High schools' gay-straight clubs draw fire
Students join to fight antigay harassment, while critics charge that school isn't the place for such groups
The student groups are intended to create an atmosphere of tolerance. Yet in some school districts, gay-straight alliances have unleashed a storm of dissent from those who say such groups have no business in school halls.Skip to next paragraph
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The clubs are being formed in hundreds of high schools across the US. They serve both as forums to prevent cruel behavior - including violence - against students perceived to be homosexual and as support groups for teens who declare themselves to be homosexual.
Students in Massachusetts formed the first gay-straight alliance (GSA) just over a decade ago. The idea quickly mushroomed, with more than 700 clubs now registered in 42 states.
But their rapid spread has not sprung from the support of school boards. Indeed, numerous school districts have been stalwart in their opposition - and willing to fight over the issue in court. Last week, the Orange County, Calif., school board faced a hearing over a challenge to its effort to shut down a GSA. The case is expected to go to trial next year.
Federal law grants students the right to form such groups at schools where any student-initiated clubs are permitted. But like religious clubs, the GSAs have become a lightning rod for discord.
The clubs exist "to end the ignorance and the stereotypes," insists Patricia Boland, chair of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues committee of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md.
But in the eyes of many parents, the groups are nothing more than recruiting clubs promoting a homosexual lifestyle.
"They are homosexual propagandists and will recruit these kids into the homosexual lifestyle," says Evelyn Reilly, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Massachusetts.
In addition, many communities decry the loss of local control. In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which says that if any student-initiated club is allowed to meet at school, others must have the same rights. Much of the support came from conservative lawmakers hoping to protect the rights of Bible and Christian groups to meet at school. Now, the law is being used to protect GSAs.
"Conservative elements got [Equal Access] in place, but the benefits may redound to groups they don't like," says Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The Equal Access Act offers schools few choices with respect to GSAs. They must either ban all extracurricular clubs, renounce all federal funding, or accept the clubs.
In Salt Lake City, the school district chose to ban all extracurricular clubs. In Colorado and New Hampshire, school districts reluctantly dropped recent cases against the clubs rather than fight lawsuits they were likely to lose.
Efforts to squelch club in California
In Orange County, the school board is hoping to ban a GSA at El Modena High School on the grounds that in the club the subject of sexuality may come up in a way that is in conflict with what is taught in sex-education classes. The hearing will determine whether students can continue to meet pending a decision.