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.

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.

In the meantime, however, the clubs and schools find themselves at the center of a larger debate: whether schools must work harder to prevent cruelty aimed at kids labeled "different."

There is substantial evidence that - despite increased tolerance of homosexuality by US society at large - young people continue to express hostility toward peers tagged as gay. In 1996, a Wisconsin teenager, Jamie Nabozny, taunted for years by students for what they perceived as gay behavior, was hospitalized after being beaten. Two years later, the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was judged an antigay hate crime. In Boston last weekend, a girl was attacked on the subway because teens from her high school thought she was a lesbian.

Some say such cases only hint at abuses endured by young people who are open about their homosexuality or perceived to be gay. A 1997 report by the Vermont Board of Education says gay-identified students are seven times more likely than others to have been threatened or injured with a weapon, while a 1995 study by the Massachusetts Board of Education says they are far more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe. Suicide is another pressing concern.

One Needham (Mass.) High School senior says she belongs to the GSA because she wants to be sure her high school has a place that's safe and welcoming to all. Sometimes other students express surprise at her affiliation with the GSA. But she says she's comfortable explaining that "diversity is a very important value in my life. Participating in a GSA just adds to my experience."

The way to teach tolerance?

Recent legal decisions suggest courts may be giving greater credence to harassment concerns. A jury found three school officials liable in the Wisconsin case for failing to respond to the boy's reports of abuse. A 1999 US Supreme Court ruling that schools must act against sexual harassment is also seen as significant.

But opponents protest that there's no need to single out prejudice against homosexuals to teach kids not to be cruel. Unkindness to those who are different is "a terrible trait of immaturity," says Mrs. Reilly. "But you don't need to get into homosexual behaviors to teach tolerance."

Reilly says groups like GSAs may replace one kind of danger with another. She is alarmed by reports that at a recent meeting of a local GSA, fliers for a gay teen weekend retreat were handed out.

Schools fear lawsuits if they don't permit such clubs, Reilly says, but they ought also to fear lawsuits "from parents whose children end up being ... preyed upon by older homosexuals or seduced into a homosexual lifestyle."

Reilly wants courts to take "a common-sense approach, that no school is compelled ... to put in place something with potential for doing harm to children."

That's unlikely, says Professor O'Neil. "Certainly schools can and should exercise oversight," he points out. "But that's not a reason for banning the clubs."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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