Community opposition to a gay-straight student club is pushing an eastern Kentucky coal-mining county to the forefront of a broader cultural debate, as more of the groups form on school campuses nationwide.
Students staged a walkout and local ministers organized a rally attracting at least 1,000 people this month to protest a decision to allow the student-led Gay-Straight Alliance to meet at Boyd County High School in Cannonsburg.
“The atmosphere being created by the opponents puts to rest any doubt that this club needs to exist,” argued Jeff Vessels, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, their organizers say, provide support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, who often face verbal and physical harassment at school. In addition, they say, the clubs help teach members of the school community and the surrounding area tolerance and understanding of gay students and sensitivity toward their concerns.
Over the past decade, the clubs have become increasingly popular and now number more than 1,200, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group based in New York City. No national organization sponsors the clubs, but those that register with GLSEN receive educational information to use in their meetings.
Although the opposition to the Kentucky school’s club is some of the most organized in recent years, gay-support clubs have also faced resistance in Orange County, Calif., and Salt Lake City, among other communities.
Proponents of the student-led groups argue that the clubs create a safer school environment for all students. But opponents, who often argue against homosexuality on religious grounds, counter that the clubs condone behavior that is harmful to their members, and that they are unnecessary to maintain a civil climate in schools.
Students are forming the clubs and mounting anti-harassment protests, such as the “Day of Silence” this past April, because there is little adult leadership on issues of concern to gay students, said Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of GLSEN.
A “State of the States” report issued this year by the network found that only eight states and the District of Columbia legally protect students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. They are: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington state, and Wisconsin.
“It really points out the extent to which students understand that action is needed on this issue,” Ms. Byard said.
The gay-straight alliances have federal law on their side, supporters say. The 1984 Equal Access Act requires schools receiving federal funds to treat all noncurricular clubs equally. The measure, signed into law by President Reagan, evolved after a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer died in Congress. Students have cited the law in support of religious clubs’ right to meet on campus.
Gay-rights opponents say they are seeking alternative strategies to dismantle the clubs and block them from meeting in schools.
Phil Burress, the president of Citizens for Community Values, a conservative pro-family organization based in Cincinnati, said schools should not be forced to accept clubs that “endanger” students. “When does a school administration have the right to say no?” he said.
Boyd County High students had tried since March to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus. The club’s application to the school’s site-based decisionmaking council was rejected twice before it was approved on a 3-2 vote last month.
Kaye King, an English teacher and the club’s sponsor, said students wanted a group to discuss discrimination, hostility, and misinformation about gay issues. Roughly a third of the school’s 930 students signed a petition supporting the group.
Students were prompted to form the club, she said, because some were being harassed, including being called names and being the target of bottles and pennies thrown during lunch.
“I’m concerned about the students’ safety,” Ms. King said.
But some local residents and church leaders want the club to be disbanded. More than 1,000 people in the 30,000-resident community attended a Nov. 10 rally to back that effort.
The Rev. Tim York, the pastor of the Heritage Temple Free Will Baptist Church, and another minister filed appeals last week with the district superintendent opposing the school council’s decision to allow the club. Mr. York said he wants a new curriculum that would teach civility and respect for others, while warning that homosexuality is harmful.
Superintendent Bill Capehart, however, said the club is on firm legal ground. It will be beneficial, he argued, especially because there are few other opportunities to teach “real tolerance” in the overwhelmingly white, 3,500-student district.
The club has met four times, with up to 19 students attending. Club members, who decided not to reveal their sexual orientations, say they are coping with verbal harassment from students and adults alike.
“I’ve been called an abomination of God,” said sophomore Lena Reese, 16. “I had to grow a tougher skin and not pay attention to them.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Ky. Protests Highlight Increasing Visibility Of Gay-Straight Clubs