With a little nudge from the American Civil Liberties Union, four St. George high schools have approved Gay-Straight Alliance clubs for the first time.
Starting in fall 2010, Desert Hills, Dixie, Pine View and Snow Canyon high schools will have after-school forums specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, along with their straight friends and allies.
Nationally, there are 4,000 such clubs registered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The clubs promote safe school climates for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Last fall, a small group of St. George students launched an effort to form a GSA at every high school in the Washington County School District.
"We felt alone," said Logan Hunt, a gay senior at Dixie High. "We were worried about our [LGBT] friends we had met. They were often depressed. ... We wanted to create more tolerance in our community for everybody."
But Hunt and his friends met with resistance from some school principals who denied their applications or insisted the clubs meet requirements that the ACLU considered onerous.
After receiving complaints, the ACLU of Utah reviewed club policies at five Washington County high schools and found most were more burdensome than the district's policy.
Desert Hills, Dixie and Hurricane high school policies contained "unconstitutional requirements that were very clearly designed to make it so unpopular or minority view points could not be heard," said Darcy Goddard, ACLU of Utah's legal director.
For example, one school required signatures from 30 students, unanimous approval of a student "executive council," the principal's OK and then a majority vote by the school's faculty. Goddard also was concerned that two schools had vague requirements that clubs promote activities that are "moral" or "wholesome."
Alerted by the ACLU, the Washington County School District required all the high schools to adopt its content-neutral application, which seeks only the approval of a school principal.
In a statement, the district said it required the change because some school policies could have been interpreted to violate the First Amendment.
On the district form, students are asked for basic club details and to agree to comply with state education laws, including that they not advocate sexual activity outside of marriage or the use of contraception.
The issue of sex ed came up at a district-wide information session Goddard conducted last month. Some school officials, she said, wondered whether the GSA would promote sex.
"You can't use stereotypes about certain groups" to predict they will break the rules, Goddard said she told administrators. "There's no more reason to think that LGBT kids and their allies are going to talk about contraception than to think that the football team will or the chess club."
A request to form a GSA is a free-speech issue, Goddard pointed out at the session. She explained First Amendment case law dealing with student groups, which includes a landmark federal case in 2000 that forced the Salt Lake City School District to allow a GSA at East High School.
A GSA at Snow Canyon High is "long overdue," said Delsy Nielson, an English teacher and debate coach who has agreed to be the club's adviser next year. She acknowledges the new club is likely to face some resistance in conservative St. George.
A St. George student pushing for a GSA said she has missed much of her senior year over the issue. Sala Tumanuvao said
her parents pulled her out of Desert Hills last fall after her principal told them she had applied for a GSA. She now lives with her girlfriend and attends adult-education classes, she said in an interview.
"I'm not afraid of the challenge," Nielson said about advising the Snow Canyon club. "It's allowing them to have a right to be heard, to be represented."
In its 2007 National School Climate Survey, GLSEN found that LGBT students at schools that have GSAs were less likely to miss school because of safety concerns, less likely to experience harassment or assault and more likely to feel a sense of belonging to their school community.
Jason Osmanski, a Snow Canyon sophomore who championed the GSA at his school, hopes the club can teach all students to be kinder to their LGBT peers. After he came out as gay in ninth grade, he said, he was taunted or shoved into lockers on a daily basis. The tormenting has slowed in high school, but he still gets called derogatory slurs, he said.
"I'm hoping that kids who are gay and come out won't be harassed" any more, he said.
Osmanski was bracing for a denial when he spoke to the assistant principal this month about his GSA application.
"I had my [ACLU] 'know your rights' card out and ready," Osmanski recalled. "The second I walked out of the office, I started screaming and jumping. I was to the point of tears."
He said that success was the "most amazing experience" of his life. At least, the 16-year-old added, "so far."
Status of Gay-Straight Alliances in Washington County high schools
Desert Hills » Approved for 2010-2011 school year.
Dixie » Approved for 2010.
Hurricane » No application.
Pine View » Approved for 2010.
Snow Canyon » Approved for 2010.
Tuacahn charter school » GSA has been in place since fall 2009.