May 12, 2004 – Students at a Utah high school who wore anti-smoking t-shirts aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) teens were suspended last week for violating their schoolâ€™s dress code. Yesterday, about two-dozen of their classmates turned out to protest the suspensions and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken up the cause.
The controversial shirts, which read "Queers Kick Ash" and depict a stamped out cigarette, were provided to students through a program at a local LGBT Community Center. The program is funded by the stateâ€™s Department of Health, and is aimed at helping "queer young people (identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning) and supportive allies learn about tobacco companiesâ€™ targeting of the queer community as well as the risk factors of tobacco use." Surveys have consistently shown tobacco use among LGBTQ youth is significantly higher than it is among their heterosexual counterparts.
Though the schoolâ€™s Gay-Straight Student Alliance had nothing to do with distributing the t-shirts, the ACLU reports that school administrators threatened to bring the school club to "a screeching halt."
Yesterday, the ACLU sent a letter to Hillcrest High School officials on behalf of the suspended students, demanding the suspensions and other punishments be reversed, that students be allowed to wear the shirts without fear of punishment. The letter also insisted that threats against the schoolâ€™s Gay-Straight Alliance be halted.
The civil rights group says the school is violating the studentsâ€™ right to freedom of expression. The ACLU has also accused administrators of treating straight students who wore the shirts differently from their LGBTQ peers. While two gay students were threatened with suspension if they did not either change their shirts or turn them inside out, a heterosexual student was given the option of going home without being suspended, according to an ACLU press statement.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the schoolâ€™s dress code policy prohibits vulgar or sexually suggestive clothing and "items which bear advertising, promotion, and likeness of tobacco." Principal Linda Sandstrom told the Tribune that the term "queer" is banned because it is sometimes used as a slur. The words "kick ash" were also reported to violate school policy. Sandstrom also told the Tribune that the Gay-Straight Alliance may be dissolved because its members are being "disruptive."
In a press statement, Tamara Lange, an ACLU staff attorney, took issue with school administratorsâ€™ categorization of "queer" as derogatory in the case of the t-shirts. "There is no doubt that itâ€™s a commonly-used political term," she said, pointing out that universities all over the country have queer studies programs. "The Supreme Court has firmly established that students have a constitutional right to political speech and expression," she said.
Many members of the LGBTQ community use the term "queer" as a positive self-identifier.
Students protested outside Hillcrest yesterday, holding signs that read "Homophobia is so gay," and "Queer is nothing to fear," and many attended classes wearing their Queers Kick Ash t-shirts in defiance of school administrators, according to the Tribune and 365Gay.com
Some students who spoke to the Tribune expressed discontent with what they see as a double standard in school policy.
Cody McCook, who has been suspended twice now for refusing to remove his t-shirt or turn it inside out, said he and other gay students are constantly harassed at school while administrators turn a blind eye. He told the Tribune that one school official told him gay students "bring it on themselves."
Sheena Steedman complained that gay students are being punished for expressing their sexuality while straight students freely wear shirts with half naked women or the words "I love Mormon boys."
Tobacco companies have recently identified the queer community as a good potential target group. "Project SCUM," for instance, was designed by RJ Reynolds for "Sub Culture Urban Marketing" of its Camel brand to queer and homeless communities. The company also advertised its Lucky brand at pride parades with the slogan "When someone yells dude thatâ€™s so gay, weâ€™ll be there."
The Queers Kick Ash campaign is calling attention to how tobacco companies target LGBT youth. They educate queer smokers about the health risks of smoking, provide information about the politics of tobacco companies and set up groups to help youth quit smoking.
"Adolescence is a hard time for all young people, but it's particularly stressful for LGBT students, who are dealing with the added stresses of harassment and coming out, and many of them turn to smoking," Melina Maureen, director of the program that provided the shirts to students told 365Gay.com. "These students are trying to do something incredibly positive by fighting the epidemic of youth smoking, and their school would rather silence them because it's aimed at gay kids."