News & Politics

Courts Support Rights of Gay Students

Court decisions across the country give school officials a timely reminder that gay kids have the right to express themselves.
A high-school senior in Florida turned to a teacher's aide for help last September after younger students taunted her for being gay, saying "dykes" are "nasty," "gross" and "sick."

In doing the right thing, "Jane Doe" set off a shocking but ultimately inspiring chain of events in Panama City.

The resulting federal court ruling and a similar one also won by the American Civil Liberties Union are timely reminders that gay and gay-friendly kids have the right to express themselves and form clubs.

In Jane's case, the principal of Ponce de Leon High School called her in, told her it wasn't "right" to be gay and asked whether her parents knew her sexual orientation. Jane said no. The principal informed them, leading her father to threaten to kick her out.

Jane's school friends stuck up for her by doing such things as writing "Gay Pride" on themselves and wearing gay-friendly T-shirts.

Principal David Davis continued to behave outrageously -- hauling in 30 students, grilling them about their orientation, prohibiting them from displaying gay-friendly messages, and even "lift(ing) the shirts of female students to verify that no such writings were present on their bodies," according to court documents.

The principal suspended 11 students for belonging to an "illegal organization," apparently a reference to supporting Jane.

Understandably perplexed, a heterosexual student, Heather Gillman, whose lesbian cousin had been suspended, reached out to the school board. It backed up the principal, affirming bans on such slogans as "Equal, Not Special Rights," "Gay? Fine by Me" and "I Support My Gay Friends."

But federal Judge Richard Smoak, a Republican appointee, stood up for gay and gay-friendly students. In Gillman vs. School Board for Holmes County, he declared, "The robust exchange of political ideas is essential in a vibrant, progressive society and is precisely the type of speech that is sacrosanct under the First Amendment."

Meanwhile, after students at an Okeechobee, Fla., high school were told they couldn't form a gay-straight alliance because "sex-based" groups were banned, another Republican appointee, federal Judge K. Michael Moore, ruled gay and gay-friendly students may form a club, just like members of the Chess Club, Future Farmers of America and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act to require schools to treat all clubs the same, and judges have repeatedly ruled in favor of gay-straight clubs. But Okeechobee officials tried a new trick, citing the law's language about protecting the "well-being of students" to argue a gay-straight alliance would undermine abstinence-only education.

In his first-of-its-kind decision on July 29, Moore ruled in Yasmin Gonzalez vs. School Board of Okeechobee County that not only can the club meet, but also that a school board "is obligated to take into account the well-being of its non-heterosexual students."

These landmark court decisions send a strong signal cautioning school officials. And they're appropriately encouraging to gay students and wonderful allies like Heather Gillman, who'll be a senior this fall. Having taught her school board a lesson, she told me she'd like to start a gay-straight club.

"I really believe everyone is equal -- no matter what," she says.

That's the Gillman Rule: School officials everywhere should memorize it.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.
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