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Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students have formed school clubs, often known as gay-straight alliances, to provide each other with peer support, seek information about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and ensure that schools respect their rights. Despite these benefits, many of the youth we interviewed had to overcome opposition from school administrators, the local school board, and the community before they could start gay-straight alliances at their schools.

Not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students will join a gay-straight alliance. Nevertheless, schools should be facilitating such groups when students wish to form them. As a matter of federal law, in fact, school districts are obligated to permit such groups to have access to school grounds on the same terms as other noncurricular student groups. By facilitating the operation of gay-straight alliances on equal terms with other student groups, schools help secure the internationally recognized rights of youth to freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and access to information.

The Benefits to Youth

Students told us that these groups can be tremendously helpful for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. "It was an outlet," Sam P. said of the gay-straight alliance he helped form. "We could talk about safer sex ed and get basic information people would be afraid to get in class."73

"Our GSA started again last year with a new advisor. We held a safe schools workshop. It was a wicked good experience. We talked about gay issues, what we can do to improve schools, things like that," Melanie S., a Massachusetts sophomore, told us. "We have a case in our main entrance with a large rainbow flag. We have lots of fliers posted telling students where you can go, giving information on programs like NAGLY [the North Shore Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth]. . . We're going to try to put up pictures of us at Youth Pride. None of our flyers have gotten ripped down. We're not asking for complete understanding, just acceptance."74

Karen M. Jordan, a DePaul University professor, suggests, "These groups offer age-appropriate opportunities for socialization and for meeting other gay,lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or supportive teens, thereby providing social support and furnishing opportunities for developing social skills."75 As the authors of a 1999 study note, "A sense of community is naturally important, but for marginalized populations, it is imperative."76

Many of the youth we interviewed suggested that more schools assist students in forming gay-straight alliances. "We should have GSAs in schools, just like we have FCAs-that's the Fellowship of Christian Athletes," said Dempsey H. "I think GSAs should be supported and put in as standard in schools."77 Dahlia P. told us that a gay-straight alliance would have made her school experience better. "They have 4-H clubs, cheerleaders, football, but they don't have an LGBT club," she said.78

Gay-straight alliances are not the solution for all schools, particularly if schools take no other steps to foster respect for all students and to protect youth from harassment and violence. "Before you create a GSA, you need a program" to give students information about sexuality, Manny V. suggested. "Offer a program like a separate course on sexuality, perhaps that kind of course. You might broaden the sexuality area of the health class. Make sure it's worth credits [toward graduation]."79

"It's one thing to be out and go to a youth group. It's another thing to step out in front of the student body," a counselor notes. "GSAs, yeah, I don't see them as the first step. Maybe if the goal is creating an incident? But I'd start with other ways that have support built in."80

And a Georgia teacher cautions, "I tell them it's not an overnight process. It may not happen while you're at the school. And the thing to be most cognizant of-for all the good you can do for others, don't do harm to yourself. You don't have to actually become a martyr."81

As Dahlia P. emphasized, however, gay-straight alliances can provide crucial support to otherwise isolated students. "I felt so alone. There was no one there for me to turn to," she told us. A gay-straight alliance at her school "would have helped a lot," she said.82

Efforts to Suppress Gay-Straight Alliances

Despite these benefits, students who seek to form gay-straight alliances often face tremendous opposition from school officials and others. Alex M., a Georgia sophomore, told us, "My old school wouldn't let me form a GSA. I just remember that they told me that it was not necessary to the curriculum to have a GSA, so I wouldn't be able to form one. This happened this past semester."83

"We had complaints from parents," said Sabrina L., one of the organizers of the gay-straight alliance at her high school in Orange County, California. "They said we were `promoting,' `recruiting,' that kind of stuff." She also reported that her group was prevented from handing out health information.84

School districts have sometimes gone to extremes to block gay-straight alliances in their schools, as the experience of East High School students in Salt Lake City, Utah, shows. Students at East High School sought to form a gay-straight alliance known as the Rainbow Club in 1998. The purpose of the club, modeled on similar clubs that have formed throughout the United States, was to provide a safe space in which students could discuss issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.

Under the 1984 federal Equal Access Act, all schools that receive federal funding must provide equal access to school resources to all noncurricular clubs. However, a 1995 school board policy, adopted in response to an earlier attempt by another group of students to form a gay-straight alliance at East High, prohibited all student groups or organizations "not directly related to the curriculum" to "organize or meet on school property" at any public secondary school in the Salt Lake City School District.85

Acting under this policy, the school district terminated forty-six clubs, including the Human Rights Club, the Native American Club, and the Polynesian Club at East High; the Black Student Union, the Latino Club, the Native American Club, and Students of the Orient at West High; Advancement of Hispanic Students, the Ethnic Alliance, and the Polynesian Club at Highland High. It classified other clubs, including a school community organization known as the Improvement Council at East, as "curriculum-related." The district also permitted some unapproved clubs to meet outside of class time on school grounds.86

The students filed a suit against the school district, arguing that, despite the blanket ban, some noncurricular clubs were still meeting with the support of the school and that an unwritten but active policy violated the students' constitutional right to freedom of speech because it restricted the expression of positive views of gays and lesbians. The students won a partial victory in October 1999, when a federal district judge found that the school district violated the Equal Access Act by denying access to the gay-straight alliance during the time that it allowed the Improvement Council at East to meet on school grounds.87

In a related case, a group of students at East High School started the People Recognizing Important Social Movements (PRISM) club, which it defined as curricular because it was a forum for discussing democracy, civil rights, equality, discrimination and diversity from the perspective of lesbians and gay men. The school administrator responsible for approving applications for clubs denied thestudents' application to start the club, ruling that it was not curriculum-related. These students also filed suit against the school district.88

In April 2000, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the school district from denying PRISM access to school grounds on the same terms as other curriculum-related student clubs.89 In September 2000, the Salt Lake City school board reversed its 1995 policy, allowing PRISM, the Rainbow Club, and other student noncurricular groups to meet on school grounds.

Salt Lake City is not the only school district that has attempted to block student gay-straight alliances. Settling another prolonged dispute in September 2000, California's Orange Unified School District agreed to recognize El Modena High School's Gay-Straight Alliance on the same terms as other student clubs. Students had applied in September 1999 to form the club to promote acceptance among gay and straight students. After delaying its decision for several months, the school board denied the students' application in December 1999, noting that it would consider a new application "for a tolerance club with an appropriate name and a mission statement that clearly states that sex, sexuality, [and] sex education will not be the subject of discussion in club meetings."90 Under the settlement, the Gay-Straight Alliance was allowed to keep its name and have the same access to school facilities given all other student clubs, as the federal Equal Access Act requires, including the right to meet on school grounds, to use the school's public address system to announce club meetings, and to be featured in the school yearbook. The settlement also provided that students would be able to discuss antigay discrimination and harassment and other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.91

Not all school officials oppose students forming gay straight alliances. Sam P. told us that he experienced no opposition from his school's administration when he started a GSA in 1996. He said, "I got a lot of support from most of the administration. I started my GSA after finding out about the governor'scommission in Massachusetts. . . . I went to my principal . . . . I told him what I wanted to do. I wanted to be active in school, and I came up with the idea of starting a GSA. He said, `Great idea, let's do it.'" Not all of the teachers were as enthusiastic, however. "I had an English teacher who made a few comments before she knew I was heading it all up. We were having a discussion on gays in the military, and she asked the class, `How do you feel about the fag group on campus?' I said, `I think my group is working pretty well.' She apologized; she said she thought that using that word would get students to respond. We talked about it, and we worked it out."92

73 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

74 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 24, 2000.

75 Karen M. Jordan, "Substance Abuse Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Adolescents," School Psychology Review, vol. 29 (2000), p. 204.

76 Andrea A. Nesmith, David L. Burton, and T.J. Cosgrove, "Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth and Young Adults: Social Support in Their Own Words," Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 37 (1999), p. 106.

77 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.

78 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

79 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles County, California, October 21, 1999.

80 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.

81 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.

82 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

83 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2000.

84 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 18, 1999.

85 A written policy issued by the school board in February 1996 declared that "limited open forums," as defined in the federal Equal Access Act, do not exist in district schools. Under the Equal Access Act, "[a] public secondary school has a limited open forum whenever such school grants an offering to or opportunity for one or more noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time." 20 U.S.C.§ 4071(b). The Equal Access Act further provides that:

It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.

Ibid. § 4071(a).

86 The Supreme Court has found that "a student group directly relates to a school's curriculum if the subject matter of the group is actually taught or will soon be taught, in a regularly offered course; if the subject matter of the group concerns the body of courses as a whole; if participation in the group is required for a particular course; or if participation in the group results in academic credit." Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 239-40 (1990).

87 See East High Gay/Straight Alliance v. Board of Education of Salt Lake City School District, 81 F. Supp. 2d 1166, 1197 (D. Utah 1999).

88 See East High School Prism Club v. Seidel, 95 F. Supp. 2d 1239 (D. Utah 2000).

89 Ibid., p. 1251.

90 Colín v. Orange Unified School District, 83 F. Supp. 1135, 1140 (C.D. Cal. 2000). Several weeks before the school board considered the application, El Modena High School principal Nancy Murray told the student organizers that the name of their club was inappropriate, suggesting that they choose an alternative name such as the "Tolerance Club," the "Acceptance Club," or the "Alliance." Ibid., p. 1139.

91 See Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, "Back to School: Protecting Students from Discrimination," (accessed on February 16, 2001).

92 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

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