In the fall of 1995, Kelli Peterson and a friend were talking about the difficulties they faced as gay teenagers at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. As they compared stories, they thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have a place where we could meet regularly and talk about this stuff? A place where we felt safe and could just be ourselves with our friends?" On the basis of this discussion, they sought classroom meeting space and asked one of their teachers to serve as faculty adviser to a "Gay-Straight Alliance," or GSA.
Their request launched a controversy that Peterson and her friend never anticipated. Ultimately, their attempt to create a safe space for gay and lesbian students and their straight and questioning friends launched a state-wide debate and catapulted Peterson into the national spotlight, as she and her friends fought for the right to meet on campus like other student groups.
According to Peterson, she had struggled to come to terms with her own sexuality. Everything she had heard about "homosexuals," she later recalled, made her determined "not to be one of those people." For a time, she turned to religion to try to change how she felt. At times, she says, she felt so alone and so depressed that she thought about killing herself. By creating a club at East High, Peterson wanted to ensure that no other students had to go through what she had.
The goal of Gay-Straight Alliances, like the one Peterson hoped to form at East High, is to create safer environments for gay youth in high schools, and to provide support for those facing anti-gay harassment. One of the oldest GSAs in existence today was founded at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in 1984. Since the mid-1980s, students in secondary schools from Alaska to New Hampshire have created hundreds of GSAs and other gay-related student groups. Many of these have the same rights as other school clubs. Others have a kind of "second class" status. Although they are allowed to meet on campus like other clubs, some GSAs may not announce meetings on school bulletin boards or public address systems.
The formation of these clubs has sometimes caused controversy. In Peterson's case, East High School officials balked at her request for permission to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Some parents, teachers, and administrators argued that allowing the club would constitute an "endorsement" of homosexuality and would create a forum for "recruiting" other students to become gay or lesbian.
The son of Utah governor Mike Leavitt was East High's student-body president at the time of the controversy, and the governor spoke out against the club. Leavitt argued that the formal sanctioning of a Gay-Straight Alliance at East High would encourage homosexual behavior because the very nature of school clubs is to promote involvement in the issues they discuss. Some teachers at East High worried that members of the GSA would become more visible targets for intimidation.
The school administration turned to the state attorney general's office asking whether East High could legally ban Peterson's proposed GSA from campus. Government attorneys determined that a federal law called the Equal Access Act required the school to allow the students to meet.
The Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, applies to any public secondary school that receives federal money. If such a school allows even one "non-curricular" student club to meet, the school cannot then deny other student groups equal status on the basis of what those groups want to discuss. Non-curricular clubs are groups that do not relate directly to the courses offered by the school. They include such groups as Students Against Drunk Driving, Young Republicans and Future Farmers of America.
The determination by the state's attorneys that the gay student group had federal protection attracted widespread media coverage and led to greater public outcry. The school board and the state legislature held multiple meetings, trying to find a way to ban the proposed East High GSA. An increasingly heated debate spilled out of school board meetings and legislative sessions and into the pages of newspapers across the state. At the time, Peterson said she was baffled by the response to her proposed club: "What has made it a big deal is that the senators have blown this out of proportion," she said. "All we are asking for is one hour a week in a classroom, and a faculty sponsor."
Peterson found herself at the center of the controversy. "I was Utah's teenage lesbian," she recalled later. "It is a very scary thing for a senior in high school to have to deal with." While Peterson's determination to form the club carried her through a long string of very public battles, the fight took a heavy toll. Peterson feared for her own safety. Conservative groups came to see her as an emblem of a social evil, while gay-rights and progressive groups held her up as an icon. "I think I'm being used as a martyr," she said at the height of the controversy. "I think if I died, I'd be on T-shirts and posters forever."
In order to keep the East High Gay-Straight Alliance from meeting, the school board ultimately banned all non-curricular clubs at public high schools. The board then began to re-define selected clubs as "curricular" in order to allow them to meet. The East High GSA now rents space at the school after school hours, but has no official standing. They cannot announce meetings or post notices of their activities, and many current students at East High are not aware that the group still exists.
The student members of the East High GSA have not given up the fight. They are now suing the Salt Lake City School Board for the right to meet like any other student club. Their case will go to trial in September of 1998.