Last week marked the first meeting of the Provo High School Gay-Straight Alliance, a student club intended to foster tolerance of gay and lesbian students. These days, such clubs exist in high schools across the country. The surprising bit is that this one exists in Utah County, not exactly a bastion of tolerance.
Less of a surprise is news that the club may be short-lived. Word has it if reactionary members of the local school board can’t quash the club by requiring parental permission slips, they may opt for a policy banning nonacademic clubs altogether'a policy that proved disastrous at Salt Lake City’s East High School nearly a decade ago.
At the time, Kelly Peterson upset members of the Uptight Community by forming a similar club in the expectation that fostering tolerance for sexual minorities might make the brutal world of high school slightly more bearable for some students. The school board, faculty and student body proved less than supportive; if they allowed a club promoting acceptance of gay students to rent space, sooner or later, somebody would demand that S/M leather orgies be held on school property at taxpayer expense.
The orgies never materialized, but interesting legal discourse ensued. It turned out that a troublesome federal law, the Equal Access Act, prevented public schools from violating students’ First Amendment right to assemble. In 1984, conservative Christian groups lobbied for the law, because it would force school boards to allow gospel-study groups. Oh, and Sen. Orrin Hatch was a sponsor.
Now, however, it was being taken completely out of context: Yes, the good, clean-cut youth of America would still be allowed to peddle Bibles, but it was clear that perverse forces of evil, with their unsettlingly spiky, bi-level hairstyles, would also need to be tolerated.
It was quite a blow. The school board held out for a couple years, making a half-hearted attempt at compliance by banning such noncurricular clubs as the Meat Club, the Chinese Checkers Club and the Young Republicans. This unpopular move brought the wrath of the students, not upon the intolerant members of the school board who caused the whole ruckus, but upon the gay and lesbian students, who were perceived as having caused the whole ruckus. If you were a queer at East High during those years, your life wasn’t worth a plug nickel.
The school board, however, eventually capitulated when a student named Ivy Fox brought suit against the district because East High forgot that the Future Business Leaders of America was not an academic club. Lambda Legal and the ACLU'not to mention students like Fox with unusually supportive parents'were amazingly effective, and the upswing was that the following school year, nonacademic clubs, including the GSA, were allowed to meet normally.
Thus, if the Provo City School District is serious about holding the line against its gay and straight students, it had better make damned sure no Future Business Leaders of America ever darken the door of PHS. It should also ferret out any students with unusually supportive parents, because we’ve seen how problematic they can be.
Or, perhaps it could look at the hundreds of public schools across the nation'the ones who have treated both their Bible-banging and their gay students even-handedly'whose roofs have not fallen in and which haven’t been swallowed up by the flames of hell. Because they haven’t seen hell until they’ve had the ACLU and Lambda Legal after their asses.