Marcus Pennell graduated from Grand Island Northwest High School in 2022. He is currently a freshman English major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
When you’re navigating high school as a transgender student, you have to find pockets of acceptance and hope. I found mine in band, theater and Grand Island Northwest High School’s student newspaper, the Viking Saga, where people knew me as Marcus, the baritone player and “bald soprano” from the play of the same name.
When it came to my byline in the newspaper, it seemed like a no-brainer to change it five letters from “Meghan,” the name on my birth certificate, to the one everyone knew — “Marcus.”
Our school board disagreed
Citing district policy 6391, the nine-member board informed Viking Saga staff in late March we would no longer be allowed to use any name not listed on our birth certificate. It didn’t make sense. Even our own principal goes by “PJ” instead of “Paul.” But we knew it wasn’t really about that.
I’ve seen the culture wars over transgender athletes or even new policies in Omaha advising catholic schools not to affirm student’s identity if it differs from their birth certificate. I’ve also seen the statistics showing trans students denied their chosen identity are more likely to face depression and suicidal thoughts, according to a 2018 University of Texas at Austin study.
We knew we needed to make some kind of a statement to our community in the Viking Saga’s June issue. LGBT+ youth deserve a quality education, just the same as their cisgendered and heterosexual counterparts.
The resulting “pride” issue featured three articles within the 11-page paper and two rainbow icons on the front cover. All other articles covered Northwest, including its baseball team, Future Business Leaders of America organization, student trap shooters celebrating a successful season and a how-to guide for registering for next year’s classes.
The issue came out. Some people liked it. Some people didn’t. But I didn’t hear much about it until one day in June when I was working at Raising Canes and got the call.
They shut down the newspaper.
After more than 50 years publishing stories about life at Northwest High, and recently taking home third place at the 2022 Nebraska School Activities Association’s State Journalism Championship, someone had made an “administrative decision” that couldn’t be changed, questioned or debated, according to a teacher. There was no school board meeting and seemingly no way to bring the program back.
School Board Vice President Zach Mader told the Grand Island Independent “If [taxpayers] read that [issue], they would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?’” and turns out he had a point. What was going on at our school was a bias against LGBT+ students and now the whole nation is reading about it.
Since then, Grand Island Northwest School District Superintendent Jeffery Edwards said in an open letter that the characterization that the high school is ending its journalism program is inaccurate. The school will continue to offer yearbook and digital media courses, but has “paused” publishing the paper. Edwards also said the decision resulted from multiple factors and had nothing to do with the content of the June issue.
However, it’s hard for me to see it that way.
To my fellow queer students, I promise it does get better. Campus Pride, a non-profit dedicated to serving LGBT+ students since 2001 reported over 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. have gender-inclusive housing and allow students to indicate their name and pronouns on course rosters. Over 1,070 have policies in place to protect their LGBT+ students. There is a place you can be yourself without compromising your safety, even if it’s not in the halls of your high school.
To the students who would have taken journalism this year, please keep writing. Although people may try to stop you, just keep writing. Even if you think no one will see it, read it or care about it. Through writing, new ideas become not so new and you can open yourself and those around you up to a world they had never even previously considered. Just because I lost my hope when the Northwest journalism program was cut, doesn’t mean you have to too.
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