WATCH: Rally in support of Gay Straight Alliance outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi

As many as 150 people gathered outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi on Friday to protest the school district’s decision to deny a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance.

Flour Bluff High School student Bianca “Nikki” Peet, 17, has been trying to launch the GSA since November.

Last week, Flour Bluff Superintendent Julia Carbajal announced that the district would bar all non-curricular clubs from meeting on campus in order to avoid allowing the GSA.

The American Civil Liberties Union responded by threatening legal action against the district, saying officials are required to allow the GSA under the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act.

On Friday, supporters of the GSA rallied outside the school for eight hours and presented a petition with more than 28,000 signatures to a district spokesman. A handful of anti-gay counterprotesters, led by right-wing radio host Bob Jones, gathered across the street.

At one point, according to the video report below, a pro-GSA protester tried to give a couterprotester some water. The counterprotester responded by saying he wouldn’t touch anything a gay man had, telling him to “stay away from my grandson.”

—  John Wright

HAPPENING NOW: Protest outside Corpus Christi school that won’t allow Gay Straight Alliance

From KZTV.

More than 50 people are gathered outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi this morning to protest the district’s refusal to allow a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance:

Protesters with signs walked along the sidewalk in front of the high school while a handful of counter protesters with signs gathered on the other side of Waldron Road.

Paul Rodriguez, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, called for the protest after Superintendent Julie Carbajal said the district had no plans to approve a Gay-Straight Alliance proposed by senior Bianca “Nikki” Peet, 17.

The American Civil Liberties Union is backing Peet and has called on the district to approve her club by Wednesday or possibly face a lawsuit.

—  John Wright

Removal of sexual orientation doesn’t stop bigots — or the ACLU — from opposing anti-bullying bill

Jonathan Saenz

The removal of sexual orientation from an anti-bullying bill didn’t stop anti-gay groups from opposing the measure during a Texas House committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affiars for the Plano-based Liberty Institute, told the House public education committee that even though sexual orientation and other enumerated categories were removed from Rep. Mark Strama’s HB 224, Saenz fears the categories will be restored to the measure at some point.

“It is about the gay rights, the homosexual community, the transgender community, and an effort to create special categories and special rights in our law that don’t currently exist, and really carve off protections for some groups and not others,” Saenz told the committee. “It’s not about bullying, and it’s not about solving this problem. It’s about creating new classes of people and giving special protections to some categories and not others.”

Strama said during the hearing that he has no plans to restore the enumerated categories to the bill.

“We took all those classes out so we wouldn’t have to have this discusssion,” said Strama, D-Austin. “It’s not my intention to put any of that list back in the bill. At this point I’d like to keep it the way it is if we can get this bill moving through the process.”

Representatives from Equality Texas, which supports the bill and testified in favor of it on Tuesday, have said the enumerated categories were removed to improve the bill’s chances of passage and de-politicize the issue.

Also testifying against Strama’s bill were both the anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum and the normally pro-equality American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU representatives say Strama’s bill, which would allow school officials to crack down on cyberbullying that occurs off campus, creates concerns about free speech and parental rights.

The bill was left pending in the education committee. To watch video of the committee hearing, go here.

—  John Wright

GSA supporters to protest outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi on Friday

Nikki Peet

A pro-equality demonstration is planned Friday outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, where officials say they’ll eliminate all non-curricular clubs to avoid allowing a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance.

Paul Rodriguez, president of the GSA at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said he’s expecting more than 300 people to attend the protest.

Rodriguez has been working with 17-year-old Flour Bluff student Nikki Peet since November to launch the GSA. After the Flour Bluff principal refused to allow the GSA, district officials announced they’ll bar all non-curricular clubs from meeting on campus — including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — to avoid running afowl of the federal Equal Access Act.

“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Rodriguez told Instant Tea. “I couldn’t believe that an administration of a public school would actually go to that length to show hatred, to show intolerance. It’s just appalling.”

Rodriguez said supporters of the GSA have contacted both Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are investigating. But the goal of the protest is to convince district officials to change their minds.

“As far as Nikki and her supporters go, they were very nervous about going to school today, because they don’t know what kind of hostility or bullying they’re going to face,” Rodriguez said. “They’re afraid they’re going to get blamed for all the non-curricular clubs not being allow to meet. We’re hoping to redirect that anger to where it really belongs. If we can get all those people on board and join us in this fight for equality, that would just be awesome.

“We want equality to rein at Flour Bluff,” he added. “We want them to open their eyes and realize that everyone is human, everyone can co-exist. You don’t have to like us, you don’t have to agree with us, but you do have to co-exist with us.”

For more information on the protest, go here.

—  John Wright

Gov. Perry wages war on Christmas. Shouldn’t he be on First Baptist Church’s ‘Naughty List’?

Pastor Robert Jeffress needs to give Gov. Rick Perry a big spanking, or maybe a lump of something that’s rock hard. That’s because Perry has been a naughty, naughty boy and once again left out any mention of Christmas in his family’s holiday card. Needless to say, Instant Tea didn’t actually receive one of these, but according to the Texas Freedom Network, the card is shown above. And as you can see, it says, “We wish you Joy from our hearts.” Joy my ass. There appears to be a Psalm at the bottom, but if you think that counts, you’ve obviously made some sort of deal with the Devil. Perry himself has accused the American Civil Liberties Union of waging “war on Christmas.” And, of course, he’s closely tied to a lot of the nutjobs like Jeffress who have weird sexual fantasies involving the Grinch. So why hasn’t anyone said anything about this card, the TFN wonders:

So where are the howls of protest from the religious right about Gov. Perry’s personal “war on Christmas”? We hear nothing but crickets chirping. Why? Because groups like AFA and Liberty Institute aren’t serious. Their “war on Christmas” nonsense is just a gimmick — one that uses faith as a political weapon to divide Americans and to raise more money. ‘Tis the season to be a hypocrite, apparently.

—  John Wright

Wash. teen files lawsuit accusing district of failing to protect him from bullying

Malicious MySpace page listed sexual orientation as ‘unsure’

GENE JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

SEATTLE  — A 19-year-old graduate of Aberdeen High School sued the school district Tuesday, Dec. 7, blaming officials for failing to keep him from being bullied by classmates who smashed an egg on his head, taunted him over his race and perceived sexual orientation, and set up a malicious MySpace page in his name.

Sometimes shaking as he recalled the torment during a news conference, Russell Dickerson III said the harassment made it hard to focus on school and was so traumatic that even now the memory sometimes keeps him from leaving his house. His father, Russell Dickerson Jr., said the family complained to school officials repeatedly, to no avail.

“It was like a prison sentence,” the teen said. “I found myself dreading school.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed the lawsuit on Dickerson’s behalf in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. It alleges civil rights violations, violations of state anti-discrimination law and negligence, and seeks compensation for emotional harm and lost opportunities.

Aberdeen Superintendent Thomas A. Opstad said the district denies letting any student be harassed without prompt corrective action.

“During Russell’s time as a student, the district worked diligently and collaboratively with the Dickerson family to investigate and address Russell’s complaints about his treatment,” he said. “Where misconduct was substantiated, students who engaged in harassment were appropriately disciplined.”

He noted that Dickerson is a now a member of the district’s staff and provides tutoring to elementary students, which Opstad said shows the former student feels comfortable in the district.

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said Dickerson’s comfort in tutoring elementary students “in no way speaks to the harassment that he endured for six years in junior high and high school.”

Dickerson and the ACLU said they hoped the lawsuit would help amplify the attention school bullying has garnered lately. In Washington, where officials say that nearly 15,000 students were suspended for bullying in the 2008-09 school year, a new law requires every public school to have a policy for dealing with bullying.

And in response to recent suicides by bullied gay young people, Seattle author and columnist Dan Savage launched a popular national campaign inspiring many people — including President Barack Obama — to record video messages assuring teens, “It gets better.”

Dickerson said the harassment began in junior high in 2003. By the next year, he and his family had complained repeatedly about bullying, and his frustrated parents took it up with the school board during a meeting that fall, according to a 2004 article in The Daily World newspaper of Aberdeen.

Nevertheless, the family said, the harassment continued. Dickerson’s father, a prison guard, is black and his mother is white, and Dickerson said his peers subjected him to racial slurs and derogatory comments about his physical appearance and perceived sexual orientation. They sometimes groped his chest and threw things at him, the lawsuit claims.

The ACLU became involved in the case in 2007, after students created a fake MySpace page in Dickerson’s name. The web page featured an unflattering picture of Dickerson which had been taken without his knowledge at school, and listed his sexual orientation as “not sure,” The Daily World reported.

One student, Brandon Peterman, pleaded guilty to a harassment charge and was sentenced to seven days in jail for writing a racial slur on the Web page and saying, “i’ll hang you so fast if you tell onme (sic) ever again.”

Peterman told the newspaper, “I’m really sorry he had to see it. I just wish I could take it back and it was just an immature thing to do for all of us.”

Then-Superintendent Martin Kay said at the time that he called Dickerson’s family to apologize.

Opstad said Aberdeen took several steps to promote acceptance in schools, including providing guides on the topic to parents and students, discussing bullying at parent-teacher conferences, and training all staff and students to reduce harassment.

But the ACLU said Tuesday that even after that the district failed to take meaningful steps to create a safe learning environment.

Dickerson, who is enrolled in an online college program and hopes to work in information technology, encouraged other bullied youngsters to persevere. Getting an education is too important not to, he said.

“If you give that up, you’re just quitting on yourself,” he said.

—  John Wright

Justice Department appeals lesbian’s reinstatement to Air Force

Witt to serve openly while legal, political battles over DADT continue

GENE JOHNSON | Associated Press

SEATTLE — A lesbian flight nurse discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving openly can rejoin the Air Force Reserve, even as the government appeals a judge’s ruling that returned her to the job, her lawyers said Tuesday, Nov. 23.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in September that former Maj. Margaret Witt must be reinstated because her dismissal advanced no legitimate military goals and thus violated her constitutional rights.

The Justice Department appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, its deadline for doing so.

But government lawyers did not ask the appeals judges to freeze the lower court’s ruling while the appeal proceeds — and Witt’s lawyers said that means she can be reinstated.

“I am thrilled to be able to serve in the Air Force again,” Witt said in a written statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. “The men and women in the unit are like family members to me, and I’ve been waiting a long time to rejoin them.”

Witt was suspended in 2004 and subsequently discharged after the Air Force learned she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. She sued to get her job back.

Leighton initially upheld her firing, but in 2008 a three-judge 9th Circuit panel said military members could not be discharged under “don’t ask” unless their dismissal furthered military goals such as troop morale or unit cohesion. It sent the case back to Leighton, who ruled that Witt’s firing actually hurt morale in her unit.

If Witt is reinstated, she would be serving openly at a time when the military’s policy on gays is in disarray. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to end the ban, but say it should be done through Congress, not the courts. A federal judge in California has declared the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law unconstitutional — a ruling the Justice Department is also appealing — and in the meantime, the Pentagon has issued new guidelines that have drastically cut the numbers of gays being dismissed under the policy.

The Pentagon plans to release a monthslong study Tuesday, Nov. 30 on how lifting the gay service ban would affect the armed forces.

The Justice Department did not immediately say why it did not seek a stay of Leighton’s ruling. The Air Force Reserve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, where Witt was based, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

“It’s indicative of the effort the White House is making to thread the needle on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,”’ said Chris Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a pro-repeal think tank based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They’re holding the line that they need to continue to appeal these, but they are taking an extra measure to address this policy and try to make it moot. This is the first White House that has really made an effort to keep gays in the military.”

Despite being excited to rejoin the Air Force, Witt said she was disappointed the government was appealing at all.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department was simply defending the law, as it historically does when acts of Congress are challenged. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the appeal shows why it’s important for the Senate to repeal the “misguided policy” quickly — before a new Congress takes over, with a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.

“This filing in no way diminishes the president’s — and his administration’s — firm commitment to achieving a legislative repeal of DADT this year,” Gibbs said in an e-mailed statement.

“Don’t ask” prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members, but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity.

—  John Wright

2 new lawsuits challenge Defense of Marriage Act

LARRY NEUMEISTER and PAT EATON-ROBB  |  Associated Press

NEW YORK — Gay civil rights groups trying to build momentum for a possible Supreme Court showdown filed two lawsuits Tuesday, Nov. 9 that seek to strike down portions of a 1996 law that denies married gay couples federal benefits.

The lawsuits were filed in federal courts in Connecticut and New York and come just months after a federal judge in Boston struck down a key component of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The legal actions seek judicial declarations that the law enacted by Congress in 1996, when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional because it prevents the federal government from affording pension and other benefits to same-sex couples. Since 2004, five states — Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage.

In Hartford, Conn., the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sued the federal government on behalf of a Connecticut widower and married couples from Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. The other lawsuit was filed on behalf of a New York woman, Edith Schlain Windsor, who met her late spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, nearly a half century ago at a restaurant.

“No one should have to fight with the government after losing the person she’s loved for more than four decades,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Edie and Thea made the same lifelong commitment that other married couples make, and their marriage deserves the same dignity, respect and protection afforded other families.”

Mary Bonauto, an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the Connecticut lawsuit was filed to maintain the momentum the group gained with the success of its challenge against the law in Massachusetts.

In July, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in Boston ruled in two separate lawsuits that the Defense of Marriage Act forces the state to discriminate against its own citizens to qualify for federal funding. He also said it violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The Justice Department said in a statement that it had no response to the lawsuits, except that the government “is defending the statute, as it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged.”

The department said that, as a policy matter, President Obama has made clear that he believes the law is “discriminatory and should be repealed” and was working with Congress to do so.

The filing of multiple lawsuits will likely result in rulings in different federal court districts. That could increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court will eventually consider the issue.

Also, as the various lawsuits proceed, rulings by higher courts would affect wider areas. For instance, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston covers includes Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire.

One of the Connecticut litigants, Jerry Passaro, 45, of Milford, was denied survivor benefits after his husband, Tom Buckholz, died of lymphoma.

“It’s very hurtful,” Passaro said. “Tommy and I were a team for so many years and to have that false sense of security that you are getting married and will have the same entitlements that everyone else has, it’s very, very unhealthy.”

Raquel Ardin, of North Hartland, Vt., said she felt like she and her wife, Lynda DeForge, 54, were being treated like second-class citizens when DeForge was denied time off from the U.S. Postal Service under the Family and Medical Leave Act to take care of Ardin.

“I just don’t think it’s right,” Ardin said. The couple married in 2009 and have been together 30 years.

Bradley Kleinerman, 47, and his husband, Flint Gehre, 44, of Avon, said they lose money every year on taxes by being forced to file as single or head of household. They also have to prepare a third federal return as a couple, so they can figure out the income figures to put on their joint state return.

—  John Wright

Miss. school district asks judge to throw out suit from lesbian whose photo was left out of yearbook

Ceara Sturgis

SHELIA BYRD  |  Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — A school district wants a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by a lesbian who claimed her rights were violated because the senior photograph of her in a tuxedo was left out of the high school yearbook.

The Copiah County School District said in court documents that Ceara Sturgis didn’t identify a constitutional right that had been violated in the suit filed in August.

“Ms. Sturgis has no constitutionally protected right to appear in the yearbook at all, let alone in a protected right to appear in the senior photo section wearing a tuxedo,” according to the documents filed Friday, Oct. 1.

The district has asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball to dismiss the case, and referenced a similar 2002 lawsuit in Florida that had been dismissed by a federal judge. That case, though, was later appealed and a settlement was reached.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on Sturgis’s behalf, said the U.S. Supreme Court has held that discrimination based on gender stereotypes is illegal.

“We brought this case because no student should have to compromise her identity in order to participate in an activity, like the yearbook, that is essential to the high school experience,” said Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project.

“It’s peculiar that the school district would rely so heavily on that one judge’s decision in Florida, since that decision was appealed and eventually led to the district changing its discriminatory policy in a settlement agreement,” Sun said.

The suit names the district, superintendent Rickey Clopton and Wesson Attendance Center principal Ronald Greer. Clopton didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment Monday.

Sturgis, who is now attending Copiah-Lincoln Community College, graduated from Wesson Attendance Center this past spring. While other photographs of her were in the yearbook, her name and photograph were left out of the senior section.

The ACLU’s suit claimed the district discriminated against her on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes.

Female students could only wear drapes in the yearbook portraits and males wore tuxedos. Sturgis has dressed in masculine clothing for years, and said she wasn’t comfortable in the drapes.

The district’s motion referenced a similar case in Hillsborough County, Fla.

In 2002, Nicole Youngblood, then 17, sued the county’s school board and school district because she wasn’t allowed to wear a white shirt, tie and jacket instead of a drape in her senior portrait, court records show.

The suits filed by Youngblood and Sturgis both claimed discrimination under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew dismissed Youngblood’s lawsuit in September 2002, saying there was no constitutionally protected right involved in the school’s decision regarding senior yearbook portraits.

A settlement was reached after Youngblood appealed the judge’s decision, said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

As part of the settlement, the district now gives its seniors two weeks to appeal their principal’s dress policies, said Cobbe.

“We’ve had nothing exactly like that again. We’ve had students who wanted to wear the clothing of other gender for dances, and I think they allowed it,” Cobbe said.

—  John Wright

Judge orders lesbian reinstated to Air Force

Ruling is 2nd this month declaring ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ unconstitutional

GENE JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

TACOMA, Wash. — A federal judge ruled Friday, Sept. 24 that a decorated flight nurse discharged from the Air Force for being gay should be given her job back as soon as possible in the latest legal setback to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton came in a closely watched case as a tense debate has been playing out over the policy. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to lift the ban this week, but Leighton is now the second federal judge this month to deem the policy unconstitutional.

Maj. Margaret Witt was suspended in 2004 and subsequently discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy after the Air Force learned she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. She sued to get her job back.

Leighton hailed her as a “central figure in a long-term, highly charged civil rights movement.” Tears streaked down Witt’s cheeks and she hugged her parents, her partner and supporters following the ruling.

“Today you have won a victory in that struggle, the depth and duration of which will be determined by other judicial officers and hopefully soon the political branches of government,” the judge told her, choking up as he recalled Witt’s dramatic testimony about her struggles.

The ruling was the second legal victory this month for opponents of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and it throws the law into further disarray.

Barring an appeal, Witt will now be able to serve despite being openly gay, and a federal judge in California earlier this month ruled the law unconstitutional and is considering whether to immediately halt the ban. While such an injunction would prevent openly gay service members from being discharged going forward, it wouldn’t do anything for those who have already been dismissed.

Witt’s attorneys, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, say her case now provides a template for gays who have been previously discharged to seek reinstatement.

Gay rights advocates say that if the government must justify each firing under “don’t ask,” it will mean a slow death for the policy — even if an outright repeal isn’t endorsed by Congress or the courts.

The 1993 law prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members, but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered engaging in homosexual activity.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the ruling, but James Lobsenz, Witt’s attorney, said he expected an appeal.

In 2006, Leighton rejected Witt’s claims that the Air Force violated her rights, following precedent that the military’s policy on gays is constitutional. An appeals court panel overruled him two years later, holding that in light of a Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas ban on sodomy, “don’t ask, don’t tell” intrudes on the rights of gay service members. For the government to discharge gays it must prove that their firings further military goals, the panel said.

Leighton determined after a six-day trial that Witt’s discharge advanced no legitimate military interest. To the contrary, her dismissal hurt morale in her unit and weakened the squadron’s ability to carry out its mission, he ruled.

“There is no evidence that wounded troops care about the sexual orientation of the flight nurse or medical technician tending to their wounds,” Leighton ruled.

Leighton became emotional as he recalled Witt’s testimony about the support she has received from her parents since she came out to them on the eve of filing her lawsuit.

“The best thing to come out of all this tumult is still that love and support,” he said.

A crowd of spectators remained quiet until the judge left the courtroom, when it erupted in cheers.

“I’m just so thrilled I have the chance to do what I wanted to do all along: that’s return to my unit,” Witt said.

She also said that she appreciated the judge’s recognition of the many gays who continue to quietly serve in the military.

—  John Wright