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A Gleeful Thought About School Clubs

LGBT youth
LGBT youth
Chris Hampton,
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December 3, 2009

“My two gay dads have a very close relationship with our local branch of the ACLU!”

When the overachieving show choir diva Rachel Berry delivered that line during last night’s episode of Glee, I perked up a bit on the sofa. It’s the second time the ACLU has gotten something of a shout-out from Rachel, invoking our name to threaten lawsuits. The first time was a few weeks ago during the “Wheels” episode, in which she dropped our name to a restaurant manager to pressure him to hire her friend Finn, sitting next to her in a wheelchair, with the veiled threat of a disability discrimination case. Fighting disability discrimination in employment is something we actually do care about a lot, except that in this case Finn was faking his disability.

This time, however, Rachel was much more on the right path in bringing us up. Folding to pressure from Glee Club nemesis Sue Sylvester, Principal Figgins had announced that the Glee Club would not be allowed to have a photo in the yearbook. What’s more, his justification for doing so was to protect the Glee Club geeks from harassment by other students. That’s just one of many rationalizations we at the ACLU often hear from schools attempting to illegally discriminate against another type of school club: gay-straight alliances.

The Federal Equal Access Act says if a public high school allows students to form non-curricular clubs at all, then it must allow students to form any non-curricular club they want, and the school must treat all non-curricular clubs equally. That means that if any clubs get to have a photo in the yearbook, then all clubs get to have a photo in the yearbook. Beyond that, courts have held that schools can’t use concerns that students will be harassed as justification for restricting those students’ rights — for example, that was one of the rulings in our Boyd County, Kentucky gay-straight alliance case a few years ago. If harassment is a problem, it’s the harassers that schools need to punish, not the victims. Rachel’s dads should have called us!

Of course, if Rachel’s dads had called us, there wouldn’t have been much of an episode. That’s okay. Glee is one of those shows for which you have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit — people don’t randomly burst into completely unrehearsed yet somehow perfectly-choreographed musical numbers in reality, and how on earth can Finn be so easily convinced that he got Quinn pregnant? But in this case, a throwaway mention of us highlights a very real issue about students’ rights. If you’re a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender student (or a friend or parent of one) in a public school, know your rights —because you can’t always count on your school officials to protect them. And check out our additional resources on LGBT students’ rights in school.

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