BRIGHAM CITY -- In October, Box Elder High students Gloria and Bernadine Hammond proposed a Gay-Straight Alliance to the school board. The application was tabled at the time because the board was in the process of changing the school policy on noncurricular clubs, or banning the clubs altogether.
The perception among the LGBT community and civil rights advocates was the Box Elder school board had been considering banning all noncurricular clubs to stop the proposed GSA at Box Elder High.
At a school board meeting Nov. 20, Joe Major, a junior at Box Elder High, expressed his concerns about banning noncurricular clubs and urged the board to allow a Gay-Straight Alliance.
"Even if they are not gay, you know, it's the gay and straight alliance. If we had that place to go to, if we had that soft spot to land on, that would be awesome," Major said in an interview, rephrasing his statements made at the meeting.
Major is one of only five openly LGBT teens at Box Elder High.
On the second and final reading, the Box Elder school board voted 6-1 to allow noncurricular clubs, with the stipulation that the application be changed.
It was a welcome surprise to LGBT youths.
Major is like many other students at Box Elder High. He procrastinates, rushes between classes, seeks the thrill of adrenaline and enjoys a good laugh.
But his demeanor hasn't always been carefree. Roughly four years ago, Major began experimenting with drugs. It started with cigarettes, because "it was cool," he said.
And then he began using hard drugs. He eventually accrued a rap sheet with the law, forcing him to move to Clearfield, where he was sentenced to Youth Health Associates, a group home for boys.
"I didn't know how to reach him," said his mother, Angela Major. "His walls were up."
Joe Major tried counseling. Then he tried mental health court, a program in which kids meet with a judge once a month and account for their time between visits. He lasted six months in the program before being forced into the group home.
Major said it's sad that his life choices led him to YHA, but in the end, it benefited him. Because of the people there, who were understanding and supportive, he was able to openly discuss his sexuality, he said.
"YHA saved my Joe," Angela Major said, holding back tears.
It wasn't until six months after Major returned from YHA that Angela Major learned her son is gay.
Major has now been home for 14 months.
"While I was at YHA, there (were) a lot of awesome people," he said. "They helped me figure out who I am."
Major sees his senior year as an opportunity to help fellow students who might be facing struggles similar to the ones he faced while discovering his sexual identity.
Box Elder School District board president Bryan Smith was the only person on the board to oppose the new noncurricular club policy. Smith said he was against the noncurricular clubs simply because he believes schools should be using their limited resources on curriculum-specific clubs only.
Smith maintains his decision had nothing to do with the GSA proposal.
"We had been discussing the club policy prior to the proposed GSA club at Box Elder High," he said.
Box Elder School District Superintendent Ron Wolff said a proposed club has to conform to state law. He is drafting a new application for noncurricular clubs.
"The state code has some very explicit rules in it, and so a club has to conform to those rules," he said.
Wolff added that, as state code changes, he has to adapt school codes and laws accordingly.
According to state code, a school "shall limit or deny" the use of school facilities for any club if the club's charter or activities would, in part, "involve human sexuality" or "involve any effort to engage in or conduct mental health therapy, counseling or psychological services for which a license would be required under state law."
Noncurricular clubs are also barred from promoting "the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior" or "the advocacy of homosexuality."
Wolff said the name "Gay-Straight Alliance" itself is a violation of state code.
"You can also deal with the name differently," he said. "So as we roll into that conversation, we will expect that club to conform to state law. If they conform to state law, just like any other club would have (to), then things will be fine."
The whole point of the club is to discuss sexuality, whether it be gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise, Major said. It is intended to give students a place to comfortably talk about topics that might otherwise not be discussed at home or in the classroom.
"There are studies that show having a GSA in schools reduces bullying for all students, not just LGBT students," said Erin Mauls, youth services coordinator with Utah Pride.
"With all the focus with anti-bullying measures, it only makes sense to have a GSA in every school."
Wolff said Box Elder School District has a "zero-tolerance" policy for bullying.
"Schools have been trying to deal with bullying through education for years, but yet we still have bullying in schools," he said when asked if he thought a GSA club could help reduce bullying in schools.
"I think the key is developing relationships with people. The more you are exposed to people who are different than who you are or what you stand for, then you build a greater level of tolerance and understanding."
According to the Human Rights Campaign's 2012 report, "Growing Up LGBT in America," which surveyed more than 10,000 LGBT-identified youth ages 13-17, the most important problem the youths faced in their lives is "non-accepting families," followed closely by "school/bullying problems."
Non-LGBT youths said "classes/exams/grades" was the most important problem they faced.
Utah Pride surveyed 248 youths ages 14-20 at its annual Queer Prom program. According to its surveys, 52 percent of responders said they had been verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation, 41 percent said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 75 percent of transgender responders said they felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah ranked fifth in the nation for youth suicide deaths in 2010. The Utah Department of Health reported Brigham City as having the state's highest youth emergency department visit rates for suicide attempts from 2006 to 2010.
Jenny Johnson, injury prevention coordinator for the Violence and Injury Prevention Program at the Utah Department of Health, said the agency doesn't have data breaking down suicide rates or attempts by sexual orientation in the state.
She said it has no way of tracking who's gay or not gay once suicide has been committed.
According to a fact sheet on the American Association of Suicidology's website:
"Many studies have found that LGB youth attempt suicide more frequently than straight peers. Garafalo et al. (1999) found that LGB high school students and students unsure of their sexual orientation were 3.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year than their straight peers."
Laurie Eccleston, PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) board member, said that the mere presence of a GSA in a school can change the climate of the school in respect to its LGBT students.
She believes it sends a message to the LGBT students that they are acknowledged and supported by their administration, teachers and peers.
"The term I hear most from GSA members is, a GSA creates a 'safe place,' " Eccleston said. "These kids may not even feel safe and accepted at home, in church or in society at large, but the GSA is a supportive place for them where they don't have to hide who they are."
Joe Major's mom said she hopes people who don't agree or are critical of homosexuality will realize that the intention of the GSA club is not to flaunt sexual preferences, but is intended to help students "feel human (and) to help them feel like they belong."
"It's for better understanding, for (their) well-being," Angela Major said.
"I think that's what (Joe) got at YHA, and he's been lacking that since he's been home."
Contact visual journalist Dylan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DylanBrownSE.