How a ban on extracurricular clubs in Salt Lake City schools led to ‘an important milestone in gay rights’ 20 years ago

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r "We took control and changed the narrative," said Ivy Fox, with Leah Farrell, two of the original plaintiffs from East High Gay/Straight Alliance vs. Board of Education of Salt Lake City, a landmark lawsuit that elevated the importance of gay-straight alliances in Utah and across the nation. Farrell was a student at West High during the club's inception and joined the fight and subsequent court case in solidarity.

She’d walk out to her car and the tires would be slashed. She’d go to her locker and it would be broken open. She’d be called to the principal’s office and sit there for the entire school day because someone had called in a threat.

“A number of students were targeted. There were teachers who would not engage with us,” said Ivy Fox. “The whole thing was powerful.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ivy Fox one of the original plaintiffs from the East High Gay/Straight Alliance vs. Board of Education of Salt Lake City, makes a statement, during a panel discussion on the 20th anniversary of a landmark lawsuit, at the Utah Pride Center, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018.

Fox, now 37, spent Friday night at the Utah Pride Center, sharing her experience of the fallout from when students at Salt Lake City’s East High School submitted an application in 1995 to start a new club — a gay-straight alliance — and were banned from meeting on campus.

“It took a lot of bravery,” she said to a room of supporters filling nearly all of the 40 chairs.

The cheerful event celebrated the 20th anniversary of the lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah filed against the Salt Lake City School District. The students had formed the group to talk about their experiences, how to tackle anti-LGBT bullying and how to prevent suicides. They wanted to create a safe space to express themselves.

They ended up setting off a five-year fight that involved administrators, state lawmakers, national conservative leaders, a slate of attorneys and two lawsuits.

“It’s funny looking back now,” said Leah Farrell, who, like Fox, was a student plaintiff involved in the cases. “Of course, at that time, I didn’t have the perspective to see what a big landmark it would be.”

The challenge started when, rather than approve the alliance application, the district school board voted to ban all 46 extracurricular clubs, including chess and Frisbee, in February 1996. That way, it couldn’t lose $100 million in federal funding on grounds of discrimination under the Equal Access Act of 1984.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who sponsored that legislation, fumed that it was being used by gay groups instead of Bible groups, as he had proposed. “The act was never intended to promulgate immoral speech or activity,” he told The New York Times in 1996.

The decision to ban all clubs created a firestorm. State senators rushed to a closed-door meeting to weigh whether they could draft legislation that would ban gay groups from public schools. Some East students filed a petition to start an “Anti-Homosexual League.” Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum activism group, led a faction opposing the gay-straight alliance.

“Homosexuals can’t reproduce, so they recruit,” she said in 1996. “And they are not going to use Utah high school and junior high school campuses to recruit.”

Fox, who graduated high school in 2000, was 16 when the first lawsuit started. She reflected Friday on the case with Farrell, who attended West High in the late ’90s, and then-ACLU Director Carol Gnade. Two more East alumni who came to listen and reminisce were pulled out of the audience and brought into the conversation.

“I realized there was some danger to what I was doing,” said Kelli Peterson. “But when you’re a teenager, you think you’re invincible.”

After years of fighting and $175,000 in court costs, the school board backed down. In October 2000, it reinstated all nonacademic clubs and the ACLU withdrew its challenge. East students started a gay-straight alliance, and soon other Utah schools followed suit. By that time, Fox had graduated.

“We set a legal precedent, and you can’t take that away,” Fox said.

State Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, was in the audience Friday, and he spoke about joining the school board in 1998 because he wanted to overturn the decision to block all clubs. He was part of the 6-1 vote that did so two years later.

“I thought that ban was unjust,” he said to cheers.

Farrell, an ACLU lawyer, said the anniversary event was “a chance to look at how far we’ve come.” Today, she helps students who want to form gay-straight alliances at their schools — which few openly question. Gay marriage is legal in the United States. More than 75,000 people attended this year’s Salt Lake City Pride Festival, compared with 5,000 in 1996. And Hatch now urges compassion for the gay community. (“No one should feel less because of their orientation,” he said in June.)

“It’s just been such an incredible amount of progress," Farrell said, "that’s been made around LGBT rights.”

Fox looked at her with a smile and added: “We’ve still got some work to do here. We’ve got so much to do.”