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Gay students get the right to date

MASSACHUSETTS is about to adopt a pioneering law that will make it the first state in the union to ban discrimination against gay and lesbian students in public high schools.

Under a bill passed this week by the Massachusetts Senate and about to be signed into law by the Republican governor, William Weld, gay victims of campus harassment and violence will be able to sue their schools.

The bill, which was bitterly fought by conservative and religious groups, aims to allow gay students to take full part in the official and unofficial rituals of high school - on the sports field, in campus clubs and associations - and even to take a same-sex partner to the annual prom or leavers' party, traditionally one of the milestones of adolescent life.

But its advocates also hope it will tackle other less trumpeted problems of gay pupils - their proneness to drop out of school early, and an alarmingly high suicide rate. According to one study, homosexuals account for 30 per cent of teenage suicides.

The passage of the bill is a tribute to a lobbying campaign in which hundreds of students, heterosexual as well as gay, took their case to every senator at the Boston statehouse. It also underlines the striking position of the 48-year-old Mr Weld, often mentioned as a future Republican contender for the White House, within his own party.

Although what is perhaps the most staunchly Democratic state has had Republican governors before, none has offered Mr Weld's combination of rigid pro-private sector, anti-public spending economic views with outspoken liberalism on abortion and gay rights. Government 'should stay out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom', he told the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. Once a National Rifle Association supporter, he has become a strong advocate of gun control.

But not everyone agrees with Mr Weld's policies. The real purpose of the gay bill, said the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 'is to introduce homosexual programmes into public schools'.