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Gay-Straight Alliances

By and — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

What Are Gay-Straight Alliances?

Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are student-led school clubs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth and their straight (heterosexual) allies. A common misconception of GSAs is that they are limited to only LGBT youth. In fact, GSAs typically include larger numbers of straight students than LGBT students (Herdt, Russell, Sweat, & Marzullo, 2007). As of 2008, there were over 4,000 GSAs from across the United States registered with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN; www.glsen.org).

What Do Gay-Straight Alliances Do?

LGBT youth often experience harassment or victimization at school, which places them at risk for school failure and health problems (O’Shaughnessy, Russell, Heck, Calhoun, & Laub, 2004; Szalacha, 2003). GSAs are typically formed by students who are aware of the unsafe climate for LGBT students in their schools and communities and who work towards improving the climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender appearance.
  • GSAs provide a safe place for students to receive information, education, and support
  • They are places where students can engage in student-driven advocacy or just “hang out” (Griffin, Lee, Waugh, & Beyer, 2004). 
  • Like other school-based clubs, GSAs usually have regular meetings, have a school-employee as an advisor, and plan events open to the entire school community. 

National Day Of Silence and Queer Youth Advocacy Day

Two examples of activities that GSA participants engage in include the National Day of Silence and Queer Youth Advocacy Day.

The National Day of Silence, created in 1996 and sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), is a student-led action day that creates awareness of the bias that LGBT young people experience at school. Youth typically take a vow of silence for the day and distribute information to others about ways that they can make schools safer for all students.

Queer Youth Advocacy Day, planned by the Gay-Straight Alliance Network (www.gsanetwork.org), is an annual event when GSA members from across the state of California arrive at the state capital to learn how to lobby and then get experience lobbying for safe school legislation and other LGBT-related policies.

What Are Some Of The Benefits of GSAs?

  1. Participation in student-directed advocacy organizations and activities at school builds youth self-efficacy and gets youth involved in their greater community (Flanagan, 2004).
  2. While schools are often found to be unsafe places for LGBT students, research indicates that the presence of a GSA is associated with greater safety for students. In fact, GSAs are linked to fewer student reports of harassment and victimization due to actual or perceived sexual orientation and better educational health outcomes (O’Shaughnessy et al., 2004). Notably, out of several strategies that are successful in promoting safety and well-being at school, GSAs appear to have the strongest influence on school climate for LGBT youth (Szalacha, 2003).
  3. Friendships are critical to young peoples’ lives, and supportive friendships with other LGBT youth are shown to be especially beneficial for LGBT young people (Anderson, 1998). Gay-student alliances provide a space for LGBT youth to meet other LGBT young people and straight allies. These friendships are likely beneficial because they can discuss similar experiences and feelings straight youth may not understand and may give LGBT youth the sense that they are not alone.

Resources For Parents, Educators, and Students

The following organizations have useful information, including activities for GSAs and how to start one in your school:

References

Anderson, A. L. (1998). Strengths of gay male youth: An untold story. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15, 5-71.

Flanagan, C. A. (2004). Volunteerism, leadership, political socialization, and civic engagement. In R. M. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (2nd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Griffin, P., Lee, C., Waugh, J., & Beyer, C. (2004). Describing roles that gay-straight alliances play in schools: From individual support to social change. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, 1, 7-22.

Herdt, G., Russell, S. T., Sweat, J., & Marzullo, M. (2007). Sexual inequality, youth empowerment, and the GSA: A community study in California. In N. Teunis & G. Herdt (Eds.), Sexual Inequalities (pp. 233-252). Berkeley: University of California Press.

O’Shaughnessy, M., Russell, S., Heck, K., Calhoun, C., & Laub, C. (2004). Safe place to learn: Consequences of harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender non-conformity and steps for making schools safer. San Francisco, CA: California Safe Schools Coalition.

Szalacha, L. (2003). Safe sexual diversity climates: Lessons learned from an evaluation of Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students. American Journal of Education, 110, 58-88.

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