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Emely Vallee, left, Samantha Cannon, center, and Stephanie Wehrung stand in front of a Gay-Straight Alliance banner in the hallway of Robert D. Edgren High School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The new club at Edgren was formed to promote tolerance and awareness of others' differences.

Emely Vallee, left, Samantha Cannon, center, and Stephanie Wehrung stand in front of a Gay-Straight Alliance banner in the hallway of Robert D. Edgren High School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The new club at Edgren was formed to promote tolerance and awareness of others' differences. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Emely Vallee, left, Samantha Cannon, center, and Stephanie Wehrung stand in front of a Gay-Straight Alliance banner in the hallway of Robert D. Edgren High School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The new club at Edgren was formed to promote tolerance and awareness of others' differences.

Emely Vallee, left, Samantha Cannon, center, and Stephanie Wehrung stand in front of a Gay-Straight Alliance banner in the hallway of Robert D. Edgren High School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The new club at Edgren was formed to promote tolerance and awareness of others' differences. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Robert D. Edgren High School seniors, from left, Emely Vallee,Samantha Cannon and Stephanie Wehrung study Friday morning at school. Vallee and Cannon formed the Gay-Straight Alliance at Edgren this fall. Wehrung is a member and has helped Cannon and Vallee promote the group.

Robert D. Edgren High School seniors, from left, Emely Vallee,Samantha Cannon and Stephanie Wehrung study Friday morning at school. Vallee and Cannon formed the Gay-Straight Alliance at Edgren this fall. Wehrung is a member and has helped Cannon and Vallee promote the group. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — They’ve ignored the snickers and snide remarks. When a flier was torn from the wall, they made a banner with big letters: “Ban Hate.”

Amid a controversy that put their club and motives under intense scrutiny, and a struggle to be given the same rights as other non-curricular groups in their school, they persevered.

Seniors Samantha Cannon and Emely Vallee founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at Robert D. Edgren High School this fall.

It’s believed to be the first official club of its kind in Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific, though DODDS officials couldn’t confirm that.

There’s also a GSA at Gen. H.H. Arnold High School in Wiesbaden, Germany, a DODDS-Europe school.

Vallee and Cannon, the student body president and vice president, respectively, said they wanted to form a club to help other students. They heard about the GSA through another friend and found the GSA network online, which guides students on how to form a GSA in their school.

“We wanted to promote tolerance, spread awareness and try to stop the use of derogatory terms within in our own school,” Cannon said.

Living on a military base, where “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the rule for servicemembers, “some students have a difficult time coming out and being comfortable with their sexuality in the open or even around friends,” Vallee said.

She and Cannon wanted to create “a safe haven for people wanting to come out or who maybe just have questions about sexuality,” Vallee said. “We’re trying to give a voice to people who otherwise might be afraid to speak up.”

The group is open to everyone, Cannon said, regardless of sexual orientation. And no one is to be asked, “‘Oh, what are you,’” Cannon said.

“You don’t have to announce whether you’re gay or straight,” said friend and fellow senior Stephanie Wehrung, a GSA supporter.

The club has met three times, with attendance ranging from seven to 10 students.

English teacher Laurie Kuntz said she happily agreed to be the club’s faculty sponsor.

“At the second meeting, I was so impressed with the level of conversation,” she said. “There was never anything sexual. It was a philosophical discussion on tolerance and current events. I haven’t heard that kind of discourse since I left college teaching.”

The club, she added, is trying “to get rid of disparaging language that happens in the classroom,” including labeling and stereotyping.

“Just because a boy wants to join a drama team doesn’t mean he’s gay, or just because a girl wants to be on the wrestling team doesn’t mean she’s gay,” Kuntz said.

The students haven’t been taunted, but they’ve heard negative comments about the group, such as “Oh, a Gay-Straight Alliance — that’s gay,” Cannon said.

When Vallee passed around a sign-up sheet for the club, one student expressed hatred for gays and used a derogatory term for them.

Some classmates have questioned the seniors’ motives for forming a GSA.

“This sounds like a few straight people trying to cause trouble,” Cannon said a person told her.

“I was extremely offended,” Cannon said. “She said that as a straight individual, I shouldn’t feel like I had to fight for someone else’s rights. I told her I shouldn’t have to fight at all. The Gay-Straight Alliance should have just been granted the same rights as any other club has had now or in the past. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about doing what’s right.”

Vallee, Cannon and Wehrung feel they’ve had to fight for the club because of the controversy sparked after word spread in the community of the GSA and the temporary restrictions on club activities that followed.

Edgren Principal Michael Johnson said he received phone calls, e-mails and personal visits from parents mostly concerned with the word “gay” and worried that GSA “was going to be an advocacy group for a gay lifestyle.”

Johnson initially approved the club after he was approached by Cannon and Vallee in early September.

About two weeks later, the students said, he asked the seniors for a statement of purpose.

“No other club had to submit a purpose,” Wehrung said.

Johnson said having that information helped him field inquiries about the group from community members, military officials and his bosses.

But problems for the GSA didn’t crop up until November, Cannon said, when following a School Advisory Committee meeting, GSA was restricted from privileges afforded to other non-curricular clubs: passing out fliers, announcing meetings over the school public address system, fundraising and meeting during seminar, a type of study period during the school day.

SAC members, including parents and teachers elected from the community and schools, advise the principal on education-related matters, according to the school’s Web site.

“There were three parents who showed up (to the SAC meeting) who were just unsure,” Johnson said, referring to GSA.

The students fought back. Wehrung filed a formal complaint, she said, which was closed after other non-curricular clubs, such as paintball or ski and snowboard, were given the same restrictions, the students said.

“No one ever said this group cannot exist,” Johnson said of GSA, “that this group cannot be in the school. The question was, ‘What capacity?’”

One question concerned the Department of Defense Education Activity’s procedures for non-curricular clubs, Johnson said.

That question could not be immediately answered.

“There was a little bit of a discrepancy,” Johnson said, and “even DODEA higher headquarters became involved with it to give clarification.”

In the meantime, Johnson said, “I was asked to step back and go back to ground zero.”

Shortly before winter break last month, restrictions on all non-curricular clubs were lifted, including GSA. However, all clubs now have to meet after school.

“We got the green light,” Johnson said.

The process clarified that within DODDS “it’s left up to each school to determine what … extracurricular or non-curricular activities occur in school,” the principal said. “There’s limited guidance.”

But that’s under review and the school system “may decide to develop policies” governing non-curricular activities, said DODDS-Pacific spokesman Chip Steitz.

The GSA controversy did not prompt the review, Steitz said.

The club, meanwhile, forged ahead.

“We all feel very accomplished that we stuck it out,” Cannon said. “I’m actually really proud of everyone who helped out.”

Added Kuntz, “If the group was called the Tolerance Club, I don’t think anyone would have batted an eyelash. And I don’t think they’re going to change their title either. I think they fought for their title and they’ll keep it.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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