A YouTube celebrity who visited Cheney recently says there "may be a long road ahead" for LGBTQ people in small-town America, but he came away inspired and hopeful.
Tyler Oakley, an openly gay activist whose YouTube channel has nearly 8 million subscribers, visited Cheney last month to honor a local high school student and raise awareness about the need to support gay, lesbian and transgender youth in rural areas.
He posted his account of the visit — a 13-minute video titled "this school refuses to allow a queer safe space" — on his YouTube channel this week.
Oakley, who lives in Los Angeles, visited Kansas after learning about Aaron Mounts, a Cheney High School senior who lobbied unsuccessfully to start a Gender and Sexuality Alliance that could meet during the school day.
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The video opens with Oakley on a mostly deserted main street in Cheney, a community about 30 miles west of Wichita.
"Today many schools have a Gender and Sexuality Alliance club, or a GSA, that allows LGBTQ+ students and their allies to meet, make friends and discuss issues tied to their unique identities," Oakley says.
When the camera focuses on the outside of Cheney High School, Oakley adds, "However, some schools are not so tolerant."
The video features conversations with Mounts, his mother, two teachers who volunteered to sponsor the GSA club, and Cheney High principal Greg Rosenhagen. Oakley also hosted a town hall meeting at "Cheney's best option," he said — a big red shed on the outskirts of town.
Mounts, who graduated last month, started lobbying for a GSA at the school 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.
In the video, Rosenhagen said "we don't get reports" of bullying against LGBTQ students or any effort to exclude them from activities.
"What I see on a daily basis is acceptance with everybody. I don't see labels on people to where, 'Well, that group can't do that or can't associate here' or whatever," the principal said. "I don't think it's a threatening place to come to."
Outside the school afterward, Oakley said the administrator discounted concerns Mounts and others had raised.
"It's just kind of denying the experience that kids are explicitly trying to share and to be vulnerable and tell," Oakley says. "And then say, 'No, it's not a problem. Therefore, we don't need a solution. Thank you and goodbye.' "
Oakley said he was encouraged by the town hall meeting in Cheney, during which one woman urged adults to stand up in support of LGBTQ youth and several rose from their lawn chairs, prompting applause.
"I'm so inspired by how many people came out and participated and spoke up, showing that they want to make this place better," he said.