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Students say clubs a haven from hurt

Published April 2, 2007 4:06 am

Gay-straight alliances lift some teens' spirits
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When a student in Cara Cerise's ceramics class at Salt Lake City's Highland High School told her he had a solution to the gay marriage issue, she was ready to listen.

"Just kill everyone who's gay," she remembers the classmate saying.

Shocked, Cara started to cry. The daughter of a gay man, the teenager knew she needed to find a safe haven at school where she would not be judged.

It was through the school's gay-straight alliance (GSA), now melded into Highland's social-justice club, that Cara found a home.

The group promotes tolerance and recently spent a club meeting discussing what to serve in a few weeks at a homeless shelter. Spaghetti or enchiladas?

Clubs such as Highland's joined GSAs throughout the state in fighting against a bill, which is now law, requiring students to obtain parental permission to join school clubs, while also adding other restrictions.

Ask them if they talk about sex at club meetings or convert their friends to some kind of "dark side" and the students laugh. Clubs are where they find friends in the lonely world of high school, where they feel comfortable being themselves.

Yet at least at one school, the students know their club fliers will quickly be torn down after being posted in the halls.

And the Legislature didn't make them feel any more loved.

"They're offended by the fact that gays even exist," said Lexie Levitt, 17, a senior at Hunter High School in West Valley City.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said the new law her group helped craft does not prevent GSAs.

"I don't know why anyone would be upset or offended," she said. "As long as they abide by the rules, any club can exist that doesn't promote anything that's illegal."

Ruzicka noted that a club promoting marijuana use or sexual activity would fall into that category.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding the new law, some Salt Lake Valley school districts say they plan no substantive changes after the law takes effect. They already require students to obtain parental permission to join clubs. How carefully that rule is enforced is hard to say.

But the new law is highly prescriptive, in some cases potentially more so than district policies, requiring students to identify their meeting times, locations, budgets and other details.

Moreover, the new law does introduce gray areas that could allow administrators to find a reason to ban a club, according to Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the Utah Office of Education. Officials can deny clubs "as the school determines it to be necessary to . . . maintain the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior" and clubs that "involve human sexuality," a phrase which was also in an older law.

"Are both prospective student club members and school administrators going to have a common understanding of 'socially appropriate behavior' or 'involved with human sexuality?' " she asked. "The ambiguity of it is troubling."

More than a decade has passed since Utah's gay-straight alliances were born in 1995 at East High School. Soon-to-be senior Kelly Peterson wrote a letter to creative writing teacher Bobbie Murdock proposing the idea.

For three years, she wrote, she had endured a range of brutality from her peers - she had been teased, poked, prodded, spat upon and had her hair pulled, recalled Scott Richard Nelson, a then-teacher at East.

In the letter, Peterson said she could not face a fourth year at the school without some sort of support. Nelson and Murdock presented the letter, and the idea of a GSA, to principal Kay Petersen. That meeting would prove to set a new course of history for East, Utah and especially Nelson.

After reading Peterson's plea, the principal said that if his own daughter had penned the letter, he would not change his opinion of her or the way he loved her.

"I will never forget these words," Nelson recalled. "[Kay Petersen] said every student in this building is my child and we need to do what we can to support her."

This was only the beginning, however.

East's approval of the club led to a protracted legal battle and fueled a nationwide debate over the appropriateness of gay clubs.

Yet despite accusations by those opposed to the club's existence, at its core the club was never about sex or dating, Nelson said.

"This is a support network for students who really need it," he said. "They are harassed and put down and subject to flippant comments like 'That's so gay,' and 'What a homo.' Those things are very hurtful to hear. It's not about sex. It's about safety."

Inside the club, students' conversations ranged from how to avoid bullies in the hallways to what was playing on the radio.

In other words, the interactions were not too terribly different from any other group of teens, Nelson said.

Erin Weiser, a founding member of the East GSA, said the club gave students a reason to stay plugged into school.

"We did a lot of standing on our own in terms of self-worth - a lot of blazing our own trails," said the 28-year-old Weiser, who now lives in Portland, Ore.

The group's value, said Weiser, who sexually transitioned from a female to a male in his 20s, was immeasurable.

"I am far more direct and confident. I'm more involved and empowered. I'm also a little bit more . . . grown up, I guess," he said.

Marina Gombert, youth program director at the Utah Pride Center, says many of the youths who come to the center speak with reverence about the GSAs.

"It makes them feel they aren't the horrible person they have been told that they are," Gombert said.

The new law on school clubs has sent a message that gay teens are not safe.

The government hides behind the shield of morality when, in fact, its actions are homophobic, she said.

After the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted in February 1996 to ban all non-curricular clubs from meeting in the district's eight junior and senior high schools, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, alleging the board had violated the Federal Equal Access Act.

In 1999, a federal judge ruled in favor of the board, saying its policy to ban all clubs except those related to academic subjects was legal, but adding that the students could sue for alleged violation of their First Amendment free-speech rights.

Students succeeded in a First Amendment challenge because district officials had indeed allowed certain non-curricular clubs to continue meeting after the GSA was prohibited, according to the ACLU.

The gay students also won a victory in April 2000 when a federal judge ruled that the district had improperly denied the People Respecting Important Social Movements (PRISM) club to meet, citing its non-curricular status. Judge Tena Campbell said the group's agenda - to provide a forum for students to discuss gay and lesbian perspectives on sociology, U.S. history and government and politics - was indeed tied to the school's curriculum.

Then in 2005, 15 students at Provo High School applied to form a GSA, leading to a failed legislative attempt to block such groups again. Despite the controversy, GSAs have survived statewide, and likely will continue to survive, said Margaret Plane, ACLU of Utah legal director.

"So long as they're appropriate clubs, which they currently are, school administrators cannot under the First Amendment or the Equal Access Act legally stop them from forming and meeting," she said.

Hal Newman, an openly gay history teacher at Hunter High, believes the mere existence of a GSA has the power to change the way people think.

"Just by being, we raise consciousness," he said.

The adviser to the Hunter GSA, he helped form the group after realizing Hunter students were going elsewhere to find a place to fit in. Newman, who has a framed picture of his partner on his desk, now runs into former students who tell him they wish Hunter had had a club when they were still in school. He believes the GSA saves students' lives.

Several students have told him that without the club, they would have contemplated suicide.

For some students, the adult suspicion of GSAs can be explained by the age gap between politicians and teenagers today. They're criticizing something that's totally unfamiliar.

"I just don't think they understand what the club is all about, because they didn't have that when they were in high school," said Cara, the Highland student. "Things have changed."



What is a gay-straight alliance?

A GSA is a student club addressing issues related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. It typically works on tolerance and diversity within the school and often includes straight students as well as students who are gay, bisexual or transgender. More than 3,000 GSAs exist nationwide.

For youths who do not have access to a school-sponsored gay-straight alliance, activities and support can be found four days a week at Salt Lake City's Utah Pride Center. Youth program director Marina Gombert says the center serves as many as 150 individuals ages 13 to 20 on a weekly basis. The youth activity center is open Wednesday and Thursday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. for youths who want to drop in and hang out. Saturday's hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Specific clubs also meet weekly: Queers in Action, a politically minded leadership group; Trans Youth, for transgender youth; and Collage, for children of lesbians and gays. For more information, call the center at 801-539-8800.




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