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Community rallies behind bullied student-athlete

December 17, 2018

WHITEFIELD, N.H. (AP) — A week after a White Mountains girls basketball player was subjected to gender-based taunts, the community turned out to support her.

During the Spartans home opener Friday night, some teammates wore rainbow patches and some fans clutched rainbow flags in a show of solidarity with sophomore Lily Kenison, who is gay.

“There was a lot of support on the court, with my teammates and everybody in the crowd, it just felt great,” she said, noting she was apprehensive about being singled out for recognition. “I didn’t want to make it about me, I wanted to make it about everybody that goes through the same stuff as me.”

A week earlier, during White Mountains’ game at Newfound on Dec. 5, Kenison was heckled by a group of Newfound fans throughout the contest. They singled her out for her boyish appearance. That group, a mix of parents and students, started in the first quarter and never let up.

Kenison had heard the insults before, saying, “It’s not every game, but when I hear it I’m not surprised.” She ignored it. Backed by her coaches and teammates, she focused on the task at hand, and White Mountains won, 48-37.

Her mother, Heather, and brother, Kyler, were in attendance. Sitting out of earshot, they learned of the hecklers midway through the game. Kyler, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, was dispatched to monitor their behavior. When they resumed their taunts, he spoke up.

“He said ‘That’s my sister’ and one guy responded ‘If you say so’,” her mother said. “Afterwards I talked to Lily, she said she heard them the entire game.”

The incident hit a nerve. Newfound issued a formal apology a week later, condemning the “inappropriate, demeaning and harassing comments,” with promises to address those involved, but the behavior of their fans had been particularly upsetting. Some White Mountains players and parents wanted to take action.

They hatched a plan to wear iron-on rainbow patches on their warm ups, a way to show they had their teammate’s back.

This created a new set of issues.

According to multiple sources, there were players and parents who expressed reservations about the patches, which led school administrators to encourage an alternative response — one that would not split the team.

In turn, some in the community interpreted this as the school district denying gay pride patches. The social media response on Thursday night was strong and swift. A few players added the patches on their own, posting photos online.

Ultimately school administrators sat down with the team on Friday to revisit the patch proposal. Players promised the issue would not divide them, no matter who did and did not add the patches to their warm ups. The administration relented.

Speaking in a parents meeting before Friday’s game, WMR Principal Mike Berry said, “The girls looked us in the face today and said ‘It will not come between us.’ And we weren’t leaving that gym until I was convinced.”

Kenison’s mother said she was satisfied with the administration’s handling of the matter.

“I’ve had nothing but support from this high school (and) the administration and how they’ve dealt with Lily and how they take her under their wing,” said her mother. “They’ve been super supportive.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of the school’s internal discussions, Clare Brooks, owner of the Little Village Toy and Book Shop in Littleton, donated 150 rainbow flags which she and other volunteers handed out at Friday’s game to anyone interested. Some took them, others did not.

According to Brooks, it was her solution to the disagreement over the patches.

“My goal (was) to take the pressure off those girls and let the community stand up for Lily,” Brooks said. “I don’t feel like the girls should be forced to wear rainbow patches. They’ve all clearly expressed their support for their teammate in their own ways, and some may — and some may not — be comfortable putting something on their uniform, and that should be their right.”

Brooks stressed the importance of showing public support to gay teens, noting they are at higher risk for suicide, drug use and homelessness. “Us as a community can step up and make sure this young lady walks out of that game thinking ‘It’s OK to be me,’ and that she feels loved and supported, as an equal member.”

Kenison’s mother hailed the public display of rainbow patches and flags as a sign of progress, reflecting a more accepting climate for gay teens. But, she added, the need for such a demonstration showed there was still work to do.

“We’ve come a long way, but not as far as we’d like to think,” she said, adding, “My daughter wants everybody to know this isn’t about her, it’s about everybody like her. She wants everyone to know that it’s not right for people who are different to be treated unfairly.”

White Mountains already offers support to gay and transgender students. The school has an active Gay Straight Alliance. The staff takes the issue seriously.

But for Kenison, sports have always been her support system. When she came out in seventh grade, she told her softball team first, her mother second.

“It was probably one of the best moments of the whole process,” Kenison said. “My family supported it right away and my friends obviously supported me. Nobody hated me for it.”

Added her mother, “They were fine with it, everybody’s been fine with it, most of the students here, everybody in Lily’s class, everybody knows it.”

Kenison continues to take solace in sports. It’s where she has made friendships, found support, forged an identity, and channeled her energies.

“Sports is definitely my outlet for all this stuff, whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I play my heart out for my team and my team plays their heart out for me,” she said, adding that patch or no patch, the experience of the past week has reinforced the importance of her teammates, coaches and supporters in the stands.

That was particularly true on Friday night.

She said that taking the court and seeing some in the crowd waving rainbow flags was “one of the best feelings.” But once again she kept her head in the game, helping White Mountains to a 48-40 win over visiting Mascoma, improving their record to 3-1.

It wasn’t just a win for the Spartans. The community won too, Kenison said. Following what she described as a rough week, she got a reminder of the good in the world.

“Tonight was definitely a moment to look back on and know that we do have support in Coos County, and to know that people will show support in different ways, and honestly, if my teammates didn’t wear the patch I wasn’t going to hold it against them, because I know they love me for me, and I love them,” she said. “They’re my teammates. They mean everything.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2QYlD6o

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Information from: The Caledonian-Record, http://www.caledonianrecord.com

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