The Gay/Straight Alliance, a gay and lesbian high school club formed at a downtown campus here, has taken pride in helping youths struggling with their sexual identity to support each other.
“Going to high school when you are gay or lesbian is a miserable, lonely experience,” said 17-year-old Kelli Peterson, who founded the club at East High School in December. “I know, I’ve been beat up twice.”
But on Tuesday, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted to squash the club. To do that, the board issued a blanket ban that would also kill the ski, chess, Latino, Frisbee and Bible clubs.
The measure, which passed on a 4-3 vote after an emotional public meeting, takes effect in the fall.
“I can’t express how this decision bothers me to my very soul,” said board President Mary Jo Rasmussen, who voted against the measure. “These clubs are training grounds for future leaders, and the very reason a lot of students stay in school.”
Peterson fears that “the school board decision will only exacerbate the hate and violence that’s been going on against us for years.
“I almost wish they could have found another way of stopping us without punishing everyone else,” she said. “But this is not over by a long shot. This is a declaration of war.”
The gay club has spawned controversy across the state, from neighborhoods to the Utah Legislature, ever since word filtered out that it had petitioned the school board for formal recognition.
Leaders of the Republican majority called a closed-door session of the state Senate to meet with top education officials. During a 90-minute meeting on Jan. 30, the lawmakers lambasted the educators, accusing them of eroding family values and promoting homosexuality by allowing the club to meet under the guidance of faculty advisors.
Some senators threatened to ban all clubs statewide rather than allow the Gay/Straight Alliance to continue meeting. To avoid conflict with the federal Equal Access Act, which protects high school social clubs, they even considered forgoing $100 million in annual federal funds.
Ironically, the act was sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and enacted in 1985 to ensure that Christian Bible clubs could use public school facilities for extracurricular activities. Hatch now says local school boards have a moral obligation and the legal authority to keep gay clubs out of public schools.
The fact that the gay and lesbian club tried to use the act as a shield was “an unintended consequence,” Hatch recently told Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican.
A week ago, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state Senate, contending that its closed meeting on the issue constituted a secret, illegal assembly.
“One day we will look back on this as one of the most shameful episodes in Utah history--but then, I say that once a month,” said Carol Gnade, executive director of the state ACLU.
State Senate President Lane Beattie acknowledged that, “yes, the meeting was illegal in that it was not closed properly.” But he defended the lawmakers’ right to meet behind closed doors over the matter because it involved potential litigation.
The Senate this week is considering two bills that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality at public schools and would restrict gay clubs by requiring parental permission to join them.
“I’m amazed that a small group of teenagers could cause so much trouble,” said Peterson, whose group has eight gay or lesbian members and eight to 10 heterosexual members.
What is happening in Utah reflects a broader debate being played out nationwide.
Two years ago, hundreds of angry Fountain Valley, Calif., residents staged demonstrations and bombarded school officials with letters demanding that a gay club be banned. But school board officials decided that they could not refuse to allow one club without prohibiting all other groups unrelated to curriculum.
In 1993, hundreds of Massachusetts high school students converged on their statehouse to successfully lobby for passage of the first law in the country to explicitly ban discrimination against gay students in public schools.
“We are very concerned that Utah is joining a growing list of states that have introduced or plan to introduce bills to regulate school curricula or clubs,” said Kerry Lobel, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. “There are at least seven states that have introduced such measures this year.”
But in Utah, the issue strikes a particularly dissonant chord. Republican state Sen. Charles Stewart of Provo sees the Gay/Straight Alliance as part of a conspiracy to corrupt vulnerable children and promote a homosexual political agenda in a state that he regards as one of the last bastions of deeply religious nuclear families.
“I think this is such a threat to our society, our children and our families that if the only way to keep these clubs from organizing is to ban all clubs, I’ll vouch for that,” he said.
Gayle Ruzicka, spokeswoman for the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, which claims a mailing list of 23,000 residents, is convinced that the students are being directed by older homosexuals to “come on campus and recruit our children.”
Peterson said the club originally met discreetly in campus classrooms or at a coffee shop to talk about career opportunities, what movies to see and growing up gay.
Now, she said, “I want to see clubs like this at every high school in the state of Utah.”
“We are accidental activists--our backpacks are our briefcases and our school lockers are our offices,” said 17-year-old Erin Wiser, a lesbian who hopes to become president of the club when Peterson graduates this year. “Our first priority is to help each other, but because we are under attack, we have to defend ourselves.
“We are not an epidemic,” Wiser added. “We are different and we don’t know exactly why. And this is America, where the rights of the minority are protected.”