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Seek and ye won't find: Student pushes for gay-straight club, but Utah Catholic school keeps balking

Published June 12, 2016 5:18 pm

A petition draws hundreds of signatures, but officials say the school's existing clubs can cover all necessary issues.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With the books closed on another Utah school year, a Judge Memorial student hopes administrators spend the summer rethinking the Catholic high school's policies on clubs.

Louis Fisher tried twice in the spring to convince officials that Judge needed a gay-straight alliance. They said no — despite a petition that drew nearly 1,200 signatures of support.

"This is something we need that we don't have here," said the 16-year-old senior-to-be, who came out at the start of the 2015-2016 academic year. "And we have clubs for a lot of stuff."



In two letters about the denials, Fisher said, school officials told him they could not endorse a club that used the LGBT acronym in its name, or a club that might promote homosexuality or sexual activity.

Commonly called GSAs, these alliances are designed to bring together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight students to promote dialogue and understanding that enhances overall school safety and support, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

That's a dialogue that is missing on the eastern Salt Lake City campus, said Fisher, noting the school's generally welcoming environment.

"We talk a lot about inclusivity and bullying, but I feel like we never dialogue about the experience of being gay in high school," he said. "It's not that I feel unsupported at Judge; it's that I feel there needs to be explicit support."

Principal Patrick Lambert said student safety and inclusion are top priorities for Judge administrators, teachers and counselors, many of whom have rainbow stickers plastered to their doors.

Bullying also is a major concern and would be immediately dealt with, he said, emphasizing that a safe school creates a better environment for academic achievement.

But Lambert, who said he consulted with officials at other Utah Catholic schools, believes the issues raised by Fisher can be addressed without a new club.

"We are able to provide that support for our students by focusing on one club that already exists," Lambert said.

The principal and Judge's dean of students, Louise Hendrickson, suggested Fisher bring his budding LGBT activism and energy to the school's Peace and Social Justice Club. That group confronts a variety of topics, Lambert explained, from racism to religious discrimination and economic inequality.

Adding an LGBT component would be a good fit, he said.

Fisher, who first petitioned in February for a GSA, disagrees. He fears LGBT issues would be lost amid a laundry list of other social concerns.

"That makes the LGBT community feel marginalized at Judge," he said. "It would make people less enthusiastic about joining."

After losing his initial bid, Fisher met with Lambert and advocated a second time for his proposed "LGBT-Straight Alliance." He came armed with a letter from a counselor, a stack of data to buttress the positive impact of GSAs, and news stories about similar clubs at Catholic schools outside of Utah.

He and his parents, Ethan and Kelly Fisher, also met with Hendrickson, but the school didn't budge.

Between meetings, a frustrated Fisher took to the internet in early April to rally support. Within five days, more than 1,100 people had signed his online petition.

The web push also sparked a round of calls to Judge officials from alumni, parents and others encouraging the club's approval.

Lambert and Hendrickson acknowledge the petition's draw, but they said it incorrectly suggested that Judge had blocked the GSA effort without providing Fisher an alternative.

GSAs began popping up in public schools nationwide in the late 1980s and early '90s, according to the national GSA Network.

More than 4,000 such groups exist in public schools nationwide, and research shows they improve school communities by reducing discrimination and the risk of suicide for all students.

In Utah, the arrival of GSAs in public schools was won through lawsuits waged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued in the late 1990s on behalf of two East High students.

Today, dozens of GSAs function at Utah high schools from Logan to St. George.

Efforts to block such clubs are barred under the 1984 Equal Access Act, which requires schools that receive federal funding to provide all noncurricular organizations equal access to school resources.

Catholic schools are exempt from the federal law. Nationally, only a handful of GSAs exist at Catholic secondary schools, including Dowling Catholic High in Des Moines, Iowa; St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Ore.; and the Jesuit-run Xavier High in New York City.

According to a position statement posted on the American Catholic website, the Roman Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and social acceptance of same-sex relationships but also teaches that LGBT individuals deserve to be treated with respect, justice and pastoral care.

That balance was the driving force behind a GSA established at Xavier in 2013, said physics teacher Alexander Lavy, one of three faculty members overseeing the club.

"Obviously, this stuff is very complicated in a Catholic setting," Lavy said. "The goal is to follow Catholic teachings affirming the human dignity of all people and recognizing that people under the queer umbrella are people whose dignity is threatened and therefore need defending."

Lambert said he knows of no written policy — either at Judge or within the Salt Lake City Catholic Diocese — that would bar GSAs, but he noted that schools must operate within the faith's teachings.

"There's a delicate balance that a Catholic school or a diocese has to find," he said. "We have to continually come back to what is the mission at our school."

For his part, Fisher, who is not Catholic, has no plans to stop his GSA campaign. In the fall, he expects to try again.

"Rome wasn't built in a day, and the civil rights movement didn't happen in two months," he said. "I don't care if I get it today or tomorrow, but I care that it happens. I feel like some things are worth fighting for."

Lambert and Hendrickson said they appreciate Fisher's tenacity, diligence and respectful approach. Still, they said, they aren't inclined to support a club that focuses on a single challenge and aren't aware of any groundswell of need within Judge's student ranks.

Fisher has not struggled with many of the challenges that other gay youths face. He is self-confident. His family accepts him. His peers do, too, although some of his male friends drifted away after he came out.

"I've got it easy," he said. "I know that other people don't."

A GSA, Fisher believes, could provide a safe place for those kids.

"If your family is weird about it, or your best friend is weird about it, [it] could make it so much easier," he said. "That could be a game changer for someone."

jdobner@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jenniferdobner

 

 

 

 

 

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