April 19--The "Teens At Risk" mandate from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the denomination's legislative body, holds the Women's Division responsible for using available channels to educate, create resources, and help provide a supportive community for teens struggling with issues of homosexuality. But a recommendation on this issue elicited some dialogue at the Womens Division semi-annual meeting on April 19, 1999.
The discussion began with a recommendation that the Womens Division approve a grant of $11,000 to "Free School Clubs" for a "regional meeting of diverse students (race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc) to broaden the network of youth in the western region of the country who are educated on issues of hate crimes, bigotry, diversity, identity, peer harassment, legal strategies, civil rights and other related issues."
The free school club is a community-oriented group that was established for the purposes of bringing back banned, non-curricular school clubs and expanding opportunities for students.
A Salt Lake City school district prompted the need for the organization when it banned 46 non-curricular school clubs because it opposed the formation of one club, a dialogue group, the Gay/Straight Alliance.
"This club was made up of young gay and straight students who wanted a place where they could talk about the issues of homosexuality," said Lois M. Dauway, assistant general secretary for Christian Social Responsibility of the Division. Ms. Dauway listed the diversity of participants including youth who had a gay or lesbian sibling, straight youth who wanted to understand difference in sexual orientation, and gay students who wanted a safe place to talk about their issues. "They found that in the context of the school, there was a lot of language that was being used by teachers and students that was derogatory language as it relates to gay and lesbian students. There was not a climate in which this could be addressed.
A few directors asked for assurance that the funding of the Free School Clubs was not for the purpose of promoting homosexuality.
"What we are funding is the bringing together of parents and students representative of many of these clubs to talk about the interrelatedness of discrimination, how we combat discrimination, and how we can understand that hurting one, can hurt another," said Ms. Dauway to the gathering.
Other directors from the Womens Division board responded to the concern. "I think this goes beyond the homosexuality issue. The kids in this school have lost their right to meet. They've lost their right of speech. And to me, this is scary. I wanted my girls to grow up to have the same freedoms we have," said Nancy Leathrum of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference.
Joan Chapin of the Detroit Conference quoted statistics from the Penn State University paper's youth risk behavior survey published in the Maine Times on November 12, 1998. 36.5 % of gay and lesbian students attempted suicide in the last year as compared to 8.9% of heterosexual students. 66.7% of gay or lesbian students were threatened or injured as compared to 28% of heterosexual students, according to the article. "We as the Womens Division were asked to do something about this," said Ms. Chapin referring to the General Conference "Teens at Risk" resolution. "Teens dealing with the questions of sexual orientation are at greater risk for suicide. I think these kids can come together with parents and discuss issues that are so important to them."
"The directors of the section have read very clearly a General Conference mandate that deals with the teens at risk," said Chris Keels, director and chairperson of the section of Christian Social Responsibility. "Secondly, there are a number of clubs at risk particular to this issue. The school has shut down to all clubs," she said referring to other banned clubs including Students Against Drunk Driving, Young Republicans Club, Latino Pride Club, African American Club, Young Democrats Club, Ethnic Alliance Club, Key Club and 38 more.
The recommendation was approved with a few dissenting votes.
The Women's Division represents United Methodist Women, a one-million member organization whose purpose is to foster spiritual growth, develop leaders and advocate for justice. Members raise more than $20 million a year for programs and projects related to women, children and youth in the United States and in more than 100 countries around the world.