Gay-straight alliances have been exploding across the state in 2010. In May, the Washington County School District allowed the clubs (which provide safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied students) to meet in all of its high schools, following a change to district club policy. In July, the ACLU of Utah sent the Tooele School District a letter informing them that prohibiting a club because it used the word “gay” in the title was unconstitutional.
And this fall, students at Weber, Bonneville, Syracuse, Woods Cross and Clearfield high schools will be able to join a GSA.
The eventual goal, said activist and Northern Utah resident Turner Bitton, is to get a GSA in all of Weber, Ogden and Davis school districts’ 15 schools. Although he was inspired by the Utah Pride Center’s Queer-Straight Alliance Network, a youth-lead movement to support and sustain GSAs throughout the state, he said that the push to bring the clubs to Northern Utah was something he and local students initiated themselves, even though they are now being helped by the Center.
“I like [the QSA Network], but I have a habit of doing things on my own,” he said.
Bitton, 19, said that he reached out to people in the area and got to know high school students who were interested.
“We built until we had about 30 people, and then we just pushed forward,” he said.
So far, the four new GSAs are pushing forward slowly but surely. Kevin Berkley, president of Syracuse High School’s club, said the school actually formed a GSA last year. However, the club’s faculty advisor moved, and the club needs a new one to be active again.
“We didn’t know exactly what to do since we didn’t have too many contacts, so last year was basically a failure, but we’re going to redeem ourselves this year,” he said.
Berkley launched Syracuse’s GSA with his best friend shortly after he came out. Although they had to track down a student body officer to sign off on their application, Berkley said the process wasn’t difficult.
“I think it’s partly due to[the fact] that most of our administration is very accepting,” he said, describing the student body as split “50-50 on people who are OK with the LGBT community and people who are not OK.”
“We still get harassment at our school,” he said.
Although the club had just 15 members in its first year, that number has now doubled — and several more students have expressed interest who have not officially signed up to participate.
Mario Ramirez, president of Bonneville High School’s club, said that he and Vice President Fidel “Pablo” Deleon are looking for members now that the school has approved their application.
“We’re trying to recruit younger people,” said Ramirez, who is a senior. “That way, when we’re gone they can take over.”
At press time, Ramirez said that he and Deleon would be setting up a table for the GSA in the lunchroom throughout late September, to advertise along with the rest of the school’s clubs and crews (curricular clubs).
He said that most students have been supportive.
“A lot of people have been joining and not just gays and that crowd; most of them are straight,” he said. “I was like, ‘Whoa that’s kind of shocking.’ And a lot of them are Mormon, too. I wasn’t expecting that kind of crowd to join.”
“Our school is iffy on it,” he said, when asked what faculty and administrators thought about having a GSA on campus. “I think the fact Turner wrote them a letter was why they said yes in the first place.”
The letter, said Ramirez, read that the students would call the Utah ACLU if the school refused to allow the club to form.
“I think that letter helped, because we have a lot of Mormon teachers here who aren’t OK with this. But they’re getting more accepting,” he said. “The teachers started talking to me more and they’re asking what I’m doing. They’re checking up on me, but I’m OK with it.”
Although the QSA Network has worked with the ACLU, Bitton said that he would rather see schools in Northern Utah allow the clubs in without the threat of legal action.
“I love [the ACLU] and I appreciate what they do, but I really don’t like lawsuits,” he said.
Northern Utah isn’t the only place seeing a push for GSAs. Kathy Godwin, president of Salt Lake City’s PFLAG chapter, said that Uintah High School in Vernal has approved a gay-straight alliance — however, no students have stepped forward to fill out paperwork to begin it.
“They don’t feel safe, “ she said.
Eric Hamren, who runs the Utah Pride Center’s QSA Network, agreed.
“The general vibe we’ve gotten from the few students [at Uintah] we’ve contacted who are LGBT or allies is they’re very afraid to come out and be in public,” he said. “And the vibe I got from students who are not LGBT or allies was not at all.”
However, Donny Sawyer, the founder of the social group Gay Uintah Basin, said that a Uintah student has asked him for advise in starting a GSA at the school.
Bitton said that he is currently working on getting GSAs into Layton, Northridge, Freemont, Ben Lomand, Ogden and Mountain high schools. He noted that Freemont High School in particular may be a challenge, because that school does not allow non-curricular clubs.
Hamren noted that GSAs exist at Rolland Hall, Murray and Taylorsville high schools. Tooele high school’s GSA has just met, and he said the QSA Network has also made contact with clubs at Logan and Skyview high schools and is assisting with the creation of Carbon and Cyprus clubs.
“The end goal is to get GSAs in every high school statewide, but that’s a long way away,” he said. ‘But just in this last year [after the QSA Network’s founding] the number of GSAs has more than doubled.”
“If I was to give any advice at any high school or middle school or private school anywhere in Utah, I’d say just having the courage to say you want to make a difference will make all of the difference, and there will always be someone to support you,” he said. “The hardest part of staring a GSA is finding the one youth in the whole school who is willing to take the first step.”
For more information about the GSA Network contact Eric Hamren at Utahgsanetwork@gmail.com or 951-323-4670.