20 years after Salt Lake City high school students sued to organize a gay-straight alliance, people are still talking about it

Most teenagers spend their high school years trying to blend in with the crowd. Few, however, engage in a multi-year legal battle against their school board plus occasional skirmishes with state lawmakers.

But that’s what happened in 1998 when students at East High School filed a lawsuit against the Salt Lake City Board of Education for violating their First Amendment rights. Backing them in the courtroom were the ACLU of Utah, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

What became a pair of lawsuits was initially sparked by the school board’s 1996 decision to ban all non-curricular student clubs, rather than recognize the newly-formed gay-straight alliance (GSA) at East High. The board was forced to cut all clubs due to the Equal Access Act, a 1984 law championed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to prevent unequal treatment of religious clubs in public schools. If the board denied one club, they had to ban them all, so 46 non-curricular clubs—from the chess club to ski club—were prohibited from meeting on school property. For the next four years, students graduating from Salt Lake City’s high schools had almost no access to extracurricular activities and blank spots on their college applications.

A Club Like Any Other

According to Ivy Fox, a plaintiff in the 1998 case, “there was a real need for the GSA” at East High. The club’s goal was to create a safe environment for LGBTQ youth and support victims of anti-gay harassment. But Fox’s attempts to organize the club also brought latent discrimination against gay and lesbian students closer to the surface. She recalled how, after the lawsuit was filed, some teachers and administrators wouldn’t engage with the LGBTQ students in the same way they would others. But her efforts also brought students together in common cause to defend their rights—just as a gay-straight alliance was supposed to do. When the school board voted to ban all clubs, hundreds of students from both East and West High Schools walked out of school in protest. Newspaper articles described students holding signs that read “Separate Church and State” and “Honk in Support of the 1st Amendment,” while their classmates opposed to the GSA carried signs with anti-gay slurs.

In the Courts

As the dispute spawned more rallies and attracted national media attention, it also worked through the legal system. In November 1999, a federal judge dismissed the GSA lawsuit, stating the school district had resolved its First Amendment violations by making minor changes to its policies for approving student clubs. Fox and the other plaintiffs appealed. Six months later a new group of East High students filed a second lawsuit after a curricular club designed to operate like a GSA was also blocked by the school board. When a judge ordered the new club—and all GSAs—to be allowed to meet on school property, the board backed down, the case was dismissed, and the four-year legal fight was over.

Returning to Salt Lake City

On August 3, 2018—two decades after the events described above—the lead plaintiffs in these landmark lawsuits gathered at the Utah Pride Center to recall the social activism that defined their teenage years. The night was a cascade of tears, laughter, and shared memories as an audience of more than 50 relived the turmoil that split apart schools, lawmakers, and generations. Leah Farrell, a student plaintiff in 1998 and now the ACLU of Utah’s Senior Staff Attorney, recalled the confusion she experienced when asked to join the lawsuit. Farrell said yes because she felt morally obligated to stand alongside her friends. Fox recalled that the support she received from her peers during the lawsuit “was a little bit of a mixed bag.” While some students were quietly supportive, she appreciated her classmates who would be seen with her and talk openly about the lawsuit.

Learning from the Past

Although they may not have known it at the time, the actions undertaken by Fox, Farrell, and their co-plaintiffs would eventually inspire a new generation of youth activists. That outcome was apparent during the August 2018 reunion at the Pride Center, which doubled as opening night of the GSA Network’s National Gathering which was meeting in Salt Lake City. Listening to the former East and West High School students reminisce about their groundbreaking activism in the 1990s was a room full of current teenagers from across the country waiting to tear down discriminatory barriers in their own lives today.

Although the 1998 East High GSA lawsuit quickly became a landmark case for gay rights, its impact continues to filter down to school boards and high schools in Utah and in other states. Some of the high school students who attended the GSA conference in August are re-fighting the same equal access battles as Fox and Farrell, while others are pushing for less discrimination of their trans peers in their schools. If history repeats itself, 20 years from today these teenagers might, in turn, share their stories of difficult struggles and inspire the next generation of student activists.

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Fall Newsletter >>