBTQ students to know their emotions are valid and deserve acknowledgment and that they are not alone.

“It’s important to note that this isn’t just about a difference of opinion. I often hear this desire to be more inclusive without holding perpetrators of bias and discrimination accountable for their actions,” Adams said. “Trying to walk that line does not work. What the principal did was against state law. Discrimination against LGBTQ students is against state law. Pretending we don’t exist doesn’t change that fact.”

“Our children should be accepted anywhere. It’s not OK to treat people this way,” Pam Custer said. “We never want another student to go through what Tyler has.”

‘Time for real change’

At the board meeting, Johnson argued that new policies, support services and a true diversity, equity and inclusion initiative are imperative for students like him.

“Some of you seem to not realize that this could have been a life or death situation for some students,” Johnson said. “I am proud to identify as gay, I am proud to be who I am, and I am thankful that I’ve been surrounded by so many people that are just as proud and so supportive.”

However, Johnson said many LGBTQ teenagers do not have the same support systems.

The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ individuals, estimates that at least one LGBTQ person between 13 and 24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in America.

“This school board has the power to lower those statistics,” Johnson said. “It’s time for real change to happen and to make sure that I am the last student this happens to — not only in Tully but everywhere.”


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