By Liz Bergren
The first few weeks of the school year are busy and can feel chaotic as the community settles into new routines and new relationships. It is a great time to get your student groups organized and to establish a solid calendar of events for the year. For students who identify as LGBTQ, the beginning of the school year can feel particularly scary, especially for those who have come out recently or over the summer. As these students start the new year, they may be working to settle into a new identity. They may be particularly vulnerable to bullying and abuse by peers and are at higher risk of suicide. Creating a safe place for them right from the beginning will only help them thrive throughout the school year. This post offers suggestions and guidance to help you kick-start your GSA (gay-straight alliance) student group.
- Start early and establish purpose. Set up your first GSA meeting as close to the beginning of the school year as you can. A GSA has many functions, including serving as a safe space to support LGBTQ students and their allies, build community, and potentially create change. With your students, it is smart to establish school-year goals, one being which type of club they’d like their GSA to be—support, social, or activist. Depending on what the school community is like, maybe a bit of all three would be appropriate.
- Establish leadership. Once you have decided on your club’s purpose, the next step is to decide on leadership. As the adult advisor, your role is to advise students and let them do most of the leading. Some good questions to ask are: Do you want to elect a president? What responsibilities will the club leadership have? Should there be more than one leader? Are there GSA leadership training opportunities to explore?
- Establish your club’s ground rules. To be proactive about preventing bullying, it is important to set ground rules in the beginning about acceptable behavior. A GSA member must identify as LGBTQ or as an ally, and those who present unsupportive behavior will immediately be banned from the group and reported to administration. One other important ground rule to consider is related to language. Will your group adopt gender-neutral language? Allow group members to share their preferred gender pronouns.
- Name it. Along with your group’s purpose and function, you may also consider what you’d like to name it. The acronym GSA has traditionally stood for gay-straight alliance. More recently, groups are choosing to adopt a more open title to encourage inclusivity. One suggestion is genders & sexualities alliance. There are many online resources to help with this decision, such as www.glsen.org or gsanetwork.org.
- Set goals and objectives for the year. Spend your first few meetings tackling the calendar. Nail down the days with national significance first, such as National Coming Out Day or Day of Silence, and decide on activities, supplies, fund-raising needs, and so on. Consider registering your group at gsanetwork.org to help get connected with local resources. Come up with a list of topics to focus on for the year.
- Schedule guest speakers. Students love hearing from people in the community, and guest speakers can help build a bigger support network outside of the school. When I was advising the GSA at the school where I taught, we had a parent of a transgender student come and speak. She brought up some important points about how to best support trans and nonbinary kids in the community and became a resource for the trans kids in our group.
- Keep school adults in the loop. Make sure to inform administration and school counselors of the plans your group has made. It is important for the school community to be on the same page regarding LGBTQ issues and GSA activities. School counselors, psychologists, and student services department members can also be good resources at school for LGBTQ kids. Maybe invite these adults to a meeting or have them come and speak to the group.
GSAs are important for many reasons. The school climate is always healthier when all students feel safe and respected and have access to supportive adults. An important point to remember is that sometimes LGBTQ kids have only their school community to support them. Some get kicked out of their homes or disowned by their families. This support network could save their lives.
Liz Bergren is a former teacher with 15 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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