GSAs, or Gay-Straight Alliances, are school organizations which exist to make members of all sexual and gender orientations feel welcome and safe, primarily in the sometimes confusing and ignorant world that is high school. They can also be found in middle schools and universities, sometimes under alternate names which try to sound less gay-exclusive (see below). GSAs endeavor to educate the school community about GLBTQ issues, and create a more positive school environment that is accepting of people of any orientation.
The Gay Straight Alliance website reports that the first GSA-type club was founded in Europe over 50 years ago. Kevin Jennings, founder of GLSEN, takes credit for forming the first American GSA, circa 1988, although it's plausible that groups with similar aims existed before then. Meanwhile, GLSEN reports registering over 3000 GSAs. Other organizations such as the GSA Network claim to have helped to form and connect GSAs in 50% of California high schools alone. GSAs are also currently growing in number in Canada and elsewhere abroad.
GSAs were formed to fight the pervasive homophobia in many sectors of society, working alongside a gay movement that has grown stronger and more visible in the past few decades. Despite the modern history of gay activism, many people do not understand the implications of not simply being straight, or not even knowing what gender one really is. Ignorance breeds contempt, fear, teasing, persecution. Too many people have been lost because they did not know there was somewhere they could go. GSAs offer safe havens and like minds, and are all the stronger because they include accepting straight people in their ranks.
The existence of GSAs isn't nearly as interesting as the controversy surrounding that fact. That many people do not want to allow GSAs to meet at all -- who either misunderstand GSA's aims, or understand them fully and do not like them -- shows that GSAs have their work cut out for them. GSAs are generally protected under the 1st Amendment (freedom of assembly, freedom of expression) in United States public schools. However, sometimes they are denied school sponsorship and the ability to publicize their existence. Some schools even disband all clubs rather than be forced to let GSA continue. I can't speak for private schools, but seeing as private education is generally undertaken at one's (or one's guardian's) own will, they are under less or no obligation to allow a GSA; YMMV.
Goals of a GSA
"Isn't it just a hookup club for gay kids?"
No. Although there has been a lot of progress made toward tolerance of LGBTQ people and their lifestyles, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding coming out and being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, or just plain questioning your orientation. Furthermore, friends of LGBTQ people can also suffer discrimination and isolation. GSAs exist so that students know there is a place where they can meet other people who understand what they may be going through. If you've ever felt bullied and isolated, you will know how important this opportunity is.
GSAs try to promote positive awareness and understanding of LGBTQ issues -- from the impact of AIDS on the entire community, to just what being gay means. This is often accomplished by organizing participants in the Day of Silence, National Coming Out Day, Ally Week, and other activities. Also, "straight allies" are critically important: whether they know it or not, most people probably have a LGTBQ friend or relative, and if people see a straight person who associates with "queers," they may reconsider the impact of their own attitudes and behavior.
To put it simply, GSAs exist to prove that LGBTQ people are, indeed, everyday people like you and me. Knowing that makes it a lot harder to be hurtful and intolerant. And GSAs exist to reassure their members of this, too.
"What do you do in a GSA?"
What do you normally do when you hang out with friends
? A meeting might be just sitting and chatting about school and life
. Meetings at my GSA have involved or will involve:
- Planning a float for the homecoming parade
- Discussing LGBTQ-related literature
- Watching movies, either LGBTQ-themed or just fun and flaming
- Preparing for the Day of Silence
- Making videos on GSA's purpose and LGBTQ tolerance
- Fundraising for club activities
- Advertising for Pride Prom
- Trying to recruit more members
The possibilities, quite simply, are endless.
Not everyone at GSA is gay!
Remember, one of the most important characteristics of a GSA is its incorporation of straight people who are uncomfortable with the way GLBTQ folk are sometimes treated
. And generally, it's not polite to assume someone at the club is gay -- or to ask. Would you ask such a question of a stranger you passed in the hall? No? Then why ask in the classroom?
(To illustrate that not everyone in a GSA is gay, as the treasurer of my own high school GSA, I know several friends who attend our meetings who are quite straight. But this isn't the point.
The point is that orientation makes no difference in who you are and how you should be treated. Somehow, it takes a lot of telling before people grasp this primary theme of GSA.)
"Okay, so how do I join?"
Oftentimes, school websites advertise the existence of all school organizations, including where and when they meet. This is a good first resource. You might also want to watch the halls for posters, or inquire to a counselor
. Many schools, of course, still don't have a GSA, but this is merely an opportunity for a group of friends to start their own
Having transferred from a private Catholic school to a (co-ed!) public school, one of the first things I did was seek out the GSA. Even though I've long learned to turn a deaf ear toward one-off insults, I can attest that meeting and knowing so many supportive friends and faculty brightens one's mood a lot. If you're in school and looking for support, companionship, and friendship -- doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, boy or girl or in between -- I highly recommend joining or organizing a GSA. Oh, and as for my orientation...who cares? I would have joined regardless.
Notes and Thanks
Timeshredder pointed out the rather lacking American history I originally provided. If anyone knows of US GSAs before 1988, feel free to /msg me and I'll update and expand accordingly.
Apollyon informs me that "The local university calls their lbgtq soc 'FAB GLITTER'" -- Fetish, Allies, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Intersexed, Transgender, Transsexual Engendering Revolution. Talk about a mouthful...ooh, don't take that the wrong way...
Gay Straight Alliance - http://www.gaystraightalliance.org/
Gay-Straight Alliance Network - http://www.gsanetwork.org/
GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/student/student/index.html
ACLU lawsuits for GSAs - http://www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/12044prs20030122.html
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay_straight_alliance
GSA Network has several useful pages on finding and organizing GSAs:
California GSA directory - http://www.gsanetwork.org/directory/index.html
How to Start a GSA - http://www.gsanetwork.org/resources/start.html
Resources - http://www.gsanetwork.org/resources/index.html