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Saving Our Children, All Over Again


Michael Bronski

Quick.

What is the worst threat to high school students across the United States today?

Interpersonal violence among students? Guns in the hallways? Rampart drug and

alcohol use? Shabbily low teaching standards that allow students to graduate

beneath minimally acceptable academic standards? Disintegrating school

buildings? Proposed voucher plans that threaten to undermine the very existence

of a public education system? No, apparently for many school districts the worst

threat to the welfare of its students is the formation of gay-straight alliances

– groups that lend support to gay and lesbian students, foster tolerance,

advocate against discrimination.

The

threat of Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) is experienced by conservative school

boards, principals, parents and some students to be so great that they will go

to almost any length to ban them from high schools. Right now, the school board

of El Modena High School, in Orange County California, is about to ban all 38

extracurricular clubs – including the Black Student Union and the Chess Club

– simply to stop several students from forming a GSA at the school. This is a

last-ditch effort to circumvent a Federal judge’s preliminary injunction that

the school must let the newly formed GSA be recognized as an official group and

meet until a full hearing could be arranged. The judge’s injunction was in

response to a lawsuit brought by two gay students who argued that the school

board’s policy was an infringement on their freedom of speech. In his finding

the judge claimed that the board had to "give plaintiffs all the same

rights and privileges it gives to other student groups." He went even

further and claimed that the school board was negligent in protecting gay

students from harassment and potential violence, noting that some gay students

were so fearful of physical attacks that they were afraid to use the school’s

rest rooms.

The

Orange Unified School District’s actions are a repeat of what other boards have

done in the past. Three years ago Utah attempted the same ploy which

successfully kept, up until earlier this year, gay students from forming groups,

or even having a forum within the classroom, to talk about gay and lesbian

issues as well as banning all non-curricula based clubs.

The

arguments against the El Modena GSA are not surprising and are consistent with

the attacks on the groups nationwide. Opponents claim that a GSA would advocate

homosexuality, foster gay sex (which, depending upon the state, may be illegal),

lead to unsafe sex and HIV infection, break down traditional religious and moral

standards, infringe upon the rights of parents, and would promote

"recruitment" into "the homosexual lifestyle." Ironically

– since almost all opponents of GSA are conservative – the strongest defense

GSA’s have is the Equal Access Act of 1984. This law was supported and promoted

by Orin Hatch and other conservatives because it would allow religious meetings

in schools – including a Bible Club, one of the groups that would be banned in

the Orange Unified School District has its way. The 1984 law was later ruled

constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990. Because California is one of three

states that specifically includes sexual orientation in their in the Students

Rights law, the school board claims that their opposition to the GSA is based

upon the district’s strict regulations on sex education – and the student run

discussions about sex or sexual activity violated those regulations.

Discussions

and fights about GSAs have been going on since 1990 when the first group was

organized at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. Some groups have been

formed and have flourished without tension –Cambridge Rindge and Latin High

School in Cambridge, MA has had almost no problems in its ten year existence.

Because the Massachusetts has a specific commission, functioning under its Board

of Education, that deals with gay student issues – the Safe School Project –

there are over 100 GSA throughout the state, and about 600 GSAs nation wide.

It

is a measure of how threatening GSAs are that some school boards would rather do

away with dozens of other clubs than to grant official recognition to gay and

lesbian students and their needs. (Would that states would offer to scuttle all

marriages in an attempt to avoid the scary specter of same-sex marriages.) Not

that there isn’t a clear and urgent need for support for gay and lesbian

students in high schools. According to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education

Network (www.glsen.org) 97 percent of students in public high schools in

Massachusetts reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers in

a 1993 report of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian

Youth. 53 percent of the students reported hearing anti-gay remarks made by

school staff. 46 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported in a

1997 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Study they attempted suicide in the past

year compared to 9 percent of their peers; 22 percent skipped school in the past

month because they felt unsafe compared to 4 percent of their peers; 24 percent

were in a fight that resulted in receiving medical attention compared to 3

percent of their peers. Gay students are three times as likely to have been

threatened with a weapon at school than their peers during the previous 12

months, according to Youth Risk Behavior surveys done in Massachusetts and

Vermont. It is no wonder that one of the mandates of the Safe School Program –

and one that is carried out through their support of GSAs – is suicide and

violence prevention.

So

what is the problem with GSAs? Unlike sex education classes they are strictly

voluntarily – no student who is offended by them, or finds them in violations

of their religious beliefs has to attend. They may be a place for gay and

lesbian students to meet one another but – at least no more than any other

student group – fosters sexual activity or relationships. And you would think

that any program or group whose aim was to reduce tension and possible violence

would be welcomed in schools.

At

heart the resistance to Gay-Straight Alliances is that they are seen – and

here we go back to 1978 and Anita Bryant’s "Save Our Children" crusade

– as a form of recruitment of young, innocent children into homosexuality.

And, in a sense, this is correct. To the conservative mind homosexuality is such

a danger to morality and the social order that it must be constantly and

decisively discouraged, condemned, even punished. Any attempt to present

homosexuality as a neutral – or even morally acceptable – expression of

sexuality and love is "recruitment." Any attempt to secure basic civil

rights – in this case the right of free speech and assembly to students – is

"recruitment." Any attempt to give support by telling gay and lesbian

students that what they are feeling is perfectly natural and good is

"recruitment." If this is the operative definition of

"recruitment" then, yes, Gay Straight Alliances do recruit – and

need all the support they can get.

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