Mere weeks into the 2021-2022 school year, Pearl River Central High School art teacher Catherine Bass was already exhausted. Students at the rural South Mississippi school in Carriere, Miss., had defaced a Black Lives Matter sign in her room by painting “All” in white over “Black,” stolen her pride flag and, on top of it all, the COVID-19 delta variant had ripped through the school district in August, forcing a two-week hiatus on in-person instruction.
After taking a day off on Sept. 8, 2021, Bass returned to the Pearl River County school to find that her pride flag was once again missing. A student told her that while she was out, another student, Jack (not his real name), had been sharing photos of a gay teacher’s husband while expressing his disdain for gay people.
“I should steal Ms. Bass’ flag,” the student recalled Jack saying before he stuffed it in his book bag. The art teacher overheard another student saying that Jack was planning to burn the flag.
Bass, who had taught grades 9 through 12 at PRCHS since late 2017, took the incident as a sign that her lesson plan that morning was not only appropriate, but necessary. Each morning, the art teacher shared a different artist for her bell-ringer activity at the start of class. Days earlier, she had decided to highlight Sonia Lazo, a queer non-binary artist from El Salvador.
Going forward with the assignment at such a time, the administration would later say, was Bass’ first mistake.
‘What Does Queer Mean?’
On Sept. 9, 2021, the day before homecoming, Bass arrived at the school wearing a pair of rainbow suspenders over a white t-shirt with colorful bars across it. Blue, yellow and red mascara colored her eyelids, and a pair of Blue Devil horns sat atop her brunette head. Her bell-ringer assignment on Lazo included a writing prompt: “What community are you part of? Draw a picture to illustrate it.”
While Bass was going over the artist in her first-period class, a special-needs student named Tom (not his real name) asked Bass a question: “What’s LGBTQ?”
Answering his question, the administration would later say, was Bass’ second mistake.
The art teacher explained that the LGBTQ acronym stands for, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer” (the “Q” is also sometimes used to mean “questioning”).
“What does queer mean?” Tom asked. He only knew it as a slur that, at times, others had used against him.
Bass explained that “queer” is an umbrella term for gender and sexual minorities.
“Ms. Bass, what communities are you part of?” another student, Daisy (not her real name), asked.
The teacher mentioned several communities she considered herself part of, including the gardening community, cooking community, dance community and the LGBTQ community.
“Oh yeah, you’re bi, aren’t you?” Daisy said.
Answering this question, the administration would later say, was Bass’ third—and worst—mistake.
“I would probably consider myself more pan than bi,” Bass said. She had dated a woman when she was between the ages of 19 and 21 and, at age 32, has been in a relationship with a man for almost nine years, but considers herself pansexual because “gender had nothing to do” with her feelings for either of them, she explained.
While bisexuality refers to attraction to people of more than one specific gender or gender identity, pansexuality is “characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.”
‘You Have To Be Kind’
By fourth period, Bass learned that the administration had switched Jack out of her class and into another art teacher’s class instead—a decision that did not make her happy. She asked Kimberly Alford, the school principal, for a meeting to discuss her objections to his removal.
“I didn’t want to send the message that (Jack) and I are different, and we have this conflict, and now he just is going away or that when conflict occurs, you can just be removed from the situation,” Bass told the Mississippi Free Press. “And I didn’t want him to think that I wanted to get rid of him because he was different.”
During third period the next morning, on Sept. 10, 2021, the art teacher overheard “about half the room talking about how my flag was stolen, and how (Jack) should have flushed it down the toilet,” Bass wrote in journals she shared with the Mississippi Free Press.
Upset, Bass initially stepped out of the room and asked another teacher to watch over the class while she went to speak with an administrator about how to handle the situation. She changed her mind and returned to the class where she sent a text message to Alford asking her for advice on responding. Before the principal could reply, though, Bass spoke up.
“I told the class that I wouldn’t go over the bell ringer since it was Friday, and it was a quiz, but asked if anyone knew why I structured the bell ringers the way I did,” she recounted in her journals.
“No one knew. I told them that I share a different artist with them every day so that they are exposed to people and art of different ages, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, time periods, geographical locations, etc. … I said that everyone is different, and we need to practice recognizing and celebrating those differences instead of letting them divide us, because life would be pretty boring if everyone were the same.”
“You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to be kind.”
None of the students spoke afterward, and Bass resumed class as usual. Soon, the art teacher noticed that Alford had written her back, telling her to ignore the students’ comments about the pride flag—a stark departure from advice the administration had previously given her about handling issues in the classroom.
‘An Inappropriate Sexual Conversation’
Bass arrived for the meeting with Alford and another teacher later that afternoon. The principal said she would not move Jack back to Bass’ class, but that he had returned the pride flag, which Alford handed back to Bass.
Soon, though, the art teacher learned that the topic of their meeting was no longer just about one student’s disrespect; it was now about her own actions.
Parents had complained, Alford said, claiming that Bass had engaged in an “inappropriate sexual conversation with children” and defined sexual terms to a special-education student. The art teacher instantly knew what she was talking about, and recounted how she had explained the meaning of “LGBTQ,” “queer” and answered a question about her own identity.
Bass explained that student Daisy likely thought she was bisexual because she had mentioned the existence of a former girlfriend in passing while discussing a different topic in class the year before.
“They told me I had an inappropriate sexual conversation with children,” Bass wrote in her journal. “I told them the conversation was never about sex. … Kim told me that she knows I want to be inclusive, but my behavior was being interpreted as exclusive to (straight kids), and that the parents felt like I was shoving it down their throats.
“They said that I shared that artist on purpose, told the kids I was queer, and came to school the next day decked out in pride gear because I was mad my flag was stolen. I told them that I had planned on sharing that artist in advance, and it was homecoming and class color day, and I always wear my rainbow suspenders because I teach all of the classes. They told me that I should have realized the tension was high and skipped that artist and saved them for another time. I said I felt the opposite.”
Alford told Bass that “the situation was pretty severe” and that parents had accused her of violating the Mississippi Department of Education’s Educator Code of Ethics. The principal said she could not say exactly which part of the Code of Ethics the art teacher had violated, according to the journal, but that they would meet to further discuss the issue after Alford met with Alan Lumpkin, the Pearl River County School Superintendent.
Bass told the Mississippi Free Press that the administration’s reaction to the incident “shocked” her.
“I thought they were going to have my back, and that’s why I offered up exactly what I said as soon as I knew what they were talking about because I was pretty confident that I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said.
‘I Didn’t Say Anything About Sex’
When Bass returned to work on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, she noticed that two more students had been switched out of her class, including one in first period and another in fourth. That afternoon, she met with Alford again, as planned. This time, the art teacher secretly made an audio recording of the meeting, which she shared with the Mississippi Free Press. Alford said she had met with Lumpkin who then spoke about the matter with Jim Keith, the school-board attorney.
“Mr. Lumpkin explained what happened, and Jim Keith did say that it was in violation of our code of conduct, code of ethics. It’s standard 1—unprofessional conversation with students.”
Standard 1 of the Mississippi Department of Education Code of Ethics says that “an educator should demonstrate conduct that follows generally recognized professional standards.”
“Unethical conduct includes, but is not limited to, the following: a. Harassment of colleagues; b. Misuse or mismanagement of tests or test materials; c. Inappropriate language on school grounds or any school-related activity; d. Physical altercations; e. Failure to provide appropriate supervision of students and reasonable disciplinary actions,” the standard says, without mentioning sexuality and offering no other examples of infractions.
Bass asked Alford how her discussion with students the prior week violated those standards.
“So the sexual conversation that you engaged in, that is discussing sexual behavior,” Alford replied.
“My issue with that, though, is that I wasn’t discussing anything sexual. I was just talking about love and relationships,” Bass replied. “I didn’t say anything about sex.”
“So according to Mr. Keith, when you enter into a conversation talking about your sexual orientation, it’s inappropriate conversation. So that’s what I can share back with you,” Alford said.
“OK,” the art teacher replied.
The principal then read a letter from Jim Keith, the board attorney.
“Mrs. Bass, this letter is to inform you that your actions during the week of Sept. 2-10 in inappropriately discussing your sexual preferences with your students and defining sexual terms in your art classes is in violation of MDE Code of Ethics standard 1,” Alford read aloud. “This reprimand is a formal warning that this behavior is not acceptable nor will it be tolerated. Any future violations will result in disciplinary action up to and or including termination.”
Alford stressed that the formal reprimand did not amount to a suspension or a termination.
“Mr. Lumpkin and I … feel like with this formal reprimand, you will understand the expectation and that you will not have another conversation that would violate that,” the principal said.
Bass pushed back, highlighting another set of standards: The Mississippi Department of Education Arts Learning Standards for Visual Arts says educators should teach about how “life experiences influence the way (people) relate to art” and how art “helps us understand the lives of people in different times, places, and cultures.”
“I appreciate that you’re a researcher,” Alford told Bass. “I know that about you, I do, and I think it’s great that you dug into it and said, ‘Where does this fit?’ At the end of the day, you sharing your sexual orientation with the class does not fit in your standards. … When we talked on Friday, I shared with you that where we’re at right now, parents are—there is a group of parents, not all parents, that are outraged. And when you define a sexual term to a special-needs student, we have parents very upset about that.”
Bass would later learn that the special-ed student Tom’s parents were not among those who made complaints.
Local Senator Introduced ‘Parental Rights’ Bill
Even in Mississippi, Pearl River County is a highly conservative area. Its county seat is Poplarville, the birthplace of Theodore G. Bilbo, a notorious Dixiecrat Mississippi governor, congressman and Klansman known for filibustering federal antilynching legislation. Poplarville was the site of the 1959 mob murder of Mack Charles Parker, which historian Howard Smead called “the last classic lynching in America” (a disputed characterization).
Two years ago, an openly gay man ran for alderman in Poplarville, but lost after drawing public condemnation from a local preacher who warned that the candidate would not serve “with a Christian mindset.”
In the 2020 election, Donald Trump won 83% of votes cast in Pearl River County, compared to 58% statewide. Though only 56% of the state’s overall residents are non-Hispanic white, 82% of Pearl River County residents identify as such.
After the Legislature passed and Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill officially ending alcohol prohibition in all Mississippi counties in 2020, merely possessing alcohol became legal in Pearl River County for the first time, but the religiously conservative south Mississippi county maintained its prohibition on alcohol sales. A 2020 Public Religion Research Institute study estimated that 48% of the county’s residents are white evangelical Christians—a group that comprises just 14% of the nation as a whole.
The county is home to two of the most conservative members of the Mississippi Legislature: Republican Sen. Angela Hill and Republican House Rep. Stacey Hobgood-Wilkes. The women, both from Picayune, the county’s largest city, were among a small minority of lawmakers who voted against the adoption of a medical-marijuana legalization bill this year.
In 2021, Hill, a long-time opponent of equal-pay legislation, authored The Mississippi Fairness Act based on legislation crafted out of state by the Alliance Defending Freedom. The law bans transgender athletes from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. Hill said her goal was to ensure “fairness” in women’s sports. The senator’s original bill would have allowed doctors to inspect athletes’ genitalia, but lawmakers revised it before final passage.
This year, Hill introduced The Transgender 21 Act, which would have allowed parents to block a transgender child or adult younger than 21 from obtaining treatments like hormone therapy, puberty blockers and sex-reassignment surgery.
She also introduced the Transparency In Education Act, which would have prohibited schools from teaching so-called “identity curriculums,” defined in the bill as a “curriculum that has the goal or purpose of studying, exploring, or informing students about gender roles or stereotypes, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or romantic or sexual relationships.”
That bill also would have prohibited any “critical theory” curriculum that says “the United States or the State of Mississippi is fundamentally, inherently or irredeemably racist, sexist, oppressive or discriminatory” or that “any individual, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin, is … unable to advance in society due to being victimized, marginalized, or oppressed by others.” Neither bill made it out of committee during this year’s legislative session.
In an interview with conservative SuperTalk radio host Paul Gallo on April 6, Hill expressed regret that the Legislature did not pass her Transparency In Education Act, comparing it to Florida’s new Parental Rights In Education law. Opponents dubbed the Florida legislation as a “Don’t Say Gay” law because it prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“Mississippi could have had a law very similar to Florida’s that (Gov. Ron) DeSantis is getting all the flak about, but we have school districts that are doing a really good job,” Hill told Gallo. “But we have some others that are indoctrinating children. And I’ve seen it in the curriculum in good schools, because it typically permeates most of the curriculum that is bought by school districts.”
A week earlier, Hill said, someone at a local school sent her photos of books shipped for the spring book fair due to references to LGBTQ people.
“I was sent pictures of Scholastic books that were at the book fair that said some children have two mommies, some children have two daddies,” she told the radio host. “So what they are doing is introducing kindergarteners into this alternative lifestyle, and if that’s the lifestyle that somebody chooses, so be it, but leave it out of the kindergarten curriculum.”
‘Parents Were Outraged’
Catherine Bass grew up in Poplarville, where she said she learned how isolating and scary being a queer teenager in Pearl River County can be.
“I didn’t really care who knew, but I had to kind of keep it a secret because the girl I was involved with in high school didn’t want people to know because she was afraid of what reaction people would have,” Bass said. “So out of respect for her, I didn’t tell anybody either.”
During her meetings with Principal Kimberly Alford in September 2021, Bass tried to explain why she considered it important to offer visible representation for students who may not have it otherwise. Hiding her sexuality would have sent “a message of shame” to her students, she told the Mississippi Free Press.
“I was trying to show my kids that it’s OK to be who you are, and you don’t have to be afraid of your own identity regardless of what other people think,” she said. “You can be proud of who you are and not live in shame and secrecy just because others don’t approve. And I feel like being told that sharing myself with the kids like that was wrong and that if I did it again I’d be fired basically sends the message, ‘This is something you should be ashamed of and something you shouldn’t talk about.’”
When Bass pointed out during her second meeting with Alford that another male teacher at the school is a married gay man, the principal told her that she had “never had a complaint about him over-sharing what his sexual preferences are.”
“So he’s allowed to say, ‘I have a husband,’ but he’s not allowed to say he’s gay?” the art teacher asked.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Alford replied, reiterating that the difference was that she had never received any complaints about the gay male teacher but that multiple “parents were outraged” at Bass.
The art teacher called it a “double standard,” noting that Lazo was the first LGBTQ artist she had shared with students during the semester. It was a coincidence that the planned lesson came the day after a student stole her pride flag, she emphasized.
“It’s not like that was a focus of the classroom,” Bass responded. “It just happened to land on that day. I kind of took that as a sign after my flag was stolen that I needed to make myself visible for kids who might be unsure about themselves, you know? Because I just don’t feel like shame and secrecy are a good thing to model.”
Bass pointed out that another teacher had told her that she had revealed to her class that she once dated a Black man after a student asked if she was against interracial marriage.
“That wasn’t an issue at all—someone talking about their previous heterosexual relationships,” Bass said, once again noting that she only mentioned that she had once dated a woman. “Do you see what I mean?”
“I do,” Alford replied. “I want you to hear me, and I want to go back to what I’ve said numerous times. When parents complain and we dig in, we have to respond.”
The principal said that, even as a straight woman, she could not respond to a student who asked if she had ever had an “experience with a girl” by denying it because “this is not the place for” such conversations.
“You keep bringing up sexual activity,” Bass said. “And that’s, I just don’t—sexual relationships can exist outside of sex. It’s not—I didn’t mention sex at all.”
Alford asked Bass once again to explain what she said when the student asked what her sexual preference was.
“I said I think that I would probably label myself as pan because I loved these people for who they were and not because of their gender,” she replied.
“Mhm. So identifying—I feel like a broken record, Catherine,” Alford said. “I don’t want to do that to you. … But I’m sharing to you it’s sexual, it’s not appropriate. We have gone to our attorney for advice. We have multiple parents complaining. I was very upfront with you. We had six parents complaining, six parents demanding their child to be (moved to another class)—and we started those changes today. I’m sure you saw that.”
“I was going to ask if that was the reason my kids were—”
“And according to Jim Keith, once a parent says this is a distraction to my child’s learning environment, I can’t refuse a schedule change, and that’s what the parents are saying,” Alford said. “So I can’t refuse that.”
Bass repeatedly asked Alford if a straight teacher who described themselves as straight would also face a reprimand. The principal said she had reprimanded straight teachers in the past after their remarks had drawn complaints from parents.
“So someone saying they were straight and had always been straight, that’s what caused the complaints?” she asked.
“Yes, because the person began talking about their sexual experiences with only the other gender. And it was over-sharing of sexual information,” Alford said.
“You said you feel like a broken record, and I feel the same, because you keep saying ‘sexual experiences,’ and sexual experiences were not part of the conversation I had,” Bass insisted. “So that’s where I’m stuck, you know?”
The art teacher said she was not ready to sign the reprimand form. She asked for a day to think about it and said she would be willing to have a third meeting with Lumpkin present.
Alford warned that “the next conversation we have is going to be more difficult.”
“I will tell you at this point Mr. Keith has also stated some things that are going to be very difficult for you to hear,” she said. “… Mr. Keith said that the flag has to be removed from your classroom because parents are connecting that to your sexual orientation, and it’s a distraction in the classroom.”
Alford went further.
“You can’t have any flag up that is not the United States or the State of Mississippi (flags),” the principal said. “… I have stood by you having that flag. I’ve advocated for that flag. I have no problem with that flag. I think it’s an important part of the campus, but at the point that we involve our attorney in a conflict and he’s made aware of something and he advises us, we have to take that under advisement.”
As she spoke, Bass’ voice began to break.
“The fact that people are getting upset about it just makes me feel like education and exposure to different types of people and cultures is that much more needed,” she said, sniffling. “And (that I should) not just roll over in the wake of hate, you know what I mean? It is just upsetting.”
Alford offered Bass a tissue and said she would arrange the meeting with Lumpkin.
“I don’t want you to feel like—and I know you’re gonna—like you’re just being trampled over,” the principal added. “It’s not in that way at all. It’s the nature of the conversation and the fact that our parents have a real serious problem with it, and I hope that you can know and understand. And I’ll speak for myself: I can be 110% supportive of you and be an ally of yours in the LGBTQ community, but also in my role do a reprimand when I’m told that was inappropriate.”
Alford noted that she had not cited Bass for violating Standard 4, which deals with educator and student relationships, including inappropriate sexual contact or conversations with students.
“Citing 4 is an offense that I have to report to the Mississippi Department of Education,” Alford said. “And so this, verbal conversations, I could have done 4, but I did not because I in no way saw that you had a one-on-one conversation to solicit attention from a female. I want you to be aware that in some places, some schools could have said 4.”
The Mississippi Free Press described Bass’ story to University of Mississippi Professor of Teacher Education Ellen Foster, who said she did “not see anything unethical about anything she said” based on this reporter’s description.
“I certainly don’t see anything in standard 1, and I really don’t see how that would be any different than if someone was getting married and was sharing that they were engaged and planning a wedding, which I know happens a lot in educators’ lives. Or that they’re having a baby or what have you, since the overwhelming majority of educators are women.”
‘Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing’
After the second meeting, Bass got in touch with GLSEN, a New York City-based nonprofit that describes its mission as “to ensure that every member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
Bass met with Superintendent Lumpkin and Principal Alford on Sept. 15, 2021, where she explained that a GLSEN representative told her it would be unlawful for a school district to punish her for explaining the meaning of LGBTQ or disclosing her own sexual orientation. GLSEN “thought it was inappropriate conflation” to lump discussions about sexual orientation in with ones about sexual activity, Bass said.
The art teacher also pointed to Bostock v. Clayton, the June 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the U.S. Department of Education to apply the same protections to educators and students under Title IX. GLSEN wants Congress to codify those protections into federal law with the Equality Act, but the effort stalled after the House of Representatives passed it last year due to the prospect of a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Asked for an interview, GLSEN declined to comment on Bass’ case. In its LGBTQ+ Educator Rights guide, though, GLSEN says educators have “the right to be out at work.”
“You have the right to be out and proud, when and how you choose,” GLSEN’s guide says. “You also have the right to keep your gender identity and sexual orientation private. Your school cannot punish you for sharing that you’re LGBTQ+—including with students or their families—in an appropriate way.”
Lumpkin told Bass that, while GLSEN advocates for LGBTQ rights, “there are legal representations for the opposite side or even neutral sides” and that GLSEN’s view on the subject is not necessarily definitive. As an educator, he said, Bass should focus on “keeping the main thing the main thing.”
“Just like you have a passion and desire to advocate and be inclusive to all, including the group you are passionate about, which is LGBTQ, there are other members that are involved and we have to be understanding of all,” the superintendent said. “That is why we, and our attorney, used the word neutral. We have to be neutral, we have to be neutral.”
“I do agree that from what I’ve heard from both of you (Bass and Alford) there are certain conversations that we in the Pearl River County School District do not feel are appropriate in the classroom, and that is sexual orientation,” Lumpkin continued. “We’ve had to, or I’ll speak for myself—I’ve had to sit in on meetings with other teachers and employees that have had conversations, even heterosexual conversations, about their relationships with someone, so we have to be very careful of that piece of it.”
“So the heterosexual relationships, they just said they were straight and had a relationship, and that got them in trouble?” Bass asked.
“There were conversations that were outside of what should be discussed in the classroom curriculum, yes. That is correct,” Lumpkin replied.
Bass said she did not feel right about signing a letter reprimanding her for answering questions about LGBTQ people or sharing her own orientation.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s not really about me getting in trouble. This is already done. And you know, I’ve lost kids over it,” she said, referring to students the administration had removed from her class after their parents complained. “And I just, still, just like in my core, I don’t feel it’s right.”
The superintendent told Bass that he saw nothing wrong with her assignment or explaining the meaning of “LGBTQ” and that the administration was not treating her differently because of her sexuality. The issue, he said, was what she revealed in the classroom to “a captive audience.”
“Your sexual orientation is not in question here, in my eyes. I don’t see any discrimination about you toward your sexual orientation,” Lumpkin said. “… You mentioned losing students because they are withdrawing from your class. If I’m going to self-reflect, I would think if I’m losing students out of class because I started talking about my sexual orientation, then I probably went too far because students no longer want to be in my class.”
The art teacher told Lumpkin that some of her students wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club on campus to provide a “safe space” for LGBTQ students to express themselves and discuss their struggles and identities.
“So we will still be talking about gender and identity and orientation, so I’m just confused about how, if we’re not allowed to have conversations about orientation, how are we going to have that club?” Bass asked.
“If that club is initiated by students and is formed, there will probably be meetings. The meeting is in reference to that particular group. There’s no captive audience, OK?” Lumpkin said. “The students that attend that meeting are students who want to be in that meeting.” He warned her not to “push the club” and to “let students lead it.”
Lumpkin told Bass she did not have to sign the reprimand letter, but that the administration expected Bass to change her behavior and not reveal her sexual orientation to students in the future. Though they would no longer allow her to have a pride flag in her room, the superintendent relayed the attorneys’ advice that nothing prohibits teachers from expressing their support for LGBTQ rights with clothing—advice in line with what GLSEN had told her.
In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press in April, Lumpkin said he considers the distinction between a teacher discussing their identity and discussing sexual activities “a blurred area,” though he could not discuss Bass’ specific case.
“It is not our job as educators to discuss our identity in the workplace,” the superintendent said. “… We’re here to educate kids, teach math, teach reading and the subjects we’re entitled to teach. And because of society and because of the culture we live in today, you have to be careful that you don’t offend people in all areas of life.
“So we tell our employees to keep the main thing the main thing and to not discuss your personal life, whether it be identity or whether it be sexuality. You’re there to teach the curriculum in your classroom, not to discuss your identity or sexuality.”
Alford declined an interview, saying Lumpkin served as the school spokesperson. The Mississippi Free Press informed both Lumpkin and Alford about the recordings prior to publication.
News spread in fall 2021 that the administration and superintendent had ordered Bass to remove her pride flag. One student, Tina (not her real name), who had been excited about starting a Gay-Straight Alliance printed out 150 mini pride flags and, with the help of two peers, began hanging them up on the walls around campus on Sept. 17, 2021. Administrators and campus police began taking them down the same day, Bass recalled in her journals.
“I told them that the queer kids only want to be heard, and this was how they chose to send their message of disapproval (peacefully, and without damaging any property),” Bass wrote, adding that an administrator “said they would have taken them down no matter what it was” and that “they wouldn’t allow students to hang anything up all over the school.”
The next day, the same three students hung strips of paper reading “BE KIND” around campus just as they had done with the pride flags. “No one in the administration mentioned it to me, and those signs remained up,” Bass wrote in her journals. “So now we know that (the) administration wouldn’t take down anything students hung (like they said they would), but it was only the pride flags that cause an issue for them.”
Superintendent Lumpkin told the Mississippi Free Press that “there are certain billboards that are set aside” where students can post signs in the building.
“You can’t just go around the school and place posters up wherever. You can put poster communications for different clubs we have in the school. … And there are designated areas where those posters are supposed to go,” he said.
In December 2021, the GSA students designed a poster for the club, hanging up copies around school that read, “LGBTQIA Safe Space – We Believe You Deserve Love and Respect.” The poster announced that “PRC’s GSA club is determined to create a safe space for all students, especially those who are part of a minority. We aim to help those who want it, and create a place to express yourself safely.”
The posters immediately began disappearing across campus. Each time GSA members would replace the posters, they would disappear within hours.
One student posted a photo of a GSA poster on Snapchat with a message that read, “DOWN WITH THA FAGS!! STRAIGHT POWER.” Others reposted the image with their own messages:
“yay for the gays”
“everyone who has payed taxes in Carriere paying for a fag class? Hell no!”
Bass and others in the GSA reported the stolen posters to the administration and asked them to check the hallway security cameras to find the culprits. They also reported that some students were using “straight power” as an epithet. Emails the Mississippi Free Press reviewed show that school officials said they could not punish students for advocating for “Straight Power” because it would be protected as “free speech.”
Students Outed After GSA Infiltrated
About 40 kids joined the GSA, Bass said, and used Google Classrooms to communicate and share ideas. They used a “get to know you” slideshow so that students, including ones who were not publicly out, could share their identities and preferred names.
Soon, though, the information from the slideshow leaked, causing several GSA members to get outed to their peers and families, with some reporting that they had suffered verbal abuse at school afterward.
After some investigating with another GSA sponsor, Bass said the group’s sponsors came to believe that a student had secretly joined the club to spy on peers and divulge information. The student she suspected denied any involvement when the administration questioned him and, with the exception of being removed from the GSA group, was never punished, Bass said.
“Students were talking about being outed. That was the last week of school, and everything just felt so piled on at that point. I was just trying to protect the kids and make them feel safe, and they didn’t feel protected by the administration, and it was frustrating,” Bass told the Mississippi Free Press. “I didn’t want them to do something, you know—I didn’t want something terrible to happen for them to be taken seriously.”
The prior school year, a PRCHS student died of suicide, prompting discussions on campus about bullying and mental-health awareness, but Bass and other sources said those conversations did not lead to lasting change—especially not for LGBTQ kids who are among the most frequent targets of bullying.
Lumpkin told the Mississippi Free Press that he was aware of the GSA’s existence, but that he was “not aware of any bullying towards that club or anything of that nature” and that he had “not received any phone calls or emails.” He said he hoped any affected students or their parents would raise those concerns with him added that the district has sought to address mental health issues for years.
“Even prior to the student suicide, mental health was one of the top priorities in our school district,” he said. “We are one of very few school districts that have a licensed social worker in every one of our schools. That was a commitment we made several years ago.”
Bass told the Mississippi Free Press that she had given GSA members the email addresses for the superintendent and the school board and urged them to report any harassment or bullying they experienced to them; several students did so and copied Bass on emails, she told the Mississippi Free Press.
No ‘Representation in Curriculums’
Mississippi’s standard K-12 curriculum does not require students in any grade to learn about LGBTQ rights, issues or history. It omits important historical events, such as the Stonewall Riots, which kicked off the gay-rights movement. Even when the Mississippi social-studies curriculum mentions AIDS and HIV, it does so only as a “contemporary African American issue”—despite the fact that AIDS initially decimated gay communities nationwide in the 1980s.
The state does, however, require some gay-rights history as part of its curriculum for minority-studies classes, an elective that high school students may choose to take, including at Pearl River Central High School.
Standard 9 of the minority-studies curriculum says the course must “describe significant events of the early twenty-first century related to the expansion and protection of civil liberties for members of the LGBTQ community.” It also requires educators to “examine social and political factors and events that have impacted attitudes and discrimination towards American Muslims and Hispanic Americans in the early twenty-first century.”
But Bass and several other sources told the Mississippi Free Press that, amid complaints from parents, the administration instructed educators who teach the course that they could skip standard 9.
“Community backlash was the reason—parents losing their minds about it,” one adult with knowledge of the situation told the Mississippi Free Press. “… I think Pearl River County is a very, very conservative area. I hate it for the kids. You can have anti-bullying programs and all these things at school saying you can be whatever you want at our school, but then you turn around and show them you can’t. Actions speak louder than words.”
Bass told the Mississippi Free Press that students have complained to her in the past about the fact that they did not learn about LGBTQ rights in the minority-studies class.
“Teachers who taught the class were specifically told not to teach the standard because parents had complained about it,” Bass said. “… If you’re receiving complaints from the community, obviously there’s a lack of education there, so I’d think you’d want to push back and make sure that is taught and not just let them continue to live blissfully in their ignorance.”
When the Mississippi Free Press asked Lumpkin about the minority-studies curriculum, he said he “was not aware and had not received any concerns” about any administrators telling teachers that they did not have to teach standard 9.
“There are concerns on both sides of every issue as you can imagine. It’s a divisive society we live in today, and that’s why it’s important for our teachers to keep the main thing the main thing and educate according to the curriculum,” he said.
The superintendent said he would not advise teachers to skip parts of the curriculum even if parents complained.
“We get calls in reference to regular curriculums and we have to tell people that’s part of the state curriculum,” he said. “Our parents have the option to opt out of anything they feel is offensive. Going back to the minority-studies class, that’s an elective. It’s not a required course. So if a parent said, ‘I don’t want my kids to take minority studies because we feel there’s content that’s offensive,’ the parent can fill out a schedule change.”
While LGBTQ issues are not part of the regular curriculum, Mississippi’s abstinence-centric sex-education statute does require schools to teach “the current state law related to sexual conduct, including forcible rape, statutory rape, paternity establishment, child support and homosexual activity.”
The current state law on “homosexual activity” is a sodomy ban that makes gay sex illegal, but also bans heterosexual sodomy as well. Despite remaining on the books, the sodomy law cannot be enforced because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state sodomy bans are unconstitional in its 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling. That ruling, like other pivotal LGBTQ rights decisions, is not part of Mississippi’s social-studies curriculum. (A bill that would have repealed Mississippi’s sodomy law died without a vote in 2020.)
Bass told the Mississippi Free Press that she worries that LGBTQ students do not learn about people like themselves in the broader, standard social-studies curriculum.
“I just think it’s going to make it that much harder for LGBTQ kids,” she said, highlighting the importance of “representation in curriculums.”
A National Anti-LGBTQ Furor
In recent months, though, anti-LGBTQ activists and politicians nationwide have waged a campaign to stamp out LGBTQ representation in education and the public square. Since January, the Ridgeland Library in Madison County, Miss., has been in the middle of a controversy over an attempt to deny funding for the library unless it would agree to remove LGBTQ books.
Across the country, Republican-led state houses have passed a raft of anti-LGBTQ legislation this year so far. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed his state’s so-called Parental Rights In Education bill into law in late March. Earlier this month, NBC affiliate WBBHH-TV reported that a school fired an art teacher after she told her students she was pansexual and allowed them to create art expressing their own sexual and gender identities.
Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has signed three anti-LGBTQ bills into law this year, including one allowing religious adoption agencies and foster agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ families and another banning gender reassignment surgery for minors. In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem signed a law to ostensibly “protect students and employees at institutions of higher education from divisive concepts” related to race, color, religion, ethnicity or national origin.
Leaders in Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah have also approved new laws this year like the Mississippi one that bans transgender students from participating on sports team that match their gender identity.
In addition to the bills Sen. Angela Hill introduced, other Mississippi Republican lawmakers also introduced legislation targeting LGBTQ people and issues in Mississippi this year, too, including one to ban incarcerated transgender Mississippians from requesting a name change. Like Hill’s bills, both died on the calendar without a vote.
While Mississippi’s legislative session is over, other Republican-led states around the country are still considering additional anti-LGBTQ bills. In tandem with the renewed focus on restricting LGBTQ rights, right-wing lawmakers and personalities have begun using the term “groomer” to describe LGBTQ people and those who support and affirm LGBTQ rights and identities.
Libs of TikTok, an influential Twitter account run by right-wing activist Chaya Raichik, has helped propel accusations of “grooming” nationwide with viral tweets calling for LGBTQ teachers who come out to their students “to be fired on the spot.” Libs of TikTok has openly claimed credit for the firing of several LGBTQ educators. In a podcast in April, Raichik said that “some of them are literally evil and grooming kids, they should not be in schools, they should not be teachers.”
In March, Robert Foster, a former Republican state lawmaker who made a failed run for governor in 2019, tweeted that “people who groom our school aged children and pretend men are women … need to be lined up against a wall before a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment.” (Amid backlash after the Mississippi Free Press reported on those tweets, the DeSoto County Republican shut down his Twitter account and announced on Facebook that he was taking a break from social media, but hinted he might run for office again).
The national crusade against LGBTQ rights has succeeded in increasing fear among educators and students alike. In states like Texas and Florida, teachers who support LGBTQ rights are reporting that their jobs are now in jeopardy or that they fear accidentally violating the new laws prohibiting conversations related to LGBTQ issues. After DeSantis’ signed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, a Florida school placed a 17-year-old student under investigation after they gave a presentation on the Stonewall Riots in a history class.
Since a draft of the opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court case over Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban leaked, LGBTQ rights supporters have warned that overturning Roe v. Wade could have ramifications for LGBTQ rights. The opinion would overturn Roe v. Wade, which says the right to have an abortion is tied to a fundamental “right to privacy.” The “right to privacy” is a major underpinning in major LGBTQ rights cases, too, and critics of the draft opinion warn that undermining it in Roe could signal a willingness to dismantle LGBTQ rights protections, too.
‘I’ve Decided to Quit Teaching’
Even before the Pearl River Central High School administration reprimanded Bass for coming out to her students, work had become increasingly fraught for the art teacher. She had spent much of 2020 and 2021 trying to enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines and masking requirements, and felt like she “was already not respected as much as before” by students who did not take the pandemic seriously.
Parents had complained about the pride flag in the prior school year, too. One day while walking to her car in April 2021, Bass thought she heard a group of younger students shout “Black lives don’t matter” at her, likely in her reference to the Black Lives Matter sign. She said they were not her students and that she had reported it to the administration, but those students had never been identified.
“I could just tell a lot of the kids didn’t respect me anymore,” Bass told the Mississippi Free Press. “It was just hard. … If I feel this bad, and I’m an adult with established coping tools, I can’t imagine what those poor kids feel like still trying to figure out who they are.”
In the interview, Superintendent Lumpkin confirmed that teachers in his district could be fired for coming out to their students but that he had not done so before.
“They could be if it got to a certain point, but that hasn’t happened here before, and our teachers do a great job of respecting that and understanding that when you walk into a classroom, there are multiple identities in that classroom,” he said, without specifically referring to Bass.
“So if we have students that possibly complain or parents that complain or share their concerns that a teacher is sharing too much with their kids, we would have a conversation with that employee and say, ‘Let’s talk about the concerns the parents have shared.’ But no, we’ve never had to terminate anyone or remove anyone from employment because of that.”
Bass said she believes strongly that students deserve LGBTQ representation, but could not remain at a workplace that expected her to stay in the closet.
“I’m sure you’ve heard by now that I’ve decided to quit teaching,” Bass wrote in a message to PRCHS’s GSA students on Jan. 10, 2022. “In September, after my pride flag was stolen for the second time, I was reprimanded for coming out to my students during class, and all the events that followed. I really struggled with my mental health.
“I tried my best to keep at it, to be a good teacher, to be an advocate for all of you, and to just stay afloat. But my anxiety and depression were getting worse, and I no longer felt like I could take care of myself, and fully be present for my students the way I knew they deserved.”
The art teacher told her students that she had arrived at the decision after “many tears and sleepless nights.” She assured the students that they would still have advocates in the GSA’s other sponsors.
“Please don’t ever forget that you matter. You are loved,” she wrote. “I have so much faith in each of you, and your futures, and now the future of PRC because of the work we started together. I know you’ll do great things, and you’ll make that school a better place for students who will come behind you and continue your work.
“I love you SO much. Work hard. Make good grades. And above all else, always be kind.”
‘It Weighs On Them’
The GSA has not met since December 2021. One person familiar with PRCHS students and faculty, who preferred not to be named, told the Mississippi Free Press that Bass’ departure was a significant blow to the school’s LGBTQ students and their morale.
“I felt like she was trying to do good for these kids who never get a voice, and then they get a voice, and (the administration) goes after the person who was in charge of that. … PRC wants to claim that they’re inclusive, but they’re not,” the person said.
The source said they were aware that several teachers were upset over the creation of a GSA on campus “because it wasn’t promoting Christian values.”
“All those kids want is to just be appreciated and feel like someone has your back. And it’s like when you’re being denied constantly by everybody besides a select group of teachers—I know it weighs on them,” the person said. “I’m angry about it, but I’m more hurt for the kids because I know they catch shit at home for it. Many of them can’t even come out to their parents because they’re afraid of getting kicked out of the house.”
Now that she is no longer working as a teacher, Bass is continuing to work as an artist in Hattiesburg, where she lives with her boyfriend, Tyler, and works as a bartender. Though part of her future is uncertain, she says one thing is for sure: She will not be returning to teach any time soon.
“I might go back to it one day when I’m an old lady. I don’t know,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “But right now, I just can’t take that kind of stress, and I feel like I wanted to leave that school because I didn’t want to work somewhere where I would have to hide a part of who I was. And I feel like working at any public school in Mississippi, I’m going to be doing that to some degree, so I made the decision.
“I wouldn’t change the years that I had teaching. I feel like I was able to help a lot of kids, and I experienced growth from it, but it’s just time for me to do something else.”