and the Fight to Establish
a Gay-Straight Alliance
The following background information is taken from Out of the Past: Teachers Guide, published by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. More information about Out of the Past is available from the GLSEN Bookstore (800/247-6553 or http://www.atlasbooks.com/glsen/).
There are currently more than 700 Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and other gay-related student groups in secondary schools from Alaska to New Hampshire that have equal status with other student clubs in their schools. A number of other groups have a kind of “second-class citizenship” in schools where the administration won’t allow them to meet at the same time as other clubs, for example, or to make announcements over the public address system or post flyers on school bulletin boards. GSAs attempt to create safer environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth in high schools and provide support for those facing harassment. Ultimately, the hope is that all youth will have equal access to education free from harassment or intimidation.
In the fall of 1995, Kelli Peterson and a friend were talking about the difficulties they faced as LGBT teenagers at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought as they compared stories, to have a place where we could meet regularly and talk about this stuff? A place where we could feel safe and just be ourselves with our friends? They asked a teacher to serve as the faculty adviser for a GSA and sought a classroom space for regular meetings. By December, their request had made the pages of the local papers. Ultimately, their attempt to create a safe space launched a state-wide controversy and catapulted Peterson into the national spotlight, as she and her friends fought for the right to meet on campus like any other student group.
At East High School, school officials balked at Peterson’s initial request. Some parents, teachers, and administrators were concerned that allowing a GSA would constitute an “endorsement” of homosexuality and would be a forum for “recruiting” other students to become LGBT. The school administration turned to the state attorney general for a legal opinion. He determined that the school was legally required to allow the students to meet under the terms of the Federal Equal Access Act. The Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, applies to any public secondary school that receives federal money. If such a school allows even one “non-curricular” student club to meet, the school cannot then deny any other student groups equal status on the basis of the topic on which the group focuses. “Non-curricular” clubs are groups that do not relate directly to the courses offered by the school; a Spanish club is curricular, but Students Against Drunk Driving or Young Republicans or Democrats are non-curricular.
The School Board and the State Legislature met to discuss options available to them in order to keep Peterson’s group from meeting. At the time, Peterson was baffled by the response to her request: “What has made it a big deal is the senators have blown this out of proportion,” she said. “All we are asking for is one hour a week in a classroom and a faculty sponsor.” Ultimately, the school board banned all “non-curricular” clubs at local public high schools and then began to redefine selected clubs as “curricular,” in order to allow them to meet. As a result, the East High Gay/Straight Alliance rented space at the school after school hours but had no official standing at the school. They were not allowed to announce meetings or post notices of their activities, and many students at East High had no ideas that the group existed.
In March 1998, student members of two high schools sued the Salt Lake City School Board for the right to express their views in both non-curricular and curricular clubs. With regard to the non-curricular club setting, the trial judge found that the school district had violated the students’ rights only for the school year in which the suit was filed, but not subsequently because the trial judge believed the clubs allowed in the later years were all curricular. In the curricular club setting, the students sought the right to express pro-gay viewpoints, such as having a same-sex marriage debate in the Debate Club. On the eve of the trial, the school district announced to the court a new policy guaranteeing the right to “freely express pro-gay viewpoints” and highlighted a new state rule subjecting teachers to disciplinary proceedings if they engage in anti-gay discrimination.
In December, 1999, based on the district’s guarantees, the trial judge dismissed the remainder of the action because the students had exacted from the district the relief sought in the lawsuit for free expression rights in curricular clubs. The judge rejected the notion that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues are always inappropriate in schools, saying, “It would be naďve at best to assume that expression of such views necessarily would involve the advocacy or even the description of particular sexual behavior or practices. Concerns about discussion of human sexuality in the public school setting have little bearing upon a discussion of the role of gay and lesbian persons in the Holocaust, or the orientation of various historical or literary figures and its impact upon their lives and work.” Though the judge’s ruling upholds the prohibition of all non-curricular clubs—including Kelli Peterson’s GSA as originally conceived—it is a critical decision because it opens the door to discussions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in Utah schools for the first time. As ideas about curricula and appropriate classroom discussion expand, it is inevitable that definitions of “curricular clubs” will evolve as well.
POSTSCRIPT: Only days after the Utah decision, school board members in Orange County, California voted 7-0 to ban a GSA from El Modena High School claiming that the group’s subject matter is curricular and therefore not protected by the Equal Access Act, which protects only non-curricular clubs. The school board stated that the club’s purpose is sexually related and that the board has a duty to control how sex education is taught and by whom. Some heralded the decision as responsible and a protection of parental rights. Students argued that the goal of the club is to promote tolerance, not sexuality, and to serve as a place where gay and straight students can socialize and do service projects without fear of harassment. Supporters of the club further point out that, though the Gay-Straight Alliance has been categorized as a curricular club, El Modena High School does not reflect lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues in any of its present curricula or policies. Both the Salt Lake City and Orange County decisions highlight important legal and moral issues. Since the debate over GSAs and LGBT inclusion is still so new, it will likely be some time before a definitive legal precedent is set. In the meantime, each school community must rely on the strength of its mission and sense of justice in doing the right thing for its students.
Source: GLSEN Out of the Past: Teachers’ Guide