For most young people, navigating the uncharted waters of high school isn’t easy. But for members of Spectrum, the queer-straight alliance at Saline High School, the task is doubly hard. Not only do they have to contend with rejection and bullying because of their sexual orientation or their status as allies of gay students, but for more than a year they have been thrust into a district-wide political struggle–one that has diverted a lot of the group’s time and energy from providing emotional support for one another.

“If I have a problem, I know I can come here and talk to reliable people,” explained one young man at a recent Spectrum meeting. “I can stand up and talk and be respected.”

After a period of inactivity, Spectrum was revived in 2009 as a place where students who identify as LGBTQQA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, “queer,” “questioning” their orientation, or “allies”) could feel safe. But last year the half-dozen core members at the time found themselves in the middle of a controversy they never expected.

The issue was adding protection for “sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression” to the district’s anti-discrimination policy. Since Saline already prohibits discrimination based on eleven other factors, including height, weight, and marital status, Spectrum members thought it would be a more or less routine change. At a packed school board meeting last October, an overwhelming majority of those who spoke supported the addition–but a majority of the board rejected it. Most of those who voted No said the existing anti-bullying policy should provide sufficient protection.

Despite the rejection, in some ways the controversy was good for Spectrum: now about fifteen students regularly attend its meetings. “I found out about Spectrum during the board meetings,” says one young man. “It made me realize there were too many unacceptable things going on. I had to do something.”

Junior Emma Upham, one of the group’s student facilitators, says the anti-discrimination policy needs revising because discrimination includes more than bullying. (“Bullying happens here,” one student says, “but it’s not just queer kids” who are victimized.) Upham sees the revision as a “preventative” to ensure a climate where students can feel free to reveal their LGBTQQA status without negative repercussions. And some Spectrum members say they have reason to fear that both emotional and physical harm could come to them at school.

Spectrum provides a safe place for students to talk about the challenges of dealing with issues of sexual orientation. Asked if they feel tension at home about their participation in Spectrum, one girl responds: “My mom says it’s OK with her that I come to Spectrum. But then I’ll be watching TV with her, and there’s a scene with gay people in it, and she’ll say, ‘Yuck!’ And that doesn’t feel very good.”

After she finishes telling her story, many students express sympathy. Spectrum has no discussion leader or agenda, but the students exercise remarkable mutual respect as they take turns talking.

After last year’s setback, Spectrum is taking a different focus. “The administration and the superintendent are our biggest allies,” Upham explains. Teachers are being trained to be more sensitive to LGBTQQA issues and on how to intervene if they hear harassment in the classroom or hallways. And Spectrum is inviting school board members and other community residents to attend its meetings, Upham says, so members can “talk about ourselves as people, not about politics.”

Eventually, Spectrum plans to approach the school board with another request to revise the anti-discrimination policy, but first its members are trying to bring in allies from a broad range of other student groups. Whatever happens, they say their first priority is to be there for one another when someone has had a problem with peers or family. As senior Emily Serraro says, “we’ve become a family for each other.”