Local News Spotlight

Gay teen leads fight for change amid T-shirt dispute

When a store declined to print T-shirts with a message it found objectionable, Blue Springs South student found another vendor.

Updated: 2012-01-23T19:11:03Z

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star

Bailee Webb remembers that night two years ago when her mom asked her the question:

Are you gay?

The two were watching a movie in their living room, hanging out.

Bailee answered softly: Yes … I am.

And that was that.

No tears. No are-you-sure arguments? No you-can’t-understand reproaches. Monique Scritchfield and her daughter just kept watching, both relieved it was no longer a mystery.

“She’s not dramatic. She’s grounded,” said her mom, giving Bailee, now 17, a hug.

Skills that are helping her handle diversity. Take the recent T-shirt controversy.

As president of her high school club, the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Blue Springs South, Bailee liked the idea of having T-shirts made like other student groups. But she didn’t want a racy one.

“One of the girl’s sports teams, I think it’s soccer, has a T-shirt that says, ‘Girls do it in the grass 11 ways,’ ” Bailee said. “My mom wouldn’t ever allow me to wear that.”

She found a slogan with a deeper message on the Internet: Why is it that as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?

The dozen members of the club loved it. Bailee handed the design to her principal. The next day, he gave it back, with his signature of approval. She emailed her order for a dozen shirts from Rod’s Sporting Goods in Blue Springs. A clerk told her they would be ready in a week.

Except everything changed the next morning.

Rod Lindemann, 48, the owner, refused to print the shirts. After praying about it, he said, he had to follow his heart.

He does a lot of business with ROTC students and thought the quote might offend them. But his biggest reason was that printing the slogan would feel like he was condoning gay lifestyles.

“Marriage is ordained between a man and a woman,” he wrote.

Later in an interview, Lindemann explained: “I am a man who walks my faith. God calls me to love all, but he doesn’t call me to be comfortable with things that I don’t see as God-pleasing… I won’t sell out for a dollar.”

Lindemann said he’s turned down plenty of other slogans he feels uncomfortable with. His younger customers are always pushing the limit, he said.

Bailee was angry and disappointed all at once. She told her mom.

Scritchfield was so sad for her daughter, but she also recognized it as a teaching moment. She reminded Bailee that as a private businessman he has the right to say no. But Bailee has the right to protest.

“I wanted so badly to step in and make it right, but I didn’t. I held back,” remembered Scritchfield. “I know it’s really important for my daughter to learn to handle this herself. I’m sure there’ll be more times like this.”

Bailee emailed her friends in other clubs, ranging from the National Honor Society to the girls’ track team, Young Democrats to the forensic and debate teams. She quickly found another printing store in Independence that agreed to process the order. And after waiting 24 hours, she carefully composed an email back to Lindemann.

“I respect your decision, even if I do not agree with it, and I’m sorry that the Blue Springs South GSA and many other clubs here at South cannot and no longer will be doing business with you.”

Bailee is a senior honor student with a grade point average of 4.19, ranked fifth in her class of more than 440, and has been first-chair violist for the last four years in orchestra.

She has applied to Harvard and is waiting, hoping, because she dreams of becoming a nuclear or aerospace engineer.

Life is harder as a gay woman, she knows.

Bailee has cropped, short hair and wears a purple bracelet for pancreatic cancer on her right wrist and a rainbow bracelet on her left. She has known for years she was gay, she says. She wants others to know she didn’t choose her sexuality.

Even when she was 3, Bailee eschewed dresses and the color pink. Always a tomboy, she was never a princess at Halloween.

For several years, she chose to be the scariest alien, or a zombie with gruesome scars and bloody wounds, the only time she has ever asked to wear makeup.

And she absolutely can’t stand Justin Bieber.

“Until I admitted it, I felt angry and confused,” she said, watching her mother’s face.

Tears well up as she remembers her struggle. But she learned when she told her dearest friends, that it wasn’t an issue with them.

Another life lesson that her mom rejoices about.

Last fall, Bailee’s chemistry class became a real life experiment in handling judgment from others.

She heard snickering. Heard name-calling. Heard the word faggot.

The words stung.

Bailee’s mother interrupted: “She knows how to take the hate and not turn it into herself.”

Bailee went to her teacher, then the Blue Springs school administration. Now she is collecting other gay students’ stories about bullying, and her school is re-examining details in its bullying policy.

The GSA, Bailee said, is a support group for gay and straight teens. Life can be hard when you think you’re the only one who is different. Or if the absorbed messages are that you are worthless.

“We want to prevent suicides,” she said quietly.

Her mother is proud of Bailee’s strength.

“She’s always marched to her own drummer. I think my job as a parent is to encourage her to do that and not try to make her conform to what society thinks she should be.”

Bailee’s extended family, most all strong Christians living out of state, learned a few years ago that Bailee’s oldest brother is gay.

They don’t know yet about Bailee. Both mom and daughter realize this and giggle.

The family will know soon, said Scritchfield with a shrug.

“I wanted a girl so badly, and I got one. I love her the way God made her. And I am so very proud.”

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send email to lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

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