Press

Attacks On Utah Young People Condemned By NGLTF

Date: 
March 07, 1996

The gay and lesbian, chess, ski, bible, and 4H clubs may all be gone at East High School in Salt Lake City for the time being, but protests, grassroots outrage and national attention are still surging in support of gay and lesbian students and teachers in Utah.

On February 20, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted to ban all nonacademic clubs rather than allow a gay and lesbian club to form at East High. The measure passed 4-3 after a heated public debate on homosexuality, the likes of which have never before been seen in the Mormon state. The ban takes effect this fall.

Then, in a follow-up action a few days later, the Utah state legislature passed SB 246, which regulates the private actions of public school employees and volunteers if those actions and speech undermine the "morals" of school children or disrupt school activities.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) has urged the school board to change its vote, and has condemned the passage of SB 246. NGLTF has fired off a letter to Utah Governor Michael Leavitt urging him to not sign it. The Task Force is calling on concerned people nationwide to send letters and phone calls immediately to Utah officials to support local activists.

"Our concern is that this provision could be used against teachers, counselors or other school employees who...offered support to the gay, lesbian or bisexual student," said NGLTF executive director Melinda Paras in a letter to Governor Leavitt. "Whose morals are employees to be concerned about? Is it the morals of one religious group? One group of parents? A complaint by one or more extremists could cause an employee to be disciplined for trying to teach love, compassion and respect to all students. We urge you to send a message of respect for diversity by not signing SB 246."

In addition, NGLTF has also written every member of the Board of Education, praising those who voted against eliminating school clubs and urging those who voted for it to reconsider and change the ruling. "Unfortunately, the action taken by the majority of the School Board is likely to send an unintended message to students -- and adults -- who believe that harassing or attacking gay and lesbian students...is justified because they are different and immoral," said NGLTF's Paras to school board members.

NGLTF is working with the Utah Human Rights Coalition (UHRC) and other local groups to focus national attention on the urgent situation in Utah and mobilize local community response. UHRC has also helped organize local rallies and letter and fax campaigns directed at state officials. Last autumn, NGLTF deployed staffers Robert Bray, Scot Nakagawa and campaign consultant Susan Hibbard to Utah for an intensive movement-building training sponsored by UHRC in anticipation of hostile attacks on the gay community.

The attacks on the high school students have resulted in an unprecedented, and some say stunning, response from the community in arch-conservative Utah. On February 23, more than 200 students walked out of West High School in Salt Lake City and stormed to the state Capitol to protest the Board of Education's elimination of all nonacademic clubs. East High openly lesbian student Kelli Peterson, one of the founders of the school's Gay/Straight Alliance club, told the students it is wrong that lawmakers are "deciding our morals for us. We will all be 18 soon and we'll be voting!"

Rallies and other activities have sprung up in Salt Lake City, culminating in a March 2 "Save Our School" event that attracted more than 2,000 outraged students, parents, activists and concerned citizens. Led by Kelli Peterson and other young activists, the citizens marched through downtown Salt Lake City to the state Capitol.

"Your presence is an act of courage, valor and commitment," said NGLTF's Melinda Paras in a statement read at the rally. "In Utah today, the extremist right wing is making the gay, lesbian and bisexual community the scapegoats for what is wrong with America. They are using old fears and prejudices to whip up new hatreds. Your actions have sent an important message to youth around the country. Because of you, they will feel less alone in their struggle to find a safe environment within their schools. Because of you, they have seen powerful young leaders speaking out in their own voices. Ultimately we will prevail. We will educate young people in schools about the truth of who we are."

The march and rally was one of the largest protests in the state's history and drew national media attention. "This issue has brought out the activist in people who had never before been active," said Charlene Orchard, UHRC Co-Chair. "It is clear the struggle we are facing is not going away soon. In fact, it appears the next culture war is going to be fought here with radical right organizations around the country drawing a line in the sand in Utah," added Orchard.

Activists and concerned people are urged to write and, preferably, fax immediately the Governor and urge him to not sign SB 246 into law. Write, fax, phone or email Governor Michael Leavitt, State Capitol Building, Salt Lake City, UT 84114, fax (801)538-1528, phone (801)538-1000, internet email governor@email.state.ut.us. Also, write Mary Jo Rasmussen, President, Salt Lake City Board of Education, Salt Lake City School District, 440 E. 100 S. Salt Lake City, UT 84111-1898. Urge the board to reconsider its ban on clubs. UHRC, an all-volunteer group, needs letters of support. They can be sent to UHRC, P.O. Box 521242, Salt Lake City, UT 84152-1242. For more information about NGLTF's movement building field work, contact Scot Nakagawa, NGLTF field program director, at (202)332-6483, ext. 3301.

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The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.