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GAY-STRAIGHT ALLIANCES (GSAs) IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Background material

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Sponsored link.


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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletOverview of the U.S. federal equal access act
bulletOverview of GSA support groups
bulletConservative Christian reactions to GSAs

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The Equal Access Act:

Most public secondary schools already have at least one student-led, non-curriculum club - perhaps a chess club, scuba-diving club, or Bible study club. The federal Equal Access Act, (20 U.S.C. 4071-74), requires that such schools must allow the creation of additional clubs, even if the school board or principal disagrees with the group's purpose. 1 In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that the Act is constitutional. 2,3 More details are available

The original intent of the law was to force school districts to allow religious clubs on high school campuses. But its wording protects the right of all religious, political, philosophical, or other groups to organize. The same law that protects an Evangelical Christian Bible club also supports the right of gays/lesbians/bisexuals to form a support group, to hold meetings on the high school campus before or after instruction hours, and to have equal access to the PA system, bulletin boards, newspapers, etc.

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Sponsored link:

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Overview of GSA support groups:

The People for the American Way (PFAW) is a liberal, civil rights group that promotes the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They issued the following news release in early 2000-JAN. 4

Clubs for homosexuals have become more common in U.S. schools. More than 600 gay and lesbian clubs meet at high schools, up from fewer than 100 in 1998, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network said.

...The extracurricular clubs are permissible under the same [federal] law that allows Bible clubs to meet at schools, supporters say. The Equal Access Act, supported by many religious groups, says public schools that allow clubs to meet in their facilities can't discriminate on the basis of what is discussed, USA Today said.

...Many school boards oppose gay clubs, but relent when threatened by lawsuits from gay teens and civil rights groups. 

bulletSchool boards in Aurora, Colo., Greenville, S.C., and Manchester, N.H., backed down when suits were threatened. 
bulletA Salt Lake City school district forbade all extracurricular clubs from meeting at the school rather than give in to a gay club. 
bulletThe Orange Unified School Board in California ruled that the proposed Gay Straight Alliance club can't meet on school grounds unless it changes its name and refuses to talk about sex. Sophomore Anthony Colin, 15, is suing...Gay clubs encourage impressionable teens to experiment with homosexuality, a parents' group that opposes the club said. The clubs "encourage children to accept a lifestyle that leads to premature death," parent Donna Sigalas said.

...More teens reportedly are declaring themselves to be gay. About two-thirds of gay students said they have been verbally, physically, or sexually harassed at school, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network said. In some schools gay and straight students meet to discuss problems faced by gay students and how to cultivate a tolerant atmosphere. The presence of gay clubs makes homosexual students feel safer, advocates say.

The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN; pronounced "glisten") tracks GSA organizations in the U.S. As of late 2002, they are aware of a total of 1681 GSAs. Only Mississippi, North Dakota and Wyoming (the state in which Matthew Shepard was crucified)  have no GSAs. Alabama has two; Massachusetts has 222; California has the greatest number, 245. 5

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Conservative Christian reaction to GSAs:

Beliefs about the nature of homosexuality differ greatly:

bulletMany conservative Christians view homosexual in terms of what a person does; it is seen as a behavior. They believe that it is a sinful "lifestyle" which is consciously chosen by the individual after puberty. They believe that, through prayer and counseling, a homosexual can become a heterosexual. Their opposition to school GSAs is at least partly based on the belief that if gays and lesbians obtain equal rights and acceptance, that more people will choose this "lifestyle."
bulletMany liberal Christians, gays, lesbians and human sexuality researchers view homosexuality in terms of what a person is; it is seen as a sexual orientation. They believe that it is not chosen, that it is determined by a combination of genetics and some unknown trigger in the environment, and that it cannot be changed. They view equal rights and protections for gays and lesbians to be a fundamental civil rights concern. They view GSAs as a useful method to fight discrimination and to offer a safe place for homosexual students.

Support for GSAs: Family News in Focus, a service of the Fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family, posted an unusual essay on their web site during 2000-APR. 6 Referring to GSAs as "unsavory groups" and "Sons of Sodom," and "objectionable clubs," the author nonetheless supported their right to exist. This conclusion was not based on the need of gays, lesbians, and human rights promoters to battle homophobia. It was not based on the need for gay and lesbian youth to learn safer sex techniques. It was not based on the need for mutual support and self esteem boosting. It was based on the preservation of conservative Christians' right to organize Bible clubs. Author Jordan Lorence supports GSAs because: "in order to keep the government from censoring unpopular groups like the Bible studies, all student groups should be allowed to meet. In a free society, we must tolerate speech we don't agree with...To empower school officials to ban the homosexual clubs would empower them to shut down the Christian groups as well. We should not give up our hard-won free-speech rights in order to stamp out a few objectionable clubs.

Opposition to GSAs: Some months later, Focus on the Family published a curious essay on the Gay, Straight, and Lesbian Alliance in Jackson High School in Michigan. 7 A local pastor, Rev. Ira Combs, and some students had held a protest rally on campus, demanding that the school either violate the federal Equal Access Act by closing down their GSA, or shut down all extracurricular clubs "in the interest of student safety and health." His apparent belief is that if gays, lesbians and heterosexuals are allowed to meet and discuss topics like how to increase tolerance, how to reduce homophobia, and how to practice safer sex, that student safety and health will be adversely affected. His belief seems to be that violence and an increase in unsafe sexual activity would result from the existence of the Alliance. The Focus on the Family article does not explain how these two behaviors would be triggered by the the Alliance. Combs commented "There is no such thing as 'safe' homosexual and lesbian [sic] behavior." This is partly a true statement; there are many forms of homosexual behavior which are quite risky and unsafe. However, perhaps through ignorance, Rev. Combs did not explain the full picture:

bulletThat unsafe sexual behavior, involving the exchange of bodily fluids, is unsafe for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.
bulletThat there are certain activities like mutual masturbation, massage, touching, etc. which are safe for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.
bulletThat there are certain activities like kissing and oral sex which are relatively safe for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.
bulletThat the proper use of latex barriers will greatly reduce the risk of STD transmission.

School principal Jim Graham commented that some students wanted to form a conservative Christian club to counter the GSA. He was concerned that this could lead to conflict on campus: "That was my concern, was that we would draw that line in the sand between two groups and cause a lot of emotional upset or controversy among our student body." There is a general realization that under the Equal Access law, if one student-led extracurricular group exists, than students have every right to organize a conservative Christian Bible study club or a GSA. In fact, students probably have the right to organize a "anti-Gay-Straight Alliance" to counter the existing GSA -- i.e. a group that opposes inclusivity, promotes discrimination against gays and lesbians, promotes homophobia, and advocates celibacy for gay and lesbian students.

Democracy and free speech do not necessarily guarantee the most tranquil campus life, but they can allow controversies to be engaged freely, with everyone's position being explored.

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References used:

  1. The text of the Equal Access Act is at: http://web.cyberis.net/vhosts/nlrc.org/public/docs/equal8.htm
  2. "Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens," 1990-JUN-4. [496 U.S. 226 (1990) (USSC+)]. The text of the decision is available at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/cases/name.htm and at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ 
  3. David Buckel, "The Equal Access Act: What does it mean," at: http://www.glsen.org/pages/sections/library/schooltools/022.article 
  4. News release by the People for the American Way (PFAW). Their web site is at: http://www.pfaw.org/ The text was distributed on 2000-JAN-19 by the ReligionToday mailing list, a Fundamentalist Christian news summary. ReligionToday provides free newsletters to which you can subscribe at: http://www.ReligionToday.com.
  5. "Local Chapters," Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, at: http://www.glsen.org/templates/ 
  6. Jordan Lorence, "Responding to pro-gay campus clubs," Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/commentary/a0011023.html
  7. Dave Clark, "Controversy erupts over Mich. homosexual club,"  Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0014332.html 

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Site navigation:

Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Homosexuality > GSAs > here

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Copyright 2000 to 2002 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-FEB-10
Latest update: 2002-DEC-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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