Young Activists Fight Intolerance in Utah

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney

Among the youngest speakers at the April 14 Fight the Right March were two Utah high school students who are personally experiencing the homophobic and anti-semitic backlash of the radical right.

Kelli Peterson, 17 and an out lesbian, is a fixture in the national news as the controversy rages over her effort to start a support group for lesbian and gay students at Salt Lake City's East High School. Across town at West High, 16-year-old Rachel Bauchman is braving anti-Semitism after she objected to performing Christian songs in her high school choir.

The pair's paths have crossed before in their fight for tolerance and acceptance. Bauchman is working with Peterson's sister to form a club for gay and straight students at West.

Utah NOW State Coordinator Luci Malin has spoken on behalf of both young women at separate demonstrations. And Utah NOW presented Bauchman with a 1995 Woman of Courageous Action award for her work on the issue of separation of church and state.

Bauchman and Peterson face enormous odds. Days after the march, the Utah Legislature passed a bill designed to ban lesbian and gay groups from public schools. Utah also was the first state to ban recognition of same-sex marriages. Four other states -- Kansas, Georgia, South Dakota and Idaho -- have followed suit and some 15 additional states are considering a ban.

According to news reports, Utah Eagle Forum is leading the ultra-conservative movement. This group is an affiliate of Phyllis Schlafly's national organization and is supported by the powerful Mormon church.

Peterson's fight began last fall when she and several other gay students attempted to form the Gay/Straight Alliance, an extracurricular club offering support for lesbian and gay students and promoting tolerance.

"Gay students are heavily oppressed; they are encouraged to stay in the closet," Peterson said in a telephone interview with the National NOW Times. "A lot of kids come to me to talk."

Many high schools are establishing similar support groups for this country's roughly 7.2 million lesbians, gays and bisexuals under the age of 20 -- and for good reason. Gay youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide and account for 30 percent all completed youth suicides, according to the 1994 book Gay and Lesbian Stats.

An estimated 45 percent of gay men and 20 percent of lesbians experience physical or verbal assault in high school, and 28 percent of these youth drop out of school because of this harassment, according to a 1992 study, "Fact File: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth," by the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

After experiencing depression and isolation herself, Peterson wanted to leave behind a support group when she graduates later this year. She followed school guidelines and filed a mission statement with East High's principal, who initially granted approval.

At the march and rally, Peterson urged the thousands of young activists in the audience to seek out those who are different and to support them. "We didn't do this to get attention or just to rebel," she said. "We did it to save the lives of our classmates who were dying. Learn from Utah's history and don't let it be repeated in your state."

Although the club's mission was approved, their efforts were derailed when the Salt Lake City School Board and religious conservatives got involved. And, ironically, those groups ran head-long into the 1984 Federal Equal Access Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. Set up to enable Bible clubs to meet on public school property, the act prohibits schools that receive federal funds from picking and choosing among campus clubs.

Unwilling to lose the federal money, the school board voted 4-3 Feb. 20 to discontinue all extracurricular clubs rather than authorize The Gay-Straight Alliance. Peterson's mother, Deidre, says she's furious with the school board's decision because they have "perpetuated the hate, the fear and the ignorance."

"I've never heard so much mud-slinging," Kelli Peterson said of the charged hearing leading up to the vote. In response, hundreds of students and supporters marched on the state capital in protest and 1,000 people participated in a rally.

The bill passed April 18 and scheduled to be signed by the governor was crafted to bar lesbian and gay student groups, while allowing other clubs to meet. It gives school boards the authority to deny access to any group they believe promotes bigotry, enourages criminal behavior or involves human sexuality.

"This is a legislative form of gay bashing," said Carol Gnade, executive director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU intends to challenge the bill.

Peterson and her supporters will fight the ban in school board elections later this year and in a postcard campaign aimed at the Utah Legislature. Having learned what it means to take a leadership position, she promises: "I plan on staying active in politics for the rest of my life."

Likewise, Bauchman's experiences in championing religious freedom at West High School have transformed her into an activist. She is speaking out in the face of death threats and racist slurs.

A Jewish student at the most diverse school in the state, Bauchman objected when her public school's a capella choir sang mostly Christian music, performed in churches and billed one series as a "Christmas Concert." The choir director was "using the choir class to further his religious beliefs," Bauchman said.

Bauchman's family got a court injunction to keep the choir itself from performing two popular Christian songs at the school's graduation, a civil ceremony. Defiant students distributed lyrics to one of the songs and a senior encouraged the audience to join in.

Students have called Bauchman a "Jew bitch" and scrawled swastikas on her campaign posters for student class office. Although no statistics are available on anti-Semitic harassment in high schools nationwide, it was on the rise at the college level in the first part of this decade, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Bauchman's father, Eric, says she has been targeted by people intolerant of a young Jewish woman who "won't be bullied into silence or bullied into going away."

She received more anti-semitic death threats shortly before arriving in San Francisco for the Fight the Right March. Bauchman attended a young feminists slumber party and told a pre-marchrally audience that her experiences have changed her "and I'll never be the same. I don't want to be. We all have to stand up and fight for what we believe in."

And despite the hatefulness and an unresponsive school system, Bauchman perseveres. "If I had to do it again, I would," she says. "I don't fear any repercussions for fighting for my human and civil rights."

Even though her own case is far from over, she is already busy with new battles and a campaign for student body president. Like Kelli Peterson, Bauchman has been forever changed by her experience. "I definitely want to be a civil rights attorney . . . and maybe run for president in 2016."

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