Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Family groups and state lawmakers say “gay-straight” student clubs in the region — some even are operating at middle schools — promote homosexuality and encourage teens to be sexually active.

Students in Virginia, Maryland and the District have formed dozens of such school clubs in an attempt to foster tolerance.

The formation of these clubs has become an issue in Virginia, where homosexual-rights advocates say the clubs help communities bridge divisions — but more conservative groups fear students will be lured into engaging in behavior they don’t support.

“They are teaching acceptance and that it’s OK to be a homosexual and to practice homosexual sex acts,” said John Elledge chairman of the Republican Party of Harrisonburg, Va. “I’m all for just getting along, but I’m not at all for having a sexually oriented club in our high school.”

Students in Prince William County’s C.D. Hylton High School want to form a Gay-Straight Alliance after-school club, and have a petition on the Internet. They claim the club will be a “safe environment” in which students can talk about homosexual issues in school and that they will discuss “coming out” and bullying by other students.

Some clubs are being formed at schools that have even younger students.

For example, the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Md., has a Gay-Straight Alliance student club, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which registers such clubs.

Officials at Garrison Forest School, which has elementary, middle and high school students, did not return calls.

The Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md., a boarding school that also has eighth-grade students, has a Gay-Straight Alliance.

GLSEN officials said there are at least 40 gay-straight clubs at schools in Virginia, 54 in Maryland and two in the District.

George Mason Middle School in Falls Church is listed with GLSEN, as is George Mason High School. But school officials at George Mason Middle School said this week there is no such group on campus.

Mr. Elledge, who recently learned about Harrisonburg High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, wants it disbanded. He has been lobbying the local school board to discontinue the club.

“Somewhere, you have to draw a line,” said Mr. Elledge, who also serves as the legislative assistant for Delegate Glenn M. Weatherholtz, Harrisonburg Republican. “It may be that they think the community is approving of this.”

But Rhonda Buckner, executive director of the Metro D.C. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), said the clubs are a “valuable resource” that help to enlighten students, their parents and the greater communities.

“Parents are afraid of these groups because they don’t understand them,” Miss Buckner said. “They hear the word ‘gay,’ and they are afraid their kid is going to catch it. It’s not catchable.”

Miss Buckner noted the clubs usually are supervised by a teacher, who has a responsibility to keep the conversation “age-appropriate.”

Harrisonburg High School Principal Irene Reynolds told the Associated Press that students have the right under federal law to form the group.

Advocates for the clubs say they have nothing to do with sex.

“When gay-straight alliances get started, they receive opposition from extremists in the area, who feel somehow it’s promoting a homosexual agenda,” said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. “That’s just blatantly not true. Students come together to create an environment where everyone is treated equally and respectfully. It’s a support group for gay students and their friends, as much as it is a group to educate the population.”

Delegate Richard H. Black called that perspective “nonsense.”

“The whole agenda of the homosexual movement is to entice children to submit to sex practices,” the Loudoun County Republican said. “Those groups lead children to experiment with potentially fatal sex practices that spread AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.”

GLSEN offers tips on its Web site for students to form such clubs.

Harassment of homosexual students is “a daily reality in schools,” and the clubs are a proactive way to address that, said Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of GLSEN.

“These student clubs represent a student response to a problem they see in school every day,” she said, noting an increase in gay-straight clubs across the country over the past decade. “Students are trying to improve their school climate.”

GLSEN has 2,500 gay-straight clubs registered with its organization, and Miss Byard estimates there are probably many more.

Victoria Cobb, director of legislative affairs for the Richmond-based Family Foundation of Virginia, said she worries that while clubs are growing, religious education is being “forced” from schools.

Such clubs are violating the state’s curriculum of teaching abstinence, and should be disbanded, she said.

“Taxpayers should not be asked to fund homosexual dating services in our schools,” Mrs. Cobb said. “Schools have the ability and the right to disband these groups.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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