CHANGE IS GONNA COME

How Utah’s Schools Went From Homophobic War Zones to Crowning a Trans Prom Queen

Salt Lake City used to have one of the most virulently homophobic school districts in the nation. This spring, it crowned its first LGBT prom king and queen.

Jeff Hill/Handout

Maka Brown, 18, was happy but “chill” when she was voted homecoming queen at prom this April. The transgender teen studies dance at Salt Lake City’s School of the Performing Arts, where she focuses on acrobatics and is training for a professional career in circus arts. Brown transferred to SPA at age 16 from another Salt Lake high school, Brighton. Her gender transition—using female pronouns, changing her name—was timed with the move. But it wasn’t because Brighton was a hostile environment for an LGBT student.

“I haven’t really ever experienced discrimination or bullying. I know that sounds kind of pompous but it’s true,” Brown said. She noted that one day, a creative writing teacher accidentally used male pronouns to describe her, and “the whole class spoke up and said ‘Hey, that’s wrong.’”

At her high school, Brown says she is just one of four or five trans students. Prom’s homecoming king, Jasper Clayton, is gay and told me he’s “been out since freshman year.”

“The fact that Maka and I won prom king and queen was really amazing,” said Clayton, “It made huge waves in the media. And everyone at our school was like, confused why it was in the news. No one had a second thought. It’s just normal.”

Clayton referred to the articles that have appeared in outlets like People magazine and ABC News over the past two weeks, celebrating what’s assumed to be Utah’s first transgender prom queen. It’s notable news coming from one of the more notoriously conservative states in the country. But to the high school students of Salt Lake, it’s no big deal at all.

Clayton was born in 1996, Brown in 1997. There’s a touching historical significance to the dates when the two LGBT prom royals came into the world.

Today, a trans teen can live openly and safely in Salt Lake, enjoying the support of fellow students and even bringing her boyfriend to prom. But Utah’s capital city wasn’t always such an LGBT-friendly environment. Just a few years ago, in fact, Salt Lake’s was probably the most homophobic school district in the U.S.

In 1995, Erin Wiser was a 16-year-old student at East High School. Wiser, who today is a transgender man living in Portland but identified as a lesbian in high school, wanted to start a club for gay students along with his then-girlfriend Kelli Peterson. The two had attended a lecture at the local Pride center and were inspired after seeing Candace Gingrich speak. With the help of a supportive teacher, Wiser and Peterson formally applied for an East High School Gay-Straight Alliance club that September.

In response, the Salt Lake City school district voted in February 1996 to ban all extracurricular student clubs—becoming the only city in the country to do so.

“The school board decided they had three options,” Wiser said. “Forgo federal funding to kick us out, accept our existence, or get rid of every school club that wasn’t directly tied to the curriculum.”

Ironically, conservative Utah senator Orrin Hatch had paved the way for East High students to insist that a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club be allowed. Hatch had sponsored 1984 legislation, the Federal Equal Access Act, designed to allow Bible study clubs in schools. Because of that law, the Salt Lake school district would lose its federal funding if it tried to block one extracurricular club while allowing others to remain.

But the school board, local parents, and conservative activists were so opposed to the idea of a gay student club that they found a loophole. Simply ban all 700 or so of Salt Lake City’s student extracurricular clubs—including Bible Club and Students Against Drunk Driving—and avoid charges of discrimination.

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"We are going to win this battle—and Utah will again be in the forefront," Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah chapter of the ultra-right Eagle Forum, told reporters for a 1996 New York Times article. "Homosexuals can't reproduce, so they recruit. And they are not going to use Utah high school and junior high school campuses to recruit."

The Utah Senate quickly sprung into action, and signed a law that April that required schools to risk losing federal funding and ban “specified school clubs”—code for anything gay-related. Utah became the first state in the U.S. to outlaw gay clubs in schools.

The battle between a small crew of awkward, isolated queer teens and the entire population of U.S. conservatives was to continue for over a decade. Organizations like the ACLU and Lambda Legal flew in attorneys and advisers to help the GSA teens mull over the plethora of legal options. Peterson and Wiser became gay superstars, speaking at conferences, filming a lengthy PBS documentary, and doing photo shoots and interviews for everything from international newspapers to gay coffee table books like 1999’s Women Together.

“It’s hard to describe what this was like in terms of the attention. My aunt was living in Karachi in Pakistan, teaching English at an embassy school, and she found out I was queer by watching CNN,” recalled Wiser, who added that he became a “professional gay for a few years” because the notoriety opened so many doors.

The kids were the Edie Windsors of their time. Utah’s GSA battle was watched intently by human-rights advocates all over the world, who hung on to the news to see what would happen next. The case brought home the humanism of the gay-rights movement for many people who had never considered that children and teens might also be victimized by homophobia and discrimination.

Before that, the gay-rights movement was largely angled around AIDS and Act Up, with images of adult men kissing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and throwing blood on politicians. Gay rights scared people.

But how could anyone hate a couple of sweet-faced Mormon girls from Utah who just wanted to carve out a place to belong in high school?

As it turns out, some of the most vitriolic hatred was coming from within the school walls. Some of the students filed a petition to start an “Anti-Homosexual League,” and others told the The New York Times that having a gay-straight alliance was “against our religion” and they’d prefer to “do away with all the clubs, than have that club.”

“The other kids at school were shits. They threw things at us, bullied us. It’s hard to describe,” Wiser said. The homophobia went beyond getting slammed into lockers in between classes: “One of my good friends, Jacob Orozco, killed himself the year I graduated. There was vandalism on the flyers for his memorial, like ‘faggot.’”

In a 1997 email to Lambda Legal from Jeff Dupré, the director of the PBS documentary for which Orozco had been filmed, he revealed that Orozco committed suicide just before he was to take office as president of the East High GSA. Over a decade before the Trevor Project launched the It Gets Better campaign to combat LGBT suicide, Dupré’s description of the death is haunting and premonitory.

“When you're seventeen and this is the only reality you've ever known, it can be hard to imagine that things will ever get better,” wrote Dupré just one day after Orozco took his own life, “It's no wonder that for kids like Jacob, suicide seems an acceptable alternative.”

Orozco wasn’t the only kid who fell victim to the intensity and violence surrounding East High’s GSA struggle. A week after the Board of Education voted to ban all student clubs, hundreds of Salt Lake students marched on the State Capitol in protest. One 14-year-old girl, Jacqueline Eteaki, was run over by a car during the march and suffered critical injuries.

The year 1998, when the ACLU sued the Utah Board of Education on behalf of the East High GSA, was also notable for another major event that transformed the national understanding of gay rights. In October of that year, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming was brutally beaten, tortured, and left tied to a rural fence to die. Matthew Shepard’s horrific murder inspired state-by-state hate crime legislation to sweep across the country.

Despite the tragedies that unfolded in the aftermath of Utah’s GSA ban, the kids did eventually win. Sort of.

Ivy Fox, who now lives in Seattle and manages a network of farmer’s markets, was a plaintiff in the 1998 lawsuit East High Gay Straight Alliance v. Board of Education. At the time, Fox and co-plaintiff Keysha Barnes were minors, and had to sue through their moms.

“We ended up having to do multiple lawsuits. We had to get everyone on board and find plaintiffs that we willing to sue the school,” said Fox. The East High lawsuit won a partial but complicated victory, and the ACLU filed a second lawsuit in 1999 on behalf of the newly formed PRISM (People Respecting Important Social Movements) club at East High, after the club’s application was denied.

Fox had already left Utah, and was in college at Smith when attorneys from the ACLU called and told her the news. A federal judge, Tena Campbell, ruled in favor of the second lawsuit and said that PRISM was indeed a curricula-related club because it provided a forum for discussions of history, sociology, and politics.

Ten years later, though, conservative politicians were still trying to find ways to block gay-straight alliance clubs in schools. In 2007, a complex and overreaching 17-page law was signed that tightly controlled even the most minor aspects of school clubs from kindergarten to high school.

“The lawsuits took up so much time. My extracurricular activity [in high school] was discrimination and homophobia in Utah,” Fox said. She remembered feeling especially driven to do well in school even though so much of her time went into the fight, because college was her “ticket out of Utah.”

“I felt like I wanted to make it harder for teachers to look me in the face and be a bigot,” said Fox. “It was the teachers and the parents that fought us. To have your biology teacher stand up and say, ‘Hey, I like you, but you guys are disgusting and this is disgusting’… that was such a disappointment.”

Fox and her fellow GSA members (Wiser and Peterson were two years older and had already graduated) were regularly called into the principal’s office—but not to be disciplined. She remembered being called there for protection, to hide in the office every time someone called in a gay-related death threat to the school. Asked what that felt like, Fox sighed and said, “It was pretty brutal.”

With one of the highest rates in the country of teen suicide, Utah is still brutal for many. But in Salt Lake, the transformation is incredible: from the most homophobic school district in the nation to a place where trans and queer teens can live without ever having experienced bullying.

Maka Brown said she sees “more homosexual couples than heterosexual couples” at her high school. And even though her mom and family were unfamiliar with the idea of being transgender when she came out to them two years ago, she hasn’t had to explain herself to her classmates: “People my age, and younger kids and stuff—they just understand.”

But while Brown and Clayton both said they’d had a great time in high school, each acknowledged that it’s not as easy for everyone—especially for kids from more conservative Mormon backgrounds.

The official stance of the Church of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon behemoth headquartered in Salt Lake, is that same-sex attraction “itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.” The church’s website on the matter, MormonsandGays.org, is full of stories of ex-gays who say they fought their sinful attractions and were able to remain active in the church because of celibacy or heterosexual marriage.

“I have friends who came out in very LDS homes, and I’ve had friends who got kicked out of their houses,” Clayton said. “But for most of them it got better. And their families were like, ‘OK, well, what is this community?’ Salt Lake is trying to become more aware and accepting.”

Mormonism is shifting, too. Mormons Building Bridges, itself a kind of gay-straight alliance, runs “hugging booths” at Pride festivals and other events, where LGBT folks can get a friendly squeeze and a “hugged by a Mormon” sticker. And Clayton said that Mormons are now in the minority in Salt Lake, a city with a three-day-long Pride festival and a float-filled parade down the main drag.

“There are still a lot of people struggling,” says Brown of Utah’s LGBT community. “I think it’s important to keep it up and not take away from this thinking ‘Oh, everything is fine now.’”

Brown said she feels bad for trans youth who don’t have the supportive family that she has. Her mom, Toni Brown, was a bikini model and former Miss Hawaiian Tropic. Her sister, Bella, is a musician who does trick riding at the rodeo. Brown’s house, she said, “is always crazy” between the three feisty, active women.

For now, Brown doesn’t have plans to leave Utah. Though she imagines eventually auditioning for some of the professional circus arts colleges in places like Montreal, or even going to live with extended family in Hawaii, for right now she’s focused on her job as an instructor at Utah Flying Trapeze. And maybe for Brown and young adults like her, sticking around would be the best way to help other LGBT youth and their families.

“I would reach out to parents and say, ‘Please don’t mistreat your kids or kick them out,’” Brown said. “Family is the place where you come from, that’s where you start. If you don’t have that as a base, it’s hard to move forward.”