The Lodge

True colors

Changing attitudes towards gay rights affect local community

Photo: Dennis Whitehead Darling
Mr. Dennis Darling and his husband, Mr. Bryan Darling, pose the morning of their wedding in a car with a sign that reads “Just Married” in Italian. Their wedding was held last summer in Italy.

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Soon to be featured in Martha Stewart Weddings magazine: the wedding of Mr. Dennis Whitehead and Mr. Bryan Darling, which took place in a castle outside Tuscany, Italy. While their wedding would have been difficult to imagine not long ago, it was made possible by events that transpired just weeks before.

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marriage under the Constitution. Thirty-seven states had already legalized same-sex marriage prior to this ruling, and the historic decision has been praised by many, including President Barack Obama who called it a “victory for America.”

“When the court decision was handed down in late June on a Friday, that Monday we went down to the courthouse and got our marriage license,” Mr. Whitehead, now Mr. Darling, said. “It was just wonderful for us to do that and then, less than a month later, go off and get married.”

Mr. Darling has been the director of choral arts since he came to St. George’s in 2011, leading the upper school chorus to victories at national festivals in Chicago and Orlando and inductions into the All-West Tennessee Honor Choir. He first came out in 2000, and he has witnessed the world’s views of gay rights change over the last fif- teen years.

“You know, we’re not 20, so we’re used to there being some resistance and a little bit of hate, a lot of hate from some,” Mr. Darling said. “But it’s like overnight, the world changed. It’s really been incredible.”

While the connection between the Supreme Court decision and St. George’s may not be immediately apparent, schools everywhere are affected by the changing landscape of gay rights in America.

Alumna Zoe Leake, class of 2014, is now a sophomore at the University of Montana. Leake says she was bisexual in high school and dated a woman in eleventh and twelfth grade and that she has a boyfriend now.

“Of the schools in Memphis, St. George’s is a welcoming place,” Leake said. “You’re not going to receive ridicule for who you are at St. George’s. They just want you to be yourself, and they want you to rise in an environment where you can be yourself.”

When Leake came out to her family and friends, she said that there was no backlash and that it was almost as if she didn’t have to say anything because, when both relationships began, it was “just sort of an understanding.”

“I would say that I faced challenges, but what high schooler doesn’t face challenges? You’re going through hell in a handbasket,” Leake said.

Current gay students at St. George’s said they felt similarly to Leake. One sophomore boy, who came out in eighth grade, felt that he was met with support from the school community, though he wished to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article.

“I feel like I’m supported,” he said. “No one says anything to me or looks at me weird. If they do, they keep it to themselves.”

Within the last several months, the United States has rapidly changed as groundbreaking stories made news, including Bruce Jenner transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner and Pope Francis’s comments on gay marriage. 

It’s like, overnight, the world changed.”

— Mr. Dennis Darling

“There are still those people who don’t really accept [gay marriage], but I feel like it’s just a better time for children to grow up now than it was back then,” the student said. “I feel like children are in a safer environment, and they can come up knowing that they can marry the people that they love without being discriminated against.”

Schools at the Crossroads

St. George’s is a school in the episcopal tradition, and the student handbook outlines that it “welcomes students and families of many different faiths and back- grounds” and that part of its characteristics include “a respect for others’ beliefs.”

In July, the United States Episcopal Church approved same-sex marriage, which authorized clergy to officiate same-sex weddings and changed the terminology from “man and woman” to “couple.” 

Children can come up knowing that they can marry the people that they love without being discriminated against.”

— Sophomore boy

“[Episcopalians] are mainly Anglican, mainly English-speaking, mainly Western, … and I think just naturally more inclined to adapt,” school chaplain Mr. Brendan Gorham said. “It’s just more prone to revision and reform when it’s a council rather than a singular influence, like a pope.”

While the Episcopal church has been quick to adapt to changing attitudes toward same-sex relationships not all Christian denominations have been as ready to accept this change.

In September, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis was jailed and faced misconduct charges after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it conflicted with her Apostolic Christian beliefs.

Later that month, Lance Sanderson, a senior at all-male Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, was refused permission to bring a male date to the homecoming dance. CBHS cited concerns about male students from other schools causing problems. CBHS students can go in a group of boys from school, but they cannot bring a boy from another school as their date.

Although he is currently back at CBHS after he was sent home for the unwanted publicity, Lance’s story reached tens of thousands of people all over the country. Sanderson’s story was covered in Teen Vogue and praised by “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes via Twitter. He received more than 26,771 signatures on his petition to let him take a male date to homecoming.

Sanderson said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” when he was told he was not allowed to bring his date to the dance. Male Sanderson said he is “just looking forward now.”

“I was very quiet in most situations before all of this happened,” Sanderson said. “Now, I feel like I have a voice and a platform to speak for people who are too afraid to speak for themselves.”

In the past, there have been no restrictions against bringing dates of the same gender to school dances at St. George’s.

“It’s hard for us to predict exactly how things play out or what’s coming next,” Head of School Mr. Ross Peters said. “What we can trust is who we are as an institution and what’s important to us, and it is imperative that we value and respect all the members of our community. Our compass is the valuing of every life and every student, and that will be the compass we need to navigate what comes next.”

The Road Ahead

Within the student body of St. George’s, students seem mostly accepting of gay rights. Regarding same-sex dates at school dances, senior Jane Shelby Bragg said that, as long as the school agreed, she would be in support of all students bringing their dates, regardless of sexual orientation.

“I’m Christian, and I believe in God and go to church, but my faith doesn’t affect how I see gay people and what rights they deserve,” Bragg said. “There’s no influence of my faith and my opinion on their rights.”

“God says [to] love everyone, so gay people [and] not gay people, they’re all the same,” sophomore Mason Williams said. “I think He would be loving to everyone, not just straight people.”

Religion and gay rights do often collide. However, many people are beginning to shift their perspectives as the country as a whole becomes more accepting with gay rights, including many Christians who do not agree with particular interpretations of the Bible. 

My faith doesn’t affect how I see gay people and what rights they deserve.”

— Jane Shelby Bragg '16

Despite the changing views in 2015, the Supreme Court decision only guarantees a right to marriage, and the United States as a whole does not have any anti-discrimination laws in place in terms of sexual orientation. Gay students, especially those in middle and high school, may still face discrimination.

One sophomore boy, who preferred to remain anonymous for this article, stated that he struggles with being open about his sexuality to his classmates because of an incident that occurred two years ago.

He went to wellness one day and someone had written about him in sharpie on the mirror, describing him with a homophobic slur. He stated that he tried to erase it but was not able to, and it remained there for the rest of the school year.

The student said that while he doesn’t feel comfortable being completely open to everyone, he feels support and acceptance from his friends.

“Test the waters first,” he said, when asked what advice he would give to his younger self. “Ask people what they think about gay marriage and such so you know that they’re okay with it. Make sure that you’re comfortable with it before coming out to everyone else.”

Certainly all can agree that the pace of change surrounding the gay rights movement has been dramatic. Mr. Darling is optimistic about the events that have transpired so far and what is to come.

“Ultimately, people want to accept who you are, and they want you to be who you are,” Mr. Darling said. “You’ve got one life to live and life is short, and you’ve got to live in your truth.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “True colors”

  1. Laura McDowell on November 6th, 2015 12:55 PM


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