The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) defines a GSA as student-led and student organized school club that aims to create a safe, welcoming and accepting school environment for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, as you might imagine, it’s so much greater than that. For those of us who went to school before they ever existed and felt alone and without peers to identify with and support us, we can only wish such inclusive clubs existed when we were in middle, high school or college. Thankfully though, for many of today’s students, the support and community that GSAs (and like organizations and clubs) offer is an affirming benefit that has life saving potential.
If you’re over 40, when you hear the term GSA you probably think Gay Straight Alliance. Back in the 1980s when these clubs started and began to gain popularity, that’s most often what the acronym stood for. Today, it might stand for Gender and Sexuality Alliance, or be QSA (Queer-Straight Alliance) or SAGA (Sexuality And Gender Acceptance).
While the names may be modified as language evolves, what hasn’t changed is the communal support these clubs continue to offer. As previously mentioned, GSAs offer more than safer meeting places for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults to chat and commiserate.
According to GSANetwork.org GSAs “…unite LGBTQ+ and allied youth to build community and organize around issues impacting them in their schools and communities. GSAs have grown beyond their traditional role to serve as safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth in middle schools and high schools and have emerged as vehicles for deep social change related to racial, gender, and educational justice.”
It’s also important to note that GSAs exist outside of middle and high schools. They can be found frequently on college and university campuses as well.
For younger students in middle and high school, GSAs are student run but generally require monitoring and support of a teacher – a GSA Advisor. In many cases, the teachers taking up the charge of supporting and protecting LGBTQ+ youth are also part of the LGBTQ+ community (or are staunch allies).
For many of these teachers who may not have had the benefit of participating in GSAs themselves, there’s a personal stake in seeing LGBTQ+ youth nurtured in academic environments whose role it is to educate and create healthy citizens.
Tori Wheatley is an English teacher at North Meck High School and has been the school’s GSA advisor for nearly four years. Although the GSA currently only has about 10 regularly attending students, the group has big goals.
“Our big focus this year has been on building family within our club,” Wheatley explained. “In years past, we’ve been more focused on advocacy and community service. But this year – in the wake of COVID, we find that getting members to join [especially in communities of color] COVID restrictions have meant no meetings during school time and the GSA has to happen after school.
“So, what do we do about our students who want to join, clearly need the support but their bio families don’t support their identity? Zoom meetings have helped some but we’re still trying to figure out how to create more support for those students outside of the club.
As an advisor, Wheatley is there to offer support and action on a variety of issues faced by LGBTQ students. “One of my greatest issues is getting fellow teachers to understand the impact and detriment of not referring to students by their preferred names or pronouns.
“After having students complain to me about this, I decided to reach out to John Concelman, the LGBTQIA+ support [representative] for bullying and prevention, for guidance on finding additional support for our trans students and how to reinforce CMS guidelines of having students addressed respectfully.”
Character development initiative specialist John Concelman oversees the CMS Making It Better initiative. The program helps schools create a better learning environment by addressing cultural changes at the school to combat the student bullying and negative behaviors.
Prior to the Making It Better Initiative, there were still many students who benefited from GSAs and empathetic teachers. Antonio “Toni” Morrison was one such student. Morrison graduated from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology [High School] and regularly attended GSA meetings there.
“As someone who struggled a lot with my sexual identity, GSA helped me to become more comfortable with myself by placing me around other people like me,” Morrison recalled.
“Having a sense of community made a big difference for me, as I typically felt alienated. GSA not only showed me that there is community for people like me, but it gave me the courage to eventually come out to the rest of the world.”
Morrison’s story is not unique for students who attend schools with GSAs. For others without that opportunity, that’s not always the case. Finding a middle or high school with a GSA can be a bit daunting – if word of mouth hasn’t reached potential members. On the collegiate circuit, it’s a little easier, but either way, where a student lives will undoubtedly dictate the likelihood that a school GSA exists.
GLSEN.org reports, “GSAs and similar clubs are least common in the South and Midwest. For example, you’ll find them in fewer than one in 10 secondary schools (9.3 percent) in South Dakota, and only one in seven (13.9 percent) secondary schools in Arkansas. You’re far more likely to find an LGBTQ student club in the Northeast or West. In Massachusetts, these groups are in 6 in 10 secondary schools (60.5 percent). And, when looking across the U.S. as a whole, CDC data indicates that schools commonly lack a GSA. In fact, besides Massachusetts, there are only two other states (Connecticut and New York) in which a majority of secondary schools have any GSA or similar club.”
That said, NOLA high school librarian and GSA Advisor Melodie Franklin proudly supports her GSA student participants. “It’s so important. It gives marginalized kids an opportunity to have a safe space within our school to talk about and discuss things queer – those topics that are difficult to discuss with their straight friends, people who are not a part of the LGBT community. It is a place where education about Queer issues – is accessible.”
It’s been said time and time again, a key factor to success is access. So, hats off to all the GSA advisors that are providing access to something so valuable: authenticity. These teachers are literally assisting in bolstering esteem, providing acceptance that can feel so fleeting and saving lives. They are truly GSA. Great, Supportive and Affirming.