Education • School groups provide teens a safe and open environment where they can just be themselves.
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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."
Utah high schools with gay-straight clubs
Cache County • Sky View and Logan
Carbon County • Carbon
Davis County • Clearfield, Syracuse and Woods Cross
Salt Lake County • East, West, Highland, Skyline, Hillcrest, Murray, Taylorsville, Kearns, Hunter, West Jordan, Cyprus, Rowland Hall (private school) and Academy of Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (charter school)
Summit County • Park City
Tooele County • Tooele
Washington County • Dixie, Snow Canyon, Pine View and Tuacahn School for the Performing Arts (charter school)
Weber County • Bonneville and Weber
Source • Utah Pride Center