A Laudatory Look at Gay-Straight Student Clubs in Oppressive Utah

Playing catch-up, Eric Eckholm cheerleads for gay-straight alliances in Utah high schools - student clubs that are thriving despite narrow-minded conservative attempts to stifle them" with "arbitrary hurdles" and "legally shaky barriers," declarations more suited to the opinion page.

The lead article in Sunday's National section by veteran reporter Eric Eckholm, "In a Difficult Environment, New Support for Gay Students," took a laudatory look at Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools in oppressively "conservative" Utah, while fostering the debatable impression that students who are gay are more troubled, emotionally vulnerable, and prone to be bullied than the average teen.

Eckholm relayed virtually nothing but cheerleading and sympathy for the groups which were thriving despite narrow-minded attempts to "stifle them." (Eckholm is playing catch-up to the Salt Lake City Tribune, which ran a front-page story on the subject two weeks ago.)

Some disapproving classmates called members of the new club "Satanists." Another asked one of the girls involved, "Do you have a disease?"

But at three local high schools here this fall, dozens of gay students and their supporters finally convened the first Gay-Straight Alliances in the history of this conservative, largely Mormon city. It was a turning point here and for the state, where administrators, teachers and even the Legislature have tried for years to block support groups for gay youths, calling them everything from inappropriate to immoral.

The new alliances in St. George were part of a drastic rise this fall in the number of clubs statewide, reflecting new activism by gay and lesbian students, an organizing drive by a gay rights group and the intervention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has threatened to sue districts that put up arbitrary hurdles. Last January, only 9 high schools in Utah had active Gay-Straight Alliances; by last month, the number had reached 32.

The alliances must still work around a 2007 state law that was expressly intended to stifle them by requiring parental permission to join and barring any discussions of sexuality or contraception, even to prevent diseases.

Eckholm gave two paragraphs to a local critic that promoted the law before letting supporters rebut.

But members of the new clubs said they were undaunted by the restrictions, which they said showed a misunderstanding of what the alliances meant for students who had often lived with fear and shame - at home and at school.

More editorializing-as-news followed:

But resistance continues. Some schools are still imposing legally shaky barriers, like requiring the unanimous approval of student officers or prohibiting activities that violate "community morals," said Darcy Goddard, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Utah...In 2007, conservative groups pushed through the state Student Clubs Act, still on the books, that was aimed at the alliances and reflected what rights groups called misleading stereotypes....Students say the law reflects misconceptions about both homosexuality and the alliances, which in many cases are led by straight girls who want to support gay friends or siblings.

Articles like this foster the impression that being bullied is an inevitable part of the life of gay teens and that they are more emotionally vulnerable and at a higher risk of suicide, though the Times' own health columnist Jane Brody pointed out Tuesday that there are "more similarities than differences among gay and straight adolescents." Brody quoted an expert saying that "the effects of bullying and discrimination are often overplayed in the news media."

Eckholm could have taken a wider view of the struggle to start school clubs by asking how difficult is it to form a Christian club in a public school. A May 2006 Times article on "Jesus clubs" in NYC public schools managed to portray the reluctance of administrators to allow Christian clubs on campus, but without tarring them as anti-religious.

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