Support groups for gay and lesbian students have grown dramatically in recent years, despite campaigns by conservative organizations attacking the right of such groups to exist in the public schools.
Gay and lesbian youth groups were practically non-existent 10 or 15 years ago. Yet they are now sprouting up across the country, according to John Spear, assistant director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network (GLSTN), which has 31 chapters across the country providing resources and education.
Jesse Greenman, coordinator of the PERSON Project agreed. “The remarkable thing is they are everywhere, not just in New York or California,” she said of the support groups. “They are in rural as well as urban areas.” The PERSON Project is a national network of people involved in education issues affecting gays and lesbians.
In 1980, in contrast, when Aaron Fricke went to court to secure his right to take a male date to his high school prom in Cumberland, R.I., he was the country’s only widely known gay youth.
New England has the most support groups for gay and lesbian students, even more than New York or California, Spear said. This is due to an executive order Gov. William Weld signed in 1992 creating the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. Growing out of the commission, in 1993 the state board of education began implementing guidelines to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and suicide. It was the first formal step by a state board anywhere in the country to promote the health and safety of its homosexual students.
REASONS FOR INCREASE
The rise in support organizations for gay and lesbian youth is due to several factors: the growth of the movement for gay rights, the need for education around HIV and AIDS in order to protect youth, and the increased awareness of the special needs of many gay and lesbian students. Studies have shown that gay and lesbian young people often feel isolated or suicidal, or suffer from mental and physical abuse. Many fear their parents will not understand, further contributing to their alienation.
“They want a group where they can be accepted, where you can be accepted for who you are,” Greenman said. “Getting organized as a group gives them power and support.”
Some groups are started by young people themselves and some by an adult who sees the need for a program. Activities vary, according to Spear. Some focus on group discussion, some bring in speakers, some provide services and resources. Some concentrate on HIV education or substance abuse, some on issues of personal sexuality.
The federal Equal Access Act, which states that schools which provide space for clubs can’t discriminate against any group, has helped spur the formation of support groups. Spear and Greenman both noted that actions such as those by the Salt Lake City Board of Education — which banned all school clubs in order to prevent a gay alliance group from meeting — would not stop the formation of support groups.
“Students are getting it together,” Spear said. “They are seeing that homophobia shouldn’t be tolerated.”