Tyler Oakley, a YouTube celebrity and LGBTQ activist, will speak in Cheney on Thursday to honor a local high school student and raise awareness about the need to support gay, lesbian and transgender youths in rural areas.
Oakley, 29, is best known for his YouTube channel, which has nearly 8 million subscribers. He lives in Los Angeles.
He will speak at a town hall meeting in "a big red shed" at 39600 W. Fourth St. in Cheney from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday. The meeting is being hosted by the local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ youths.
Oakley decided to visit Cheney, a small town about 30 miles west of Wichita, after learning about Aaron Mounts, a Cheney High School senior who has lobbied unsuccessfully to start a Gender and Sexuality Alliance that could meet during the school day.
"I hope that people who may be uncomfortable with the subject show up and ask questions and learn a little bit," said Mounts, 17, who came out as gay in eighth grade and will graduate from Cheney High on Saturday.
"There's still quite a bit of homophobia and bullying and resentment" against LGBTQ people in rural schools, he said. "When you're the only openly gay student on campus, you don't have the kind of support network that you might have in larger communities. ... People don't know what you're going through, and they don't really want to talk about it."
Cheney High School has about 250 students.
Mounts first approached school officials about starting a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the school about three years ago, when he was a sophomore. He wanted students to be able to gather on campus during a seminar class when other groups, such as a school book club, hold their monthly meetings.
District officials and the Cheney school board denied his repeated requests to start the group, citing a policy that prohibits any noncurricular organization from meeting on campus during school hours.
David Grover, superintendent of Cheney schools, said he and Mounts have "agreed to disagree" about the on-campus group. But he praised Mounts' efforts and said the 17-year-old has had a profound effect on Cheney High and the larger community.
"There's a little bit more freedom of expression among students and staff," Grover said. "Students are being made aware of people's differences and not necessarily looking the other way. ... I think you can credit that back to Aaron and his taking some steps forward."
Oakley, who is openly gay, is scheduled to interview Cheney High principal Greg Rosenhagen during his visit to Kansas and could feature footage from that conversation and from Thursday evening's town hall meeting on his channel.
"I understand that he is here to recognize Aaron for his leadership and his advocacy, and I am 100 percent behind that," Rosenhagen said.
"Aaron has taken it upon himself, having an event to bring awareness, and I credit him for doing that."
Jessica Mounts, Aaron's mother, said her son has endured some bullying and harassment over the years, but she's proud of his efforts to talk more openly about LGBTQ issues and to advocate for his peers in Cheney and elsewhere.
"Being an out kid in high school is not an easy road to travel in small-town America," she said. "He has had a lot of support from his friend group and our family ... but there's been kind of a disconnect in communication about how to deal with that from a school standpoint.
"We just kept thinking, 'Gosh, it would be really nice if our community would be more supportive of this.' We know he's not the only one."
Liz Hamor, co-founder of the Wichita chapter of GLSEN, which is sponsoring Oakley's visit, said she's excited about the event and what it could mean for Cheney and other similar communities.
"Regardless of whatever else happens, it will be helpful because it will continue the conversation in this community that has to continue," Hamor said.
Cheney is an example "of a small, conservative community where students face more bullying and harassment than the general population may be aware of," she said. "But there are people who know those LGBT kids and want them to feel safe. So when it does get raised, you hope the community rallies around the students in support of them."
Jessica Mounts said she's proud of her son, who plans to attend Wichita State University and major in political science.
"He said, 'I want to go out with a bang. I want to leave my school knowing I changed my school for the better and that I changed it for people coming after me,'" she said.
"I would really like to see Cheney schools be an example across Kansas and across the nation of what it can look like to have a community come together and have the hard conversations and really talk about things openly," she said. "To start to dispel rumors and misunderstandings and really rally around these students, who are the future."