Gays come out fighting

8th March 1996 at 00:00
United States. Everything from Bible societies to frisbee clubs have been banned from education institutions in Utah's Salt Lake City because of a row over a high-school gay and lesbian group.

Kelli Peterson, a 17-year-old high-school student in Salt Lake City, has become a minor national celebrity, describing for newspapers and TV stations across the country the angst of being a teenage lesbian.

"Going to high school when you are gay or lesbian is a miserable, lonely experience," she said in one of a string of interviews outside the gates of East High School. "I know, I've been beat up twice."

But Gayle Rusicka, a Mormon mother of 12 children who heads the Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative group devoted to preserving family values, speaks sympathetically of Kelli as the child tool of gay lobbyists. If Kelli is looking for a way out, Mrs Rusicka says, she is always ready with sandwiches and motherly advice.

That advice would be that gay people lead short,unhealthy lives; that sodomy is illegal in Utah; that homosexuality is against the teachings of the Mormon church, of which Kelli is also a member.

Nothing better captures the yawning differences between the two sides in a bitter dispute that has pitched civil rights and gay pressure groups against the Mormon establishment in Utah, with schools as their battleground.

A new round of demonstrations is under way to protest against the decision by the Salt Lake City Board of Education to ban a gay and lesbian high-school club, which Kelli and two friends founded in December. Both sides have already called in their lawyers.

To avoid a constitutional challenge, the board issued a blanket ban which barred not only gay students but ski-ing, Latino, frisbee, and Bible clubs, and even Students Against Drunk Driving from using public school premises.

Days later several hundred students walked out of East Lake in protest. While some reportedly asked for permission to form an Anti-Homosexual League, most came out in support of the gay students, holding signs reading "Separate church and state". With emotions rising high, a 14-year-old girl was seriously injured when she was hit by a car on the way to protest at the State Capitol building.

"This whole issue has crystallised our concerns about the bigotry and homophobia that have an underlying current in this community for a very long time," said Carol Gnade, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Utah branch.

About half of Salt Lake City's residents are Mormons. The church's conservative influence is felt at all levels of education: Professors at Brigham Young University, named after the church's 19th-century leader, must have their spiritual worthiness certified annually.

In 1991, church leaders issued a statement condemning homosexuality as sinful behaviour that should be eliminated. The Mormon-owned Deseret News daily newspaper has described it as an abomination in editorials backing the school ban.

But both sides see the Salt Lake City schools as the focus of a national debate which goes to the sensitive issue of what shapes someone's sexual orientation and at what age. Gay teenagers, who feel isolated and bewildered, are commonly said to be at much greater risk of suicide.

Conservatives like Mrs Rusicka want them to be counselled out of such thoughts and feelings. But Mrs Gnade says that gay clubs allow students to stop living a lie and learn that they are not alone.

According to gay activist groups, the number of gay clubs at high schools across the US is in the hundreds and rapidly increasing. But at the same time at least seven states are considering various ways of banning them.

Paradoxically the main legal obstacle is the 1985 Equal Access Act, sponsored by Utah's Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and designed to ensure that Bible clubs could use school premises. Senator Hatch said he never intended that gay groups would also take advantage of the law in what he said was an unintended consequence of the legislation.

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