Okeechobee GSA members Yasmin Gonzalez & Amber Sewell.
When a group of students at South Rowan High School in North Carolina first approached school officials about forming a gay-straight alliance club in 2006, they knew they were in for an uphill battle. Rowan County is a very conservative area and home of Operation Save America (formerly and more notoriously known as Operation Rescue). Operation Save America waged a campaign of intimidation against the students, posting photos of students leaving an off-campus GSA meeting on its website and arranging to have as many as 700 people show up at a school board meeting in August of 2006 where the club was to be discussed. At that meeting, the school board voted unanimously to ban “sex-based” student clubs and stated that the gay-straight alliance therefore would not be allowed.
Students trying to start GSAs or just talk about gay rights topics with their classmates often run up against the type of rhetoric seen in Rowan County. The portrayal of GSAs as “sex clubs” and the demonization of the students who want to start the clubs is a longstanding tactic of anti-gay forces.
When students in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, started a GSA at their school a few months later, they got a taste of this treatment as well. During a discussion about the club at meeting of the Ambridge school board, the board’s vice president repeatedly referred to the GSA as a “sex club.” When two other board members tried to correct his characterization of the club, he replied, “Okay, the faggots.”
In early 2008, Ken Hutcherson, an evangelical minister in Snoqualmie, Washington, raised the alarm in the local media about the gay-straight alliance at Mount Si High School. Leading about 100 people in a protest against the school’s GSA, Hutcherson complained vociferously about a poster advertising the weekly meetings of the GSA that featured silhouettes of three couples (one straight, one that was two boys, and one that was two girls) hugging in front of a rainbow.
“Why are we promoting a sex club?” proclaimed Hutcherson. “I mean, that’s what it is.”
Then in May, Eddie Walker, the principal of Irmo High School in South Carolina, announced his resignation after the superintendent told Walker, who had been stonewalling on the GSA’s application all year, that he must comply with federal law and allow the club to start meeting. “The formation of this club conflicts with my professional beliefs in that we do not have other clubs at Irmo High School based on sexual orientation, sexual preference, or sexual activity,” wrote Walker in a letter he sent out to hundreds of students, parents, and staff. “In fact our sex education curriculum is abstinence based. I feel the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at Irmo High school implies that students joining the club will have chosen to or will choose to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes.” Walker went on to say that he would leave the district at the end of his contract after the 2008-2009 school year.
Local LGBT activists and the members of the Irmo High School GSA felt it was a disingenuous move on Walker’s part, calculated to paint himself as a victim and whip up resentment and anger towards the GSA, and they say it worked. Dozens of pro-Walker protestors showed up at the next school board meeting, and local papers were flooded with letters to the editor defending Walker’s actions and blasting the GSA. GSA members reported being harassed by other students who were angry about Walker’s resignation. Fortunately, this school year things have calmed down, according to GSA members. The club is still meeting. Interestingly, Walker’s “principled” stand didn’t last much longer than the public outcry— in December, a district spokesman told a reporter that Walker had sent a letter to the interim superintendent saying that said he wants to stay.
At the ACLU, we’re old hands at defending the right of students to form GSA clubs under the Equal Access Act. With three recent victories in Florida, we’re sharpening our skills at dealing with the overly-sexualized portrayal of GSAs by antigay opposition forces.
Heather Gillman, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit suing her school for violating students’ First Amendment right to wear rainbow stickers in support of a classmate who was harassed for being a lesbian.
In Ponce de Leon, Florida, school officials responded to a lesbian student’s harassment complaint not by addressing the harassment but instead by intimidating and censoring students for things like writing “gay pride” on their notebooks or wearing rainbow-themed clothing. Representing Heather Gillman, a straight student who wanted to stand up for her LGBT friends, we sued. After a two-day trial in which the principal testified that he believed clothing or stickers featuring rainbows would make students automatically picture gay people having sex, a federal judge ruled that the school had violated students’ First Amendment rights.
The ACLU also handled two gay-straight alliance club cases, both also in Florida, where school officials tried to paint innocent club activities as inappropriately sexual.
In Okeechobee, Florida, attorneys for the school board claimed that the club was denied access because it is a “sex-based” club, and that allowing it to meet would be disruptive and harmful to children at the school. The school also claimed that allowing a “sex-based” club to meet would violate the school’s abstinence-only education policy. Fortunately, the court disagreed, granting a preliminary injunction ordering the school board to grant access to the GSA on equal terms with all other clubs. The judge, in a first of its kind decision, ruled that a GSA is not, by definition, a “sexbased club” and that it does nothing to interfere with the district’s abstinence education policy.
And in Yulee, the school’s legal team argued that using the word “gay” in the name of the club would violate the district’s abstinence only policy. A federal judge dismissed this claim, noting that the district’s argument “strains logic,” and said the school can’t require the students to change the name of the group as a condition to recognition.
It’s clear that portraying LGBT teenagers as somehow more promiscuous or sexually inappropriate than heterosexual youth is a tactic our opponents are still testing. We at the ACLU stand ready to prove their dirty minds wrong when they do.
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