In 1996, West High School’s gay-straight alliance made national headlines when the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education voted to eliminate all extra-curricular school clubs to prevent the fledgling GSA from receiving official support. The controversy around the ban — and the 1998 court case around it — jumpstarted the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network, which created the first GSA, and lead to the founding of alliances in schools across the country.
Fourteen years later, however, the Utah Pride Center found that it didn’t know how many GSAs the state has. The Center made the discovery, said volunteer Eric Hamren, during a small but disorganized summit for Utah GSAs that no students attended.
“While we were there, we were like, ‘How many GSAs are there in Utah?’ and we found that no one knows where they all are and there’s no communication between them,” he said.
In order to help that communication along, the Center is launching the Utah GSA Network. Part of this network is an annual GSA summit, in which the Center will offer training for junior high, high school and college/university students who are running GSAs, or who want more information on how to set one up.
“It’s much more organized in getting the GSAs started, keeping them sustained, and helping their leadership development, because in a lot cases, kids start a GSA and have no idea what a GSA is,” Hamren explained.
The idea of the network is already popular among the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied youth. The Center, said Hamren, received overwhelming support for the network at Queer Prom, when several students between the ages of 14 and 20 signed a list expressing interest in learning more about GSAs. The network, however, is open to students age 12 through 25.
“We’re getting tons of feedback,” he said. “We’re finding out even middle schools want this.”
The first summit was held at the Center on April 23. Here, parents and students spoke with Center volunteers and ACLU Utah Legal Director Darci Goddard.
“She was hilarious and had tons of facts about situations that GSAs run into,” said Hamren.
Hamren said the students themselves represented all age groups and asked several questions, including what to do if a district banned all non-curricular clubs and how to get a GSA off the ground. For example, Hamren said that students from Tooele High School had been attempting to start a GSA since January with little success.
“The papers have been sitting on the superintendent’s desk since the beginning of the year,” he said.
Many students also expressed interest in being on the network’s organizing committee, which makes planning events much easier, Hamren added. This summer, for example, the network plans on holding a one day leadership seminar for GSA officers. On May 15, members of the ACLU will also be traveling to St. George to train students there about forming GSAs. By the end of the month, Hamren hopes “to have called or visited the majority of schools in the state.”
“So far many of the districts are being very supportive of this,” he said. He credits the interest to the ACLU’s efforts in teaching administrators that GSAs aren’t “gay clubs,” but places that “create a safe environment in school for all students.”
“When [Goddard] got that point across to principals, they did a 180,” he said.
The Utah GSA network will also be partnering with PFLAG and the Inclusion Center.