On New Year’s Day, the New York Times profiled what it saw as a phenomenon in the “isolated Utah city” of St. George: the creation of a gay-straight alliance at each of the city’s three high schools.
While the article certainly pushed Utah into the national spotlight, the clubs on which it reported are not just a fluke. In fact, GSAs have been on the rise throughout the state since April of last year, when the Washington County School District, in which St. George is located, adopted a club policy that allowed for gay-straight alliances to form. Until then, the ACLU of Utah said at the time, schools in the district frequently blocked these clubs from forming by saying they promoted sex outside marriage, which is against Utah law.
“It’s just been a steady growth since the beginning of 2010, when it was only nine clubs in high schools [across the state],” said Eric Hamren, state adviser of the Utah QSA Network, a program of the Utah Pride Center which coordinates the state’s gay-straight alliances (the Q in the title stands for “queer,” an identity that several students embrace today).
“At the start of the school year [last fall], we jumped up to nearly 30, and with the coming spring we’re hoping to add on a good 10 more clubs to that number,” he said.
In December, the GSAs organized themselves into five regions in order to more effectively work together and to foster further growth within various geographical areas. The regions are: The Salt Lake Region (Tooele and Salt Lake Counties), The Northern Region (Cache, Rich, Morgan, Weber, Davis and Box Elder Counties), The Utah/Central Region (Utah, Juab, Millard, Sanpete and Sevier Counties), The Zion/Southern Region (Washington, Iron, Beaver, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Kane Counties) and The Eastern Region (San Juan, Grand, Emery, Carbon, Uintah, Duchesne, Daggett, Summit and Wasatch Counties).
“The regions will be organized as enough clubs start in each region to sustain and operate a region,” Hamren said in a press release issued last December.
Currently, the clubs are working together on a number of projects, said Hamren.
“The focus mostly has been on the teen bullying and suicide,” he said. Additionally, following this year’s National Day of Silence on April 15 (in which students remain silent throughout the day to draw attention to anti-gay and anti-transgender violence), Hamren said that youth from all regions will meet for the Youth Empowerment Summit in Salt Lake City, where they will learn how to effectively manage their clubs and pass them on to younger students when they graduate.
“[The summit] is going to be immediately followed by Queer Prom, so that way a lot of youth who couldn’t come to Queer Prom [in the past] can, because they will already be hear for the youth summit,” Hamren added.
In the meantime, GSAs continue to grow. Currently, said Hamren, the QSA Network is focusing on getting the clubs in the Canyons and Jordan School Districts and high schools including Emmery, Grantsville and Uintah. The last of these, which is located in Vernal, is being helped along by the Gay Uintah group.
“They were able to do outreach to students and locate students who wanted to get involved and start a GSA at Uintah High School,” said Hamren.
Last year, Uintah High administrators said that they were willing to entertain the idea of a GSA, but no students at the time came forward to start one.
“Pretty much everywhere where a GSA has started, those students have started telling their friends at other high schools and its spreading to other high schools,” said Hamren.
Another thing that is spreading is intolerance of bullying and harassment policies that exclude sexual orientation and gender identity. Hamren said that he would not be surprised if some GSA members would take advantage of Equality Utah’s citizen lobbyist training in order to talk to their representatives about the issue.
“That goes right along with their campaigns,” he said. “And with Sen. [Chris] Buttars’ proposal for the statewide education policy, where [school regulation] has to go through the Legislature, I think that is something they would really like to get involved in, because if everything has to go through legislation, then not a lot is going to get done.”
Buttars’ proposal, SJR 1, would make the state school board subject to the legislature and prohibit it from making any policy changes that are currently not spelled out explicitly by statute.
Thanks to the New York Times article, Hamren said that the QSA Network received donations from across the country. He is hoping that some of this money can be used to take three students to the national Youth Empowerment Summit, an annual conference for GSA officers that will be held in Atlanta this year.