Start a Gay-Straight Alliance


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Photo: JGL Song

The reasons to create a gay straight alliance (GSA) are many, but experts say perhaps the most important one is to improve overall school climate by increasing tolerance for diversity.

Currently, several thousand GSAs exist nationwide, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)—the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Of these, more than 4,600 are registered on the GLSEN Web site, making them part of a larger national network.

And the numbers continue to rise.

“GSAs are becoming more common. People are coming out as LGBT at much younger ages, and they’re finding that they don’t have the support they need in their high schools. GSAs are one way to get that support,” says Timothy Michael, program assistant for GSA for Safe Schools, a public benefit organization committed to creating safe middle and high schools for LGBT students in Wisconsin.

Like other student-run clubs and organizations, GSAs must follow certain steps to achieve success, says Martha Langmuir, director of community initiatives for GLSEN.

GLSEN provides an easy-to-use guide—The GLSEN Jump-Start Guide for Gay-Straight Alliances—that can help students get started. Consider the following other steps to establish a GSA in your school:

Step #1: Know your rights. Under the Equal Access Act, all students—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity—must have equal access to extracurricular clubs. This federal law is one of many resources that students can use to establish a framework for understanding when approaching administration, says Langmuir. Some states also have nondiscrimination policies and safe school laws as well.

Step #2: Follow your school’s policy. Just as with any extra-curricular club, GSAs must follow school policy, says Michael. Students should contact their school’s office to obtain a copy of the Student Handbook for more information about the requirements for forming a club.

Step #3: Know how to handle resistance. In some instances, forming a GSA will not be met with any resistance. But that’s not always the case, says Michael. “Unfortunately, in many schools, students do run into barriers where people have misconceptions about GSAs,” he says. “Either intentionally or unintentionally, we sometimes see administrators create obstacles to a GSA’s formation.”

Being able to clearly articulate your rights under the Equal Access Act is important, says Langmuir. “Some students have found it helpful to have an advisor talk to the administration with them. Let [the administration] know what the purpose of the GSA will be so that they’re aware and can be supportive,” she adds. Having the support of administration is a crucial part of creating and sustaining a GSA, she says.

When school administrators insist on preventing the formation of a GSA, Langmuir says the best option is to contact Lambda Legal or the American Civil Liberties Union. “If you’re being denied the rights to start a GSA, that’s a legal issue,” she says.

Step #4: Find your focus. Once you’ve gotten the approval to create your GSA, determine its focus. GSAs can have multiple goals, says Michael. For example, one goal might be to serve as a social support network for students to simply gather and talk. Another goal might be to serve as an educational group that raises awareness of LGBT issues. A third goal might be to focus on activism and LGBT advocacy. For example, one Wisconsin-based GSA advocated for the creation of gender neutral bathrooms for transgendered and gender nonconforming youth, he adds.

In reality, most GSAs reflect a combination of all three, says Michael. Regardless of the focus, the GSA’s mission statement should accurately and completely reflect its goal.

Step #5: Select an advisor. Some schools may have specific requirements regarding who can serve as an advisor, says Langmuir. In general, a GSA advisor should be someone who has demonstrated support of the LGBT community, she adds. For example, logical choices might include a teacher who displays a safe space sticker in his or her classroom or who incorporates LGBT people into the context of the lesson.

Step #6: Choose a meeting place. Although many school-sponsored clubs meet in the school itself, a GSA may want to choose a lower profile location or more private meeting place depending on the school’s level of tolerance, says Langmuir.

Step #7: Advertise your club. To increase membership in a GSA, consider advertising for the group with posters or during the school’s morning announcements. One helpful hint is to include a specific discussion topic on the poster to entice students to participate, says Michael. “People might show up because they want to talk about the topic or learn more about it,” he adds.

Another hint is to always have food at the meeting, he adds.

In schools that aren’t as tolerant, consider including an email address to contact for more information rather than a specific meeting location, says Langmuir. This will help ensure anonymity and protect the group and its members, she adds.

Resources
To learn more about how to register your GSA, search for local GLSEN chapters, or to download a copy of The GLSEN Jump-Start Guide for Gay-Straight Alliances, visit glsen.org and click on the ‘students’ tab.

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