By Liz Bergren
Starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) group can be an exciting time for your school or organization. When you have made the decision to form this group, know that you will be doing something extremely important for the LGBTQ students you work with. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “29 percent of LGB youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6 percent of heterosexual youth.” Having a safe space for students who identify as LGBTQ can promote a healthy environment for all the individuals you work with. A GSA group is open to students who identify anywhere on the sexuality and gender spectrum. When all can come together to support one another, incidences of violence, depression, suicide attempts, and missed school due to safety concerns for LGBTQ students are reduced.
Here are some important points to consider when starting a GSA group or club:
- If you, as the adult leader, do not identify as LGBTQ, then it is very important to educate yourself on current terminology. Understand how the students you work with may identify themselves. Gender and sexuality are nuanced issues. Most people in the LGBTQ community don’t identify with only a gay or straight label, and there are many descriptions that people now use to describe their genders and sexual identities. Also, remember that gender identity and sexual orientation are completely different concepts.
- You may want to consider discussing the GSA acronym as well. Many schools, clubs, and organizations are adopting new titles to move beyond the binary of gay-straight language. Gay-Straight Alliance is the original title of the group; more inclusive changes include Gender & Sexuality Alliance and Queer Students Alliance.
- It is important to use preferred students’ gender pronouns. A good way to do that is to have students share their preferred gender pronoun right from the get-go. That way, you eliminate hurt feelings, and students will feel accepted and comfortable.
- Be mindful of your own personal biases. Anti-LGBTQ bias is widespread, even within the LGBTQ community at times. Ask yourself important questions such as “What are your first thoughts when you interact with someone you know is LGBTQ?” “Have you ever been involved in making jokes about people within the LGBTQ community?” “Would you be good friends with someone who is LGBTQ?” “How would you feel if your child came out to you?” “What would your first reaction be?” Unresolved biases can interfere with your ability to adequately support the students you work with.
- This group is also for people who identify as straight allies or who are questioning their sexuality and/or gender. If the space feels safe and you are trusted as a true advocate, students may feel comfortable enough to come out to you. When that happens, be supportive, model acceptance, listen, ensure confidentiality, and be mindful of students’ needs (they may not need anything beyond a listening ear). There are right and wrong things to say when someone comes out to you. If you feel uncomfortable with students coming out to you and you don’t know if you will say the right or wrong thing, spend some time researching how best to converse and be supportive.
- Develop positive morale and a team-building atmosphere in your GSA group. It’s important to develop trust among the members and ensure that everyone practices confidentiality. Come up with some group rules to make sure all members are on the same page. Spend time doing team-building activities and icebreakers to help students get to know each other.
- If this group is in a school, make sure you have administrator and staff buy-in. Engage school staff and administration by advocating for professional development to educate the school community on how best to support LGBTQ students. As a leader, you, too, could consider a school staff presentation to share the goals of the GSA and explain how the students will be advocating for social justice and equality in their school.
- After you have established a safe, confidential space and your group has gotten to know one another well, it is a good idea to create a calendar of events. Brainstorm dates for the students to celebrate inclusivity, to mark important events in history, to hold anti-bullying and anti-violence campaigns and Day of Silence activities, and to do any fun activities to create a positive school climate.
- To have success with your GSA group—meaning you have regular attendance, active members, and creative, fulfilling discussions and activities—consider some of the following organizational tools for running effective meetings.
- Set a mission statement and goals for your group.
- Prepare for your meetings in advance so you can have the outcome you’d like.
- Make sure the meeting dates and times are publicized as a reminder to current group members as well as to encourage others to join.
- Create a question/comment box for those who don’t feel comfortable sharing out loud with the group.
- Designate someone to take notes for each meeting so you can build upon previous agendas.
- Lastly, as a GSA leader, you may find yourself dealing with opposition from staff or others within the community. The most effective way to combat opposition or hostility is to train and educate. If your fight seems to be with administration, consider using facts, statistics, and laws around support and advocacy for LGBTQ kids and teens. Find another adult ally to support your efforts. If you are experiencing opposition from parents, consider sending home information and setting up parent meetings to discuss their concerns (having another adult with you in these circumstances is important). Advocate for the students of oppositional parents with best intentions, even though you may not win. A presentation to the school PTA or other parent groups can help as well.
Any time we can support individuals from marginalized groups, we are encouraging inclusivity in our environment, supporting kindness, and dismantling stigma, which ultimately leads to an overall more positive climate. There are many resources available online for how to start a GSA group, including websites for allies to educate themselves on gender and sexual fluidity. Please consider starting this kind of group for the students you work with. We can all use safe spaces to be our authentic selves without fear of judgment or harassment, especially young people.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with fifteen years of classroom experience. She identifies as LGBTQ and has organized student-led GSA groups in schools. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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