Off the books

These LGBTQ Utah students say a deeply homophobic state law is making their lives hell

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LGBTQ rights have come a long way in the U.S. in the last few years, with both public opinion and some key court cases helping to turn the tide. But some states still have some deeply hateful laws on their books. Utah is one of them, and a new federal lawsuit brought by three students there aims to change that.

The suit, which was filed against Utah’s state board of education as well as three school districts, seeks to overturn the state’s laws against discussing LGBTQ issues in school.

The lawsuit targets two particular portions of Utah state law—specifically, a section that forbids teachers from engaging in “advocacy of homosexuality” and one that lets school districts ban clubs if they “involve human sexuality.”

The three students, pseudonymously identified as John, James and Jane Doe in the lawsuit, all say these laws have caused problems for them as gay or gender non-conforming students. They include a “gender non-conforming boy who sometimes wears clothing traditionally worn by girls,” the suit says, and a high school boy and girl, both of whom are gay. The seven-year-old was allegedly severely bullied and eventually had to leave school. The high school boy also claims to have been consistently bullied and banned from discussing his uncle’s marriage to another man at school. The third student says she was disciplined for holding hands with another girl and was discouraged from asking questions about LGBTQ issues in health class.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court on behalf of the civil rights groups Equality Utah and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, alleges that this sort of treatment is what happens as a result of enshrining anti-gay propaganda in the state education curriculum.

“Such laws foster school climates that stigmatize and isolate LGBT youth, putting them at heightened risk of bullying and discouraging and preventing them from participating openly and equally in school activities,” the lawsuit states.

The suit also alleges that the laws violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Title IX rules—which prohibit discrimination in education on the basis of gender—and the Equal Access Act.

There are at least seven other states with similar laws to Utah’s, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, and Equality Utah’s lawsuit is the first of its kind against such rules.

“It could set the precedent for the striking down these laws nationally,” Chris Stoll, an attorney with the NCLR, told the Tribune.

Emilie Wheeler, spokesperson for the state board of education, declined to comment on the lawsuit to both the Tribune and the Deseret News, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the board’s vice-chairman, David Thomas, told the News he does not believe any of its policies are unconstitutional.

“I know that Equality Utah has been pushing a pro-gay rights agenda, which I personally oppose,” Thomas told the News.

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