Teen columnist shunned for lauding book on gays

April 15, 1994|By Sean O'Sullivan | Sean O'Sullivan,The Salisbury Daily Times

BERLIN -- In the past several months, 17-year-old Jennifer Canard has twice called her mother in tears asking her to come to Stephen Decatur High School and take her home.

In addition to the pressure of schoolwork, Miss Canard has gotten into shouting matches in the lunchroom, has been called things unprintable in a family newspaper and has been jostled in the hall. She also watched the entire girls' washroom quickly empty as she entered.

Miss Canard, a junior, returns to school each day only with a great deal of reluctance. Her mother, Debbie Hindi, said that because of the past few months she no longer feels certain her child will be secure in the hands of the school system. Every day seems to hold the promise of more trouble.

Why the anguish? She is gay and nearly everyone at Stephen Decatur High School knows it.

Despite her distinction as a target of scorn at school, Miss Canard appears to be a normal teen-ager: slightly shy around strangers and terminally embarrassed by her family. When her mother injected herself into a conversation, Miss Canard rolled her eyes, flashed the braces on her teeth and drawled out as only a teen-ager could: "Mother!"

"I guess I'm different from most other kids . . . but I don't think so," she said.

Miss Canard's emerging sexual orientation, which she said she has never tried to hide, was elevated to a matter of public debate earlier this year after a parent complained in an open school board meeting about an article Miss Canard wrote in the school newspaper.

In the November issue of the Stephen Decatur Hawk, Miss Canard favorably reviewed "Tim & Pete: A Unique Love Story," a book with homosexual themes.

"I am going to take a risk and recommend this book to anyone with an appreciation for humor and a love for the realistic," she wrote.

She did not realize how risky that recommendation would be.

The review touched off a wave of homophobia at the school. A second wave came a month later when Tom Anderson, a parent and local political activist, complained the Hawk was "promoting the gay agenda" in allowing the review to be printed. He said school officials should exercise more control over what is put into the newspaper.

"I [and several other parents] felt it was not proper for a high school paper. Suppose it had been [a review about] a pedophile love story," Mr. Anderson said. "The school paper is supposed to carry things about proms and sports events."

Miss Canard's article was not sexually explicit, nor did it endorse homosexuality, but Mr. Anderson said encouraging students to read that book was "almost recruitment."

The paper's faculty adviser, the school principal and the board of education all stood by the decision to publish the review, saying it was an opinion piece and Miss Canard was entitled to her opinion.

"I honestly did not think [the review] would be controversial. I underestimated the opposition to that lifestyle," said student editor-in-chief Jamie Hand, adding that she was happy to get some diversity of opinion in the paper.

Faculty adviser Shirley Moran said that this was not the first article the Hawk has ever published that dealt with homosexuality.

Mr. Anderson's comments, however, caught the attention of the local news media and two papers carried reports of the controversy. Soon afterward, a reporter called Miss Canard at home and asked her point-blank: "Are you homosexual?"

Miss Canard, who said she had been struggling with that question for about two years, put the reporter on hold for several minutes to consider her answer and ask her mother for advice.

Ms. Hindi told Miss Canard that she could always decline to answer, but she eventually told the reporter she was bisexual.

She said she does not regret admitting the truth, but added, "once you say it, it's not something you can take back."

The next school day, Miss Canard said, students and faculty members reacted negatively to the article. One faculty member, holding a copy, loudly voiced his negative opinion within her earshot.

"The positive responses I've received have overcome all the negative things for me," said Miss Canard, who has received many supportive phone calls and letters, some from gay students who have looked to her for support.

"It has been stressful, especially for my family and for my mom," she said. "I just deal with it the best I can."

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