This fall, gay-straight alliances will be coming to Washington County high schools for the first time, due to the efforts of the ACLU, Southern Utah activists and a group of gay and straight students.
The process began in fall of last year when openly gay Dixie High School student Logan Hunt and his friend Sal Tumanvao, a Desert Hills High student who came out the same time as he did, got the idea to found a GSA at their schools. (The clubs provide a safe atmosphere for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied students.).
“We wondered why don’t we just start one at every school, because we figured there’d be power in numbers. It would be easier to get all of them off the ground rather than one or two.” Through contacts at Dixie State College’s own GSA, the two soon met up with students from Pine View and Snow Canyon High Schools who had the same goal.
But the students soon ran into the same problems as they reached out to faculty and administrators: A set of complicated rules for non-curricular clubs. Hunt, for example, found that he had to collect 50 signatures from students in support of the club. He said he acquired the signatures easily, but then ran into some trouble from the administration.
“Once the principal started hearing about [the GSA], they wanted to put a stop to it,” he said. “They ended up calling in students and asking them if the club offended them. They were searching for people to say we [he and GSA supporters] had been harassing them.”
In contrast, Hunt said that he was keeping the petition secret because he was “afraid of someone trying to stop it.” This pressure, along with being unable to find a faculty sponsor lead him to withdraw the petition.
“I didn’t want to provoke it any further at that point,” he said.
Through their connection with Dixie State College’s GSA, Hunt and the other students got in contact with Southern Utah’s gay and transgender community, who quickly became aware of their struggles with the administration.
One adult who helped publicize the students’ struggle was Nicole Lee of Planned Parenthood — Association of Utah. Along with St. George’s Grace Episcopal Church, a handful of educators and other community members, Lee began a gay and transgender-affirmative group for Southern Utah youth in 2009 called Living into Equality, Acceptance, and Diversity. The group offers a safe space for youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities to socialize and receive education on issues ranging from safer sex, anti-bullying efforts and community activism.
“I watched the youth fight to carve out space for themselves, encountering horrendous levels of ignorance and overcoming seemingly endless barriers,” said Lee. “And it seemed to me that the community had an opportunity to create space for the youth, a space that would be open, welcoming, beneficial, enriching, and enjoyable. Something the youth wouldn’t need to fight for.”
Also around that time, Darcy Goddard, the legal director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union, was scheduled to speak to the college club. When she came to St. George, she also met with the high school students.
Goddard and the students then went over the individual schools’ policies for creating non-curricular clubs. The findings, said Goddard, were troubling and even unconstitutional. Along with the signature-gathering, for example, some schools required clubs to be approved by a council of students and a majority of faculty as well as the principal. Some also had requirements that clubs promote “moral” and “wholesome” activities — words which Goddard said she saw as being an excuse to shut out unpopular and minority views.
“They had this completely subjective criteria in there with no guidelines for a superintendent or a principal to make decisions,” she said. “Like the decision in determining what [constitutes] the ‘moral well-being of students.’ What does that even mean? And without providing specific guidance, how is any superintendent or principal supposed to know what that means? There’s no way t make that decision without relying on [an individual] opinion [about morality].”
“The other thing I found interesting was the idea that there could be formed a committee of faculty, parent and students to give a nonbinding recommendation [about a proposed non-curricular club] to the superintendent,” she continued. “There’s absolutely no basis for that in my opinion other than to gauge popular support and majority approval. That has been found to be completely unconstitutional.”
Goddard then met with principals and the superintendent of the Washington County School District to explain the problems with the policies, and the fact that they infringed upon students’ First Amendment rights to free expression. Shortly thereafter, the district mandated that all schools abide by what Goddard describes as a “content neutral” policy. This policy does away with the need for signatures and committees and allows a principal to approve or deny a club. Further, the district policy has also clarified prohibitions on clubs that deal with “human sexuality”—a broad term which, said Goddard, is often used to deny GSAs from forming. The term now encompasses discussions of contraceptives, sex outside marriage, or advocating sexuality, which is in line with the state’s definition.
After the meeting, Hunt said that Snow Canyon High School got its club approved, and his club was OK’d the following day. A guidance counselor will sponsor Dixie High School’s GSA this fall when it will officially start up.
“We’ve been holding events and they allow us to do that,” said Hunt who, as a graduating senior, will not be able to participate in the GSA he helped launch. “But it will start to pick up in the fall and we’ll start getting members. Right now it’s just the people who have fought for it who are participating.”
Although St. George students can now have GSAs, Goddard said the ACLU has received complaints from parents and students that club policies in Davis, Carbon and Tooele County’s school districts have the same problems. At press time, Goddard had written to the Tooele County School District’s superintendent to inform her of this, and to request a meeting.
“I think the difficulties we’re finding in each of these counties shows there is a need for the state to have a statewide content neutral policy so we don’t have to do this district by district,” she said. “I think it wastes a lot of time and money for districts to have to deal with this.”
“I think people just assumed the problem [of having GSAs in schools] was solved, but in counties other than Salt Lake, the same problems continue,” she continued. “But hopefully we can get it solved without litigation.”