Sunday, January 16, 2011

Utah GSAs

I've tried to keep information about the gay-straight alliance at my school on a different blog, to help with student privacy issues that others at my school were concerned about. But the club is alive and well, the officers are awesome, and more importantly, similar clubs at other schools throughout Utah are blossoming.

Here are links to a couple of news articles, if you've missed them. Text for the articles is listed below them so that when they archive them, I still have them. :)

Salt Lake Tribune

New York Times:

By Rosemary Winters

The Salt Lake Tribune
First published Dec 17 2010 07:09PM
Updated Dec 20, 2010 09:28AM

Stetson Sheffield aimed to create a safe space for himself and others at Clearfield High as he started his senior year at a new school.

Chantel Bleazard wanted to stick up for her gay and transgender peers at Tooele High.

Struck by the loss of a friend, Mario Ramirez, a Bonneville High senior, hoped he could help prevent other gay teen suicides in his community outside Ogden.

They are just three of the dozens of students who have launched gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs at Utah high schools. This year, the number of such clubs has nearly tripled in the Beehive State, growing from 10 in 2009-10 to 27, from St. George to Logan, according to the Utah Pride Center’s GSA Network. Students are working to open additional clubs next year at schools in Pleasant Grove, Vernal, Grantsville, Sandy and South Jordan.

“These GSAs are wonderful, safe, open and affirming environments where young people can just be who they are,” says Valerie Larabee, Utah Pride Center executive director. “That’s a rare space for some youth, particularly in a conservative, religious state.”

She credits the expansion of gay-straight clubs both to the support offered to students by the 1-year-old GSA Network — including help crafting by-laws — and to a “softened” climate in Utah for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ endorsement of Salt Lake City’s adoption of anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people in November 2009 was a turning point, Larabee says. The church opposes gay marriage and teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful, but has grown increasingly vocal in urging compassion toward LGBT individuals and condemning their mistreatment.

“Across the board, I think it has allowed more public dialogue about our issues,” Larabee says.

Until now, the expansion of gay-straight alliances has been sluggish in Utah.

The first alliance debuted at Salt Lake City’s East High in 1995, prompting the school district to shut down all non-curricular clubs, a move that led the American Civil Liberties of Utah to file two lawsuits on behalf of students. In October 2000, Salt Lake City School District reinstated all nonacademic clubs, including East’s GSA, and the ACLU dropped its litigation.

Controversy sparked again when Provo High approved a GSA for 2005-06, a first for Utah County. As a result, the Utah Legislature passed a school clubs law in 2007 that forbids clubs from discussing sexual activity outside of legally recognized marriages or contraception. The law also requires parental permission slips for membership in all secondary school clubs.

“I would rather not see [gay-straight alliances in schools], but it’s not up to me,” says Sen. Chris Buttars, the West Jordan Republican who sponsored the 2007 law after repeated attempts to quash GSAs. “It’s up to the principal and the parents. That’s who should make decisions about these kids.”

Buttars says he has no plans for further legislation directed at student clubs.

The 1984 Equal Access Act, which requires that schools that receive federal funding give all noncurricular clubs equal access to school resources, and the First Amendment both protect students’ right to establish free-speech forums, whether or not school administrators agree with the subject matter, says Darcy Goddard, legal director of the ACLU of Utah.

Despite clarity in federal law and many court decisions, Goddard says she still runs into instances where students are being blocked from forming gay-straight alliances.

Last spring, GSAs were approved at four Washington County School District high schools after the ACLU alerted the district that its own content-neutral club application was not being uniformly used by schools.

“We had been told there was some resistance in the schools,” says Kelly Blake, president of the Washington school board. “[Homosexuality] goes against the morals of the community.”

But, he adds, “as a board, we looked into what these clubs really do, and what they teach is tolerance.”

In July, Tooele County School District approved a GSA at Tooele High — a first for the district — after the application process stalled for much of the 2009-10 school year over whether the club should be allowed to have the word “gay” in its title. Goddard, in a letter to the superintendent, insisted censoring the club’s name would violate federal law and the First Amendment.

“If it wasn’t for the ACLU, we probably still, to this day, would not have it approved,” says Bleazard, the 17-year-old president of the Tooele High GSA. “It’s been a really positive thing for our school to kind of open up its mind. … We still have a lot of work to do because a lot of the kids are scared to join it.”

The gay-straight clubs, which offer social and service-oriented activities, promote safe school climates for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The groups may tackle issues such as anti-gay bullying and suicide prevention.

Last year, 85 percent of LGBT students in middle and high school experienced verbal harassment at school, according to a nationwide survey of 7,621 teens by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Nearly one in five said they had been punched, kicked or injured with a weapon because of their sexual orientation.

Students at schools with a gay-straight alliance were less likely to hear homophobic remarks from their peers and more likely to feel a sense of belonging, according to the report.

In January, Sheffield and members of the Clearfield High Gay-Straight Alliance plan to tackle the term “that’s so gay,” which teenagers often use to describe things they don’t like, in a video skit for the school. The group hopes to raise awareness that the term is hurtful.

At a recent club meeting, Sheffield asked members of the GSA to question stereotypes.

“What is a stereotypical lesbian?” he asked. “What is a stereotypical Mormon?”

Students shared their own experiences of being stereotyped and of seeing through labels they had placed on others.

“You guys need to be the champions of diversity,” adviser Jenny Williams, an English teacher, told the students. “You need to be the ones who accept others first.”


A version of this article appeared in print on January 2, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition. By Erik Eckholm

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Some disapproving classmates called members of the new club “Satanists.” Another asked one of the girls involved, “Do you have a disease?”

But at three local high schools here this fall, dozens of gay students and their supporters finally convened the first Gay-Straight Alliances in the history of this conservative, largely Mormon city. It was a turning point here and for the state, where administrators, teachers and even the Legislature have tried for years to block support groups for gay youths, calling them everything from inappropriate to immoral.

The new alliances in St. George were part of a drastic rise this fall in the number of clubs statewide, reflecting new activism by gay and lesbian students, an organizing drive by a gay rights group and the intervention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has threatened to sue districts that put up arbitrary hurdles. Last January, only 9 high schools in Utah had active Gay-Straight Alliances; by last month, the number had reached 32.

The alliances must still work around a 2007 state law that was expressly intended to stifle them by requiring parental permission to join and barring any discussions of sexuality or contraception, even to prevent diseases.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative family group, promoted the law. Its authors expected, she said, that requiring parental permission would deter some children from joining the alliances and that restricting topics for discussion would mean that “there’s not a lot of purpose in being there, and the clubs end up being pretty small.”

“I just don’t think these clubs are appropriate in schools,” Ms. Ruzicka said. “You can talk about providing support, but you’re also creating a gay recruiting tool.”

But members of the new clubs said they were undaunted by the restrictions, which they said showed a misunderstanding of what the alliances meant for students who had often lived with fear and shame — at home and at school.

Kate Hanson, a 15-year-old bisexual sophomore at Snow Canyon High School, said that having the alliance “helps you realize that there are others like you and there are people who support you.”

“I was so excited when I heard we could have a G.S.A.,” she said. “I just thought it would be a fun club.”

With the increase in alliances, Utah is joining a growing national movement to provide friendly meeting places in schools for students who have often felt like misfits, clubs where gay youths and their supporters can socialize, speak out against discrimination and sponsor events like the Day of Silence in honor of bullied students.

Since the first club was formed in Massachusetts in 1988, by a gay boy and a straight girl with same-sex parents who were tired of being stigmatized, the organizations have spread to most of the country, reaching more than 4,000 high schools and even a handful of middle schools by 2008. The clubs are surging anew after recent publicized suicides of gay teenagers, said Eliza Byard, director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in New York.

The struggles of the alliances in Utah are known to advocates around the country. In 1997, when Salt Lake City school officials discovered that they could not single out alliances for a ban, they took the extraordinary step of outlawing all extracurricular clubs in district schools.

That move drew national attention and helped spur the creation of new alliances in other states, said Carolyn Laub, director of the GSA Network, a group based in California that provides leadership training.

The Salt Lake district eventually backed down, but as of last January, only nine clubs were active in the state, six of those in the capital.

Publicity about the breakthrough in St. George, an isolated city in the red-bluff desert of southwest Utah, has inspired students in other parts of the state, and by last month at least 32 clubs were operating, said Eric Hamren of the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City. He spent last spring and summer locating and training student organizers, finding some of them at the annual Queer Prom that his organization puts on for gay and lesbian students around the state.

But resistance continues. Some schools are still imposing legally shaky barriers, like requiring the unanimous approval of student officers or prohibiting activities that violate “community morals,” said Darcy Goddard, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Utah.

As she did in St. George last year, Ms. Goddard has warned officials that such policies may violate the federal Equal Access Act— a law passed by Congress in the 1980s, mainly to protect Bible study groups in schools, that has become a prime tool for protecting Gay-Straight Alliances from arbitrary hurdles.

In 2007, conservative groups pushed through the state Student Clubs Act, still on the books, that was aimed at the alliances and reflected what rights groups called misleading stereotypes.

The law requires parental permission for participation in all school clubs and says organizations can be barred to “protect the physical, emotional, psychological or moral well-being of students and faculty.”

Students say the law reflects misconceptions about both homosexuality and the alliances, which in many cases are led by straight girls who want to support gay friends or siblings. The club at Dixie High School here, for example, is led by Bethany Coyle, a senior who describes herself as straight and a supporter of equal rights. She said that one vice principal had asked if the club would recruit homosexuals and that students had scrawled epithets on a sign-up sheet, scaring off some potential members.

A teacher advising one of the new clubs in St. George said that he opened each of the weekly meetings with a reminder of the forbidden topics of discussion, but that it was proving irrelevant. The students, he said, seemed more interested in making friends and planning events.

Jason Osmanski, a 17-year-old junior who was a driving force behind the new alliance at Snow Canyon High School and now serves as its president, said that while members sometimes shared stories of harassment, they did not need to discuss sexuality at the meetings.

If the students’ legal right to a club seems firmly established, antigay feelings in the community persist. Alliance members in St. George were disheartened by school board elections this fall, when several candidates spoke out against the groups, saying they hoped parents would refuse to give their permission for students to join.

The students say that they are ready to adapt to any reasonable conditions, and that they will persevere.

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