Every school has its share of extracurricular activities and clubs — usually, they aren’t surrounded by controversy. However, in November, nearly 2,000 people gathered to protest the formation of a new student group at a Kentucky high school. This new club consisted of 30 students who wished to form a gay-straight alliance (GSA).
A Common Cause
A GSA is a group organized and led by students to create a safe, supportive, and accepting school environment for all. What is unique about gay-straight alliances is that they are open to any student, regardless of sexual orientation, who would like to take a stand against harassment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Unfortunately, GSAs sometimes face opposition, mostly due to misconceptions about their mission and what occurs at their meetings (and other times, simply due to homophobia).
According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the first GSA was formed in 1989, and since then, similar groups have started in more than 1,000 schools across the country. Today, they involve nearly 20,000 students whose goals are to educate, build bridges, and open lines of communication so that those who may identify as LGBT can attend school without fear of harassment, discrimination, or physical harm.
A Safe Space
For Ulyana, 16, a GSA member for more than two years, her group has been a source of comfort and support. “Being involved in the GSA stopped me from feeling consistently isolated,” she says. “When there was trouble in my life, the GSA soothed and distracted me.”
Miriam Yeung, a coordinator of school initiatives at the Youth Enrichment Services Program of New York City’s LGBT Center, whose job is to offer assistance and training to groups like Ulyana’s, adds, “A GSA provides community. It’s an identifiable safe space, so if something happens to you, you know someone you could turn to.”
Taking a Stand
Despite what some may think, the purpose of a GSA isn’t to discuss sex or promote a “gay agenda.” Rather, most GSAs simply talk and teach about the lives of LGBT youth and the bias they often face in schools. They also provide students with the opportunity to develop social awareness and leadership skills. For instance, when a group of boys attacked some students near a gay café, Ulyana’s GSA took the offenders to peer mediation, spoke to the principal and town’s mayor, and organized a rally to publicize the issue when the problems continued.
When faced with opposition from reluctant communities and administrators such as in the case of the Kentucky school, Ulyana and Ms. Yeung have similar advice. “Keep trying,” says Ulyana. “Stay persistent and strong.”
Ms. Yeung adds, “I have seen really patient and solid youth leaders overcome obstacles by sticking together, gathering diverse allies within and outside of school, and standing up for what they know is right.”
If you are interested in learning more about gay-straight alliances or even starting one at your school, you can find lots of helpful information and guidance in the GSA Manual and on its GSLEN Web site.