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By Lucas Wall - Houston Chronicle

 

Marla Dukler, a 16-year-old junior at Klein High School, says she has often been harassed for being a lesbian. Last month, a group of male students shoved her into a wall of lockers and "called me a faggot before they walked off."

 

Dukler is among a group of Klein students trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Similar extracurricular clubs for gay youth and their allies at other schools work to fight discriminatory violence, offer peer support and help the school community learn about sexual orientation, diversity, tolerance and gay rights. "At my school there's a lot of harassment that goes on and students don't necessarily feel safe," Dukler said. "I just wanted to form a place where people could go and have support. It makes it easier to wake up in the morning and go to school."

 

Debate over whether GSAs should be allowed to meet in schools has been percolating across the country in the past eight years and has now arrived in Harris County. Klein students say their application has been held up, and students at Cypress Falls and Jersey Village high schools in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District say their requests this year have been turned down. Proponents point to court decisions allowing GSAs to meet under the Equal Access Act, a federal law passed to protect students' First Amendment rights. The act prohibits publicly funded schools from discriminating against the establishment of student clubs based on their points of view.

 

"Homosexuals are the most openly discriminated group of individuals," said Brent Fry, a 17-year-old heterosexual senior at Cypress Falls. "School districts are the breeding grounds for these types of feelings. ... This club would be a great place to have programs that would help."

 

A 2001 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a New York-based group that fights anti-gay discrimination in schools, showed 84 percent of gay students questioned heard anti-gay remarks at school, 31 percent had skipped classes because they felt unsafe and 21 percent had been assaulted.

 

"GSAs are meant to create school communities where all people are respected and accepted regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression," said Eliza Byard, the network's deputy director. "I would challenge anyone to find fault with such an important purpose." The first GSA was formed in 1989 in Massachusetts. The clubs spread slowly throughout the United States, swelling in number in the past few years as more teens began to declare their homosexuality earlier in life. The network's registry now contains almost 1,700 alliances in high schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia. These clubs remain rare in this region, however. The Chronicle asked the 58 school districts in the eight-county metropolitan area if they have any alliances in their high schools. All but three districts responded, though information provided by the Houston Independent School District was incomplete. The survey found only three GSAs currently meeting in 123 area high schools: Bellaire and Reagan in HISD and La Porte in La Porte ISD. Opponents of such groups say it is inappropriate for schools to promote gay rights and fear the clubs will turn into dating services where kids will talk about sex and seek partners.

 

"Their behavior is risky behavior that results in disease and death," said Kathy Haigler of Houston, executive director of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative pro-family organization. "We would be against a high school allowing them to meet together. It'd be like having a smoking club or a drinking club. It's unhealthy behavior. "Why would the schools want to promote minors having sexual discussions with each other?"

 

Students, however, dismissed claims they would gather to chat about sex. "I'm not interested in knowing about the other people's sex lives and not interested in having people know about mine," said Amanda Dillon, a 16-year-old junior at Jersey Village High who came out as a lesbian her freshman year. Lee Longoria, founder of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Reagan High, said all but a few of his two dozen members are straight. Longoria, a gay senior, said his group has heard from a parent about what it's like to raise a gay son, has watched gay-themed movies and plans to discuss the stages of revealing one's sexual orientation.

 

The group has helped create a more tolerant climate at Reagan, he said. "As long as people see that it's there, then they'll be more willing to accept it," Longoria said. "But if we keep on hiding, then nothing comes from that." The National Mental Health Association launched a campaign against anti-gay bullying in schools last month. The Alexandria, Va.-based association said gay youth "face daily threats to their mental and physical health -- ranging from anti-gay taunts to beatings -- in their schools and communities" and "are at increased risk for depression, anxiety disorders, school failure, and often suicide." One of the campaign's six suggestions for schools is to encourage students to start a GSA. "Youth whose schools had these kinds of groups were less likely to have reported feeling unsafe in their schools," according to the association. Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said school districts are prohibited from discriminating against students who want to start a gay rights group. "The law is so clear, there's no reason to squander judicial resources in trying to fight this out," Harrell said. "My concern is that when the school administration is creating such a hostile environment, most of these young kids or their parents are afraid to pursue their statutory rights."

 

Not all opposition comes from school administrators. One of the first GSAs in Texas, formed at Leander High School near Austin in fall 1999, faced an immediate petition drive by students seeking its demise. And this year, after a GSA started at La Porte High, students ripped down posters advertising its meetings. This is the second school year that Dillon and Alexis Hall, a 17-year-old senior, have tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at Jersey Village High. This fall, they said, an associate principal told them the school district would not allow such a club. Each school principal in the Cy-Fair district is responsible for reviewing student club applications.

 

Kelli Durham, assistant superintendent for communication, said the issues of sexual orientation and dating are "a can of worms that is social, not something that relates to school activities." But Durham denied the district has told its principals to prohibit gay-oriented clubs. "If the administrator said that, that was not the position of the district," she said. "That was a misinterpretation."

 

At Cypress Falls High, Brandon Pfluger has led a group of students attempting to start a GSA. Pfluger, an 18-year-old senior, said principal Sue Pope told him in October to revise the club's statement of purpose, a document required of all groups wishing to form extracurricular clubs. Pfluger said he feels the school is intentionally thwarting his efforts. "We shouldn't be denied the right to have a club because of its purpose," he said. "We made sure to state all members are welcome. We want to learn not only about gay culture but provide a safe haven for those who need it."

 

Pope said there has been no decision to stop the alliance from organizing. "We really have to understand the purpose of the club," she said. "They are not being treated any differently from any other group." Pfluger expressed frustration that 72 other clubs are recognized at his school, including a Muslim Student Association, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Hearts of Asia and Honorary Hispanic Role Models. Efforts to start a GSA at a third Cy-Fair ISD high school failed last school year and have not been revived. Daniel Sahwani, 17, who graduated from Langham Creek High School last May, said he submitted an application on behalf of 25 students and was turned down. Carolyn Williams, Langham Creek associate principal, referred questions to Durham, who reiterated her previous statements.

 

In the Klein ISD, the district's policy concerning student clubs was amended Nov. 11 -- only weeks after students at Klein High had asked to start a GSA. The new policy states no groups shall be permitted that promote criminal behavior or acts that pose a risk to students' health and welfare "including, but not limited to, sexual activity by minors." Principal Pat Huff said he passed the GSA application on to Superintendent Jim Surratt "because of the controversial nature of the club" and the district's conservative population. "Because of the community that we serve, we're a little different than some of the other high schools maybe in the inner city that have allowed the club to go forward," Huff said. "I have to always be thinking about the people, our constituency." Dukler said she objects to the school district's changing policy after her application was submitted -- she thinks it was amended specifically to forbid a GSA -- and feels Surratt is purposefully delaying making a decision. Liz Johnson, assistant superintendent for community relations, said the changes were made as part of a routine policy review, not to prevent an alliance. Surratt has a stack of club applications he's yet to consider, she added. "We think this will need study and some consideration, very careful consideration," Johnson said. Dukler said her group is prepared to sue if the district denies the club. Her parents and those of other applicants have contacted the ACLU and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a New York-based group that litigates for gay rights. "I'm hoping it will be resolved fairly quickly," Dukler said, "but I am not going to take no for an answer."

 

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