Bryant Huddleston, a proud graduate of Sloan-Hendrix High School in Arkansas, was invited to address the graduates – including his baby sister – at this year’s ceremony. Bryant’s father served on the school board and two board members told him they were opposed to inviting his openly gay son to the stage. They forced a vote and the school board rescinded the speaking invitation.
In an open letter to Sloan-Hendrix School Board and Superintendent Mitch Walton, Huddleston asked, “Was this in the students’ best interest or is this a decision based on religious beliefs?” Elaborating on the question in LGBTQ Nation, Huddleston writes, “Often in small, southern towns like mine, people manipulate religion to cause turmoil for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Anti-gay folk hold the Bible up as the reason for their intolerance. They preach God is love but they demonstrate anything but love.”
Bryant’s open letter unleashed a torrent of support and change in his hometown, Imboden, Arkansas. “Even though I didn’t get to address the class, because of my situation, now they all know what a wonderful life exists for them beyond graduation.”
The Jesus I know loves the family I’ve created: a small, but loving unit of one often-overwhelmed father, and a little boy that bounced from house to house, until he bounced right into my welcoming arms.
I have the same dreams for my son as any other parent might have in Arkansas. He came to me from the Los Angeles County foster system. The state of California, even though it’s still struggling for Marriage Equality, is confident that gay and lesbian families have the love and compassion needed to become outstanding parents. I’m so thankful that I went that route to become a dad. It’s my biggest achievement. It’s the answer to that prayer that day in church…
I never imagined my letter would spark such an outpouring of love from hundreds of complete strangers. Most amazingly I also received a surprising confession from a man who once bullied me.
Today, he is ashamed, but empowered — no longer ignorant to the pain he might have caused. His moving words hit me in the gut when I read them.
“I would like to blame this ignorance on growing up in the Bible belt and other cultural factors, but that simply is not an excuse. I am not an unintelligent person, and I should have known better. My attitude and behavior made your high school experience (as well as others) more difficult. My behavior, either directly or indirectly, was part of the problem instead of the solution, for this I am sorry.”
Here is Bryant Huddleston’s open letter to Sloan-Hendrix School Board and Superintendent Mitch Walton reprinted in full:
To the Sloan-Hendrix School Board and Superintendent Mitch Walton:
Dear Mr. Walton,
I am writing to express my disappointment in your recent decision to recant your invitation for me to be the keynote speaker at my little sister, Madicyn’s, graduation from Sloan-Hendrix High School this year, based solely on the fact that I am gay.
What baffles me Mr. Walton is that you chose to disregard the fact that I grew up in Imboden, and my career accomplishments—KAIT news anchor and reporter, successful television producer in Hollywood, producing shows such as E! News, Access Hollywood, etc., —were dismissed and instead you chose to make me a hot bed controversial issue.
Mr. Walton, your decision forced the members of the Sloan-Hendrix School Board to vote on my participation but what was equally unfair is that you forced the President of the Board Steve Huddleston (my father), to abstain from voting, thus forcing a tie and then declared there would be “no speaker this year,” ultimately nixing any opportunity to share my pathway to success with the graduates. Was this in the students’ best interest or is this a decision based on religious beliefs?
During my years at SHHS, I was the student body president for two years in a row. I also helped lead our Student Council to receive state-wide recognition for the first time— all despite being bullied on campus for many years. Mr. Walton, your decision here is like being bullied again twenty-three years later. Personally, it’s both sad and disappointing. I’m disappointed that board members Preston Clark and Aaron Murphy, who represent the school that my sisters and I hold so dear, fear that I would be unfit as a role model, and I’m saddened that you Mr. Walton, appear to be more concerned with what your congregation might say on Sunday, rather than doing what is right for the students.
I understand that Mr. Clark and Mr. Murphy both stated there would be “concern from the community” if I were allowed to speak. I’m curious—did you think my speech would have focused on recruiting youngsters and passing out “Go Straight to Gay” cards over sharing the tools that I used to achieve success? You might be surprised to know that “recruitment” does not and never will work. And just for the record, just so we’re clear, my words were not going to address a “certain agenda,” but I was hoping to empower your students to continue their education. My speech would have also touched on the importance of women, like my sister, who will go out into the world and know that they can now pull their chairs right up to the table of equality. To encourage them that they can no longer sit in the back and let men make the important decisions for them. And for that matter, letting them know that someday a woman or two or three can become a member of the Sloan-Hendrix School Board. After all, there’s an opening, since my father will resign from the Board later this month.
I could just sit back and let this slide, but if I did, the discrimination that has taken place here would go unnoticed like it has so many times in history. Unless my arguments here cause you to reevaluate, nothing will change. But what must change, is the way we treat our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth because, News Flash, the world is changing and it starts in our homes, our schools and yes, even in our places of worship. The suicide rate amongst LGBT teens is staggering. As Superintendent, Mr. Walton—I hope you are aware that LGBT youth already attend classes on your campus. They are going from class to class with a fear of being outed or being treated horribly by their classmates—so adding educators and mentors to that mix prohibits these teens from thriving. The Board represents them too, and by silencing me, you’re telling those students that it isn’t okay to be who they are.
Being gay is not all that I am and it’s certainly not something I chose. I’m a loving son, brother, a professional, and a fantastic friend. But what I am first and foremost is a father who tries every day to do the best he can to raise a kind and loving son. My little boy came into my life from the Los Angeles foster care system. I was the luckiest man in the world when, as a single parent, the adoption was complete. I’m raising him to understand that there are all kinds of people on our planet, all kinds of families and all kinds of love. While you want me to steer clear of the commencement podium, I am asked to speak annually to hundreds of potential parents about the importance of adopting these forgotten children.
Finally, I heard someone say that progress comes from those who are willing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We are currently fighting against inequality in our country. It’s a fight—by the way—which we will ultimately win. Your decision to ban me from speaking solely because I’m gay is not unlike the arguments white men made years ago, to not allow black children to share the same school house halls with white children. It’s the same thing, Mr. Walton, it’s called discrimination. And, in closing, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:
“…Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”
Today, by your actions, that small place is in a small town called Imboden, where decisions are made around a small table, surrounded by five men and a School Superintendent. So, next time you’re faced with an important decision, I hope you take time to think twice, have a proper dialogue, and most importantly choose to be on the right side of history.
Bryant Huddleston, Sloan-Hendrix Class of 1990