A new kind of club has been formed in more than 1,000 high schools and universities across the United States. Its goals are to challenge name-calling and harassment, create safe, supporting environments for young people and provide outreach and education to the general public. It's called the Gay-Straight Alliance. While some clubs have sparked controversy, the two in West Virginia have not.
Eighteen-year-old cellist Marty Adams admires Peter Tchaikovsky. Not only does the Charleston Capitol High School student enjoy playing his music, he identifies strongly with the 19th century classical composer. Just like Tchaikovsky, Marty's gay. He says knowing homosexuals can do great things has empowered him and encouraged him to help others. So, at the beginning of the school year, when a teacher told him a younger student wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, Marty didn't hesitate to help.
"I went to the room and there were a number of people in there and everyone was really shy and I'm kind of outgoing, so I just started talking and when I started talking everybody started to let loose a little bit," he said.
About 10 students attended the first meeting of the Gay Straight Alliance, also known as the GSA. One girl joined because she didn't like the way her gay friends were harassed at school, another person because her brother is gay. Marty said he believes that even more kids would come to the bi-monthly meetings if they weren't worried about what other people would think of them. But he said those who do attend, now have greater self-confidence.
"I feel its rewarding because it gives kids an outlet to talk about their feelings. I used to feel real secluded, I would never talk about it. I got really depressed for a long time. A big goal is to have an outlet," he said.
In addition to providing a support group, Capitol's GSA also fights prejudice through various activities such as educational school assemblies and participation in a national day of silence.
School psychologist Ruth Burdette said the club's presence and visibility might help Capitol High avoid the anger and misunderstandings that have led to deadly violence elsewhere. She pointed to the 1998 beating death of gay college student Mathew Shepard in Wyoming, and the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, which left 15 people dead. "I'd like to see more people involved in it. There are many people who are afraid of what they don't understand and what they don't know about and knowledge is really a powerful tool," she said.
An hour's drive west, the GSA at Huntington High School is having even more success. Club sponsor Irene Ray said there are about 30 active members, most of whom are straight.
"It's as important to have the straight kids as well as the gay kids, perhaps even more because that's what it's all about. There are fewer of the gay kids. There's hopefully some protection in numbers, they have to have their straight allies, people who accept people for being people no matter what their sexual orientation or anything else," Ms. Ray said.
Huntington's GSA was formed just four months ago in response to local hate crimes, including assaults on gay students at nearby schools and an area university student accused of murdering another woman over a possible lesbian relationship.
"We had a hate crime in Huntington. It wasn't officially labeled a hate crime but a young man was almost beaten to death, because his attackers thought he was gay. He was not. The kids reacted to that. It was an issue they saw going on around them and they wanted to do something about it," she said.
Ms. Ray said in the beginning there were a few misconceptions - that the club might recruit straight kids to be gay and or help gay kids become straight. But she says the main focus of the GSA is education, not sex.
"I think high school students are too young to be sexually active and I tell them that. You're not old enough, you're emotionally not mature enough. But the fact of the matter is they don't listen. They are very sexually active. I think anyone who thinks by not talking about it, we're going to help it, is ridiculous," Ms. Ray said.
For that very reason both schools expected to get some angry protests from parents or negative phone calls over the GSA. Surprisingly, Capitol High's Ruth Burdette said she isn't aware of any parental opposition.
"Our school is a very diverse environment and our students are exposed to many different cultures and lifestyles. It's not to say there's not some opposition and some people that have prejudice. I'm sure there are. But we haven't met any resistance yet," Ms. Burdette said.
While adults haven't been speaking out, a few high school students have. Huntington Junior Samir Abdel-Aziz opposes the Gay Straight Alliance on religious grounds.
"I use that old rhyme, God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. In the Bible it's mentioned at least twice that homosexuality is wrong. And that's basically all I need. I don't need to know why it's wrong I don't need to know how its wrong I don't need all the basic facts, if the Bible says its wrong, to me its wrong," he said.
He also said that having a club like the GSA caters to a select group.
"Gays are called names in the hallways, yeah but so is everyone else. I've been called A-rab, but it doesn't faze me that much. Everyone gets teased in high school whether you're Jewish, Muslim, Christian, gay, white, black it doesn't matter you get ridiculed," Samir Abdel-Aziz said.
While West Virginia parents may not agree with Samir, parents just over the border in Boyd County, Kentucky do. When high school students there tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance Club, parents not only protested but threatened to file a lawsuit against the school.
However under federal law, a public school may not deny the GSA or any other student group the right to meet during non-instructional hours. If it does, it can lose federal funding.
But that did not stop the school board in Salt Lake City, Utah. They decided to forego federal funding and shut down all school clubs - including their athletic programs - in order to keep the GSA out of just one high school.
Irene Ray said that's a shame because she feels the Gay-Straight Alliance at Huntington High benefits the kids.
"I think it will affect them as adults, I think they've gotten a very good experience coming up against controversy, they've shown leadership skills, they've developed leadership skills. If nothing else the kids involved in this tiny little group are going to be stronger, more ready people for the world," Ms. Ray said.
Members of both Capitol and Huntington Gay Straight Alliances plan to organize additional school assemblies next year. They hope that through their leadership, they can make a difference for all minorities, not just at school, but in their communities as well.