Hey! So it’s time to go back to school after a long and fun summer of hanging out with your friends. Why let the fun end? Ever thought about starting a gay-straight student alliance (GSA) in your school?
What’s a GSA?
A GSA is a school-based group run by students and supported by teachers that works to create safe, caring and inclusive spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, two-spirit, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students and their allies in schools. Typically, GSAs are designed to provide a safe space for students to meet, socialize and support one another as they discuss their feelings and experiences related to sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
GSAs are a relatively new phenomenon in North American schools. The first known GSA started in 1989 in Concord, Massachusetts. You might be surprised to know that Alberta’s first GSA was established in 2000 at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in Red Deer. Yes, you read that correctly—Red Deer!
Over 4,000 GSAs exist in the United States. In Canada, Ontario and Manitoba both have legislation supporting a student’s right to start a GSA and name it as such in their school. In Alberta, Edmonton Public Schools has a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policy, which supports students who want to start GSAs. As a result, there are over 20 GSAs in the Edmonton Public School District. The Alberta Teachers' Association has a policy encouraging school boards to support GSAs in all schools where students request them.
How Do I Start a GSA?
Here are 10 tips to help get you started:
1. Follow all school/district policies and guidelines
A GSA should be established in the same way that any other group in your school is formed. Check your student handbook or district policies to see what the school’s rules are for student groups. These rules may require you to seek the permission of a teacher and the school administration and enlist the support of other students. If you can, find lots of support and look for a diverse group of allies to help get you started.
2. Find a GSA advisor
Find a teacher, administrator or school staff member who would be willing to serve as a supportive ally for your group. If possible, try to include both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ advisors in your group. Remember, diversity will be your group’s greatest strength.
3. Speak to your school administration
Encourage your school administration team to become your allies. School administrators can work with your GSA to help demonstrate that your group is a valued and important part of the school community. Administrators also serve as an important liaison between students, teachers, parents, school boards and the larger community. Be sure to include them in your planning. Remember, if you follow all the proper procedures, a school cannot turn down your request to start a GSA!
4. Inform school counsellors and other school resource people about your GSA
School resource workers, like police officers and school counsellors, will often know of students who might benefit from your school’s GSA. School counsellors, in particular, may be an important source of support for students who need professional support and guidance. School can be a lonely and difficult experience for all youth but especially for LGBTQ youth. Your GSA can help to make a difference!
5. Develop a mission or vision statement
A guiding core statement of beliefs can help to focus your group and, in turn, demonstrate how serious and important your GSA is to the school community. Organize your GSA’s goal and value statements to include principles related to diversity, human rights and social justice. Find out what your school’s or district’s educational priorities and goals are and demonstrate how your GSA helps to live them out.
6. Find a safe meeting place
Select a safe and comfortable location in your school that is relatively private. Remember that some students may feel uncomfortable and nervous when first attending meetings. Try to create an atmosphere that accommodates all individuals and comfort levels. Safety and confidentiality should always be the primary concerns of your GSA. Choosing a meeting place right next to where the high school football team hangs out may not be a good idea. Then, again, you could always invite them to attend!
7. Advertise your group
Work with your GSA advisor to discuss the best ways of advertising your GSA. Consider having a “poster party” to design flyers announcing your group’s meetings. Remember to emphasize that all students are encouraged to attend your GSA. After all, it is a gay and straight student alliance! If posters become defaced or torn down, don’t get discouraged. Work with your advisor to use this opportunity as a “teachable moment” to talk about discrimination. The simple presence of your group’s posters and the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified can send a powerful message of inclusion and help educate students and staff about the diversity in your school.
Simply putting up posters and giving the GSA some visibility may help many students begin to feel safer at school because they will know that they and/or their families and friends are recognized as important members of the school community. Some of these students might never attend your GSA, but be assured that they will know that there is a safe and supportive space for them should they ever need it.
Make sure your posters set a positive tone for your group. Include the meeting time, location and date. Think about including a small description about what goes on at your meetings and be sure to emphasize that everyone is welcome and that their confidentiality and safety are guaranteed. If your school has a web space for student groups, consider developing a website for your GSA and advertise the web link.
8. Schedule your first meeting
Select a meeting time that is convenient for most of your participants. Revisit the group’s mission statement and brainstorm possible activities and topics of discussion for future meetings. Some GSAs hold meetings weekly, others monthly. Determine what kind of schedule will work best for your group. If your GSA has a budget, don’t forget to bring snacks to your meetings. Everyone loves free food!
9. Establish clear guidelines
Think about establishing specific ground rules for group discussions that reaffirm responsible and respectful behaviours. Reinforce the importance of straight allies in your group and make an extra effort to make your GSA welcoming to trans-identified, two-spirit, and youth of colour and/or youth with differing abilities and ethnic and class backgrounds. In addition to creating a welcoming environment, work together to develop and establish a group philosophy or mini Charter of Rights and Freedoms that can be posted and/or read at the beginning of each meeting.
Keep a positive and supportive tone in your group meetings and remember to emphasize the importance of equal participation (by students and advisors), confidentiality, safety, and the right of individuals to make mistakes and learn from them. Be clear that gossip and labels have no place in your group.
10. Plan for the future
Work with your GSA to develop an action plan that will help to make your group an active and sustainable presence in your school. Your action plan might include long and short-range goals and priorities. Possible activities could include showing LGBTQ themed movies from the National Film Board of Canada; hosting guest speakers; holding joint meetings and events with other school groups; writing articles for the school newspaper or website; networking with local LGBTQ community groups; doing web search on LGBTQ youth issues; suggesting potential LGBTQ student resources that your school library could purchase; creating bulletin board displays about LGBTQ history; starting an LGBTQ book club; inviting LGBTQ school alumni to speak to your group; and planning activities to celebrate such events as National Coming Out Day (October 11), the Day of Silence, the National Day Against Homophobia (the first Wednesday in June), the Transgender Day of Remembrance (in November) and Edmonton’s LGBTQ Pride Week. The possibilities are endless. Be creative and have fun!
Where Can I Find More Information?
Check out the following websites for more information about LGBTQ educational issues and GSAs:
In the words of that immortal Vulcan, Mr Spock, may your GSA “live long and prosper!” Still have questions? Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org .