Magazine Feature

A Refuge for LGBTQ+ Young People

Student-run Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) clubs are a federally protected space for young people to survive and thrive in the increasingly hostile anti-LGBTQ+ climate in schools and across the country.
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Illustrations by Kim Salt

In a Florida school, one counselor’s caseload dropped drastically after students started a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club. Creating a space where LGBTQ+ young people felt safe and able to connect with one another mitigated the anxiety and loneliness that had brought many of them into the counselor’s office.

A community-based GSA in Rosedale, Mississippi, organized an anti-bullying campaign in response to student reports of widespread harassment at school. The campaign included awareness-raising buttons, student and teacher anti-bullying pledges and student-made posters.

These are just two examples of the varied ways Gender and Sexuality Alliances (originally called Gay-Straight Alliances when they first emerged over three decades ago) aid LGBTQ+ students in combating hostility and rejection at school. GSAs are effective in helping transgender and queer young people survive and thrive, and studies have consistently shown that the presence of a GSA results in improved academic achievement, school attachment and overall mental well-being for LGBTQ+ youth.

Nationwide, there are more than 4,000 GSAs, but over the last three years, for the first time since advocates began keeping track, that number has shrunk. In part, this reflects the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are hopefully temporary. But significantly, the decline in resources for LGBTQ+ students reflects the growing political extremism and direct threats to young people’s rights, health and safety. Mississippi, for example, barred transgender students from participating in school athletics in 2021. In 2022, Florida passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which aims to prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in school classrooms.

GSAs have increasingly come under attack in this environment. “Hostility to GSA clubs is the latest manifestation of surging, largely right-wing discontent with how schools teach about race, racism, history, gender identity and sexuality,” reported The Washington Post in June 2022. LGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous and other students of color are in the crosshairs, and for youth of color who are queer, compounded marginalization and discrimination are particularly intense.

“The vitriol is palpable,” says Paul Castillo, senior counsel and students’ rights strategist at Lambda Legal. “LGBTQ+ censorship and erasure are contributing to the hostile environment that is just sweeping across the South and districts all across the country.”

“Kids are afraid, families are afraid, teachers are afraid,” reports Ian Siljestrom, director of Equality Florida’s Safe & Healthy Schools Project.

Despite the political attacks, it is important to recognize that LGBTQ+ students have legal rights that no school is allowed to impinge upon. Foremost among these when it comes to GSAs is the Equal Access Act of 1984, which protects public secondary school students who want to form a noncurricular club, including GSAs.

Illustration of several people gathered around a table.

What Are GSAs, and Why Are They Important?

GSAs are student-initiated and student-led noncurricular clubs, just like other student clubs in schools across the United States. Because LGBTQ+ young people often face significant threats, bullying and abuse simply because of who they are, GSAs are essential spaces of refuge away from the insults and violence, where students can connect with peers who face similar struggles and can offer understanding and acceptance.

Anti-LGBTQ+ school environments are pervasive in the United States. GLSEN, an educational organization working to create safer schools for LGBTQ+ young people, conducts a biennial school climate survey that offers some chilling statistics, though numbers alone cannot adequately convey the effects of this hostility. In 2021 (the most recent survey), four out of five queer—especially trans and nonbinary—students reported feeling unsafe in school. Additionally, 76% of LGBTQ+ young people reported being verbally harassed at school, and 31% were physically harassed. Most queer students (59%) also reported that their schools had discriminatory policies or practices. And remarks like “that’s so gay” and “no homo” are ubiquitous in school hallways.

The effects of this virulently anti-LGBTQ+ school culture are severe and lasting. Academic performance suffers, affecting the likelihood of LGBTQ+ young people finishing high school and going on to college. Feelings of belonging at school are drastically eroded. Due to hostility, LGBTQ+ students have lower self-esteem and much higher rates of mental health problems like depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Queer teens are more likely than their peers to engage in risky behaviors, substance abuse and self-harm. GLSEN’s survey data shows the direct correlation between victimization at school and negative outcomes on all these indicators. Students who experienced severe harassment, for instance, were two to three times as likely to have seriously considered suicide in the past year. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health indicates just how deep this crisis is: 42% of all LGBTQ+ youth had seriously considered suicide, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth and more than half of Indigenous and Black queer youth.

GSAs are a resource—and sometimes a lifeline—for young people in this relentlessly hostile climate. According to Siljestrom, at the Florida school where caseloads decreased, the counselor noted students shared that “their outcomes at school were much more positive” after the GSA was created, “and they weren’t expressing anxiety anymore and felt comfortable at school and now had peer groups and support.”

Peer groups and support, which help build feelings of belonging in schools, are a positive function of extracurricular and noncurricular school activities in general, not just GSAs. However, according to GLSEN’s 2021 National School Climate Survey, the vast majority of LGBTQ+ students (79%) avoid school functions and activities because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Thus, GSAs are doubly vital: first, because the school climate is so hostile to queer youth, and second, because that hostility robs them of other opportunities to build the connections they need to survive.

GSAs are student-driven, so their activities vary depending on the group of students involved. A 2021 GLSEN study on GSAs revealed that general socializing is an important part of most GSAs. Other reported activities include providing emotional support to students, learning about and discussing LGBTQ+ topics, and addressing harassment and discrimination at school.

Siljestrom’s experience echoes these findings: “Sometimes it’s just, ‘We want a club after school where we can be ourselves and talk about the same things that other kids talk about without being harassed for it, whether it’s movies, music, games, whatever.’ For other kids, it’s like, ‘Hey, our environment in this school is really toxic; we want to train our teachers on how to support us.’ So, it looks like a lot of different things.”

Whatever the specifics of the particular GSA club, supporting these student-led spaces builds the “resilience and empowerment of our students,” Siljestrom adds.

Across the board, every measure of well-being for queer young people improves when a school has a GSA, resulting in a significant decrease in homophobic and transphobic speech, victimization, missed school, and levels of depression and suicidal thoughts. Self-esteem improves, along with feelings of belonging and academic performance. Crucially, these improvements are true for LGBTQ+ students whether or not they personally participate in the school’s GSA. Positive developments in school climate may be particularly important for queer youth of color overwhelmed by intersecting sources of hostility.

GSAs, in other words, are not just good for the kids who participate in them; they are good for everybody. They are good for schools and their communities.

Rights and Opposition

GSAs are protected by the Equal Access Act that requires schools to treat all noncurricular clubs the same. That means schools must provide “the same process,” explains Castillo, and also the same “access to physical spaces and communication methods. As long as the school has one noncurricular club, then it means LGBTQ+ students can form a GSA.”

“LGBTQ+ censorship and erasure are contributing to the hostile environment that is just sweeping across the South and districts all across the country.”
—Paul Castillo, Senior Counsel and Students’ Rights Strategist at Lambda Legal

GSA coverage by the Equal Access Act was definitively established in a landmark case over 20 years ago (Colín v. Orange Unified School District), but the issue is still being relitigated due to disregard for the law and the rights of LGBTQ+ youth. In 2021, a judge issued a preliminary injunction in an Indiana case, ordering the school to grant its GSA the same opportunities as other clubs.

Challenges to, and disregard for, the law are often based on “fears because of community perception that they’re ‘endorsing’ LGBTQ students,” Castillo says. Schools or districts often try to dissuade students from forming a GSA through tactics like claiming they are too short-staffed to provide a faculty sponsor or saying the GSA will be “divisive.” Once a GSA club is formed, a school may try to limit how it can communicate, for instance, by barring it from using the same bulletin board other clubs use. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll let you post on this board over here that no other club uses where no student passes,’” Castillo explains. Sometimes a school will counter the formation of a GSA by saying it is getting rid of all clubs—though Castillo points out that more often than not, it doesn’t actually shut down every club.

Despite their opposition, most of these schools and districts are aware of their responsibilities under the law. And as Castillo points out, “a lot of them will relent when it comes to advocacy letters”—that is, a letter from civil rights attorneys reminding them of their obligations.

Legal Resources

If you believe your legal rights to organize a GSA or advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in school have been affected, consider reaching out for legal support.

Under Attack and Fighting Back

Advocacy letters get sent because students are fighting for their rights and reaching out to organizations like Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or the Southern Poverty Law Center when schools oppose a GSA.

Across the country, but most notably in the South, attacks from legislators and policymakers have reached into every corner of LGBTQ+ families’ lives, including schools. In 2022 alone, over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in state legislatures, and some have been signed into law. That includes “Don’t Say Gay” laws; legislation targeting transgender youth with bans on gender-affirming health care, participation in sports and access to facilities; and restrictions on books in classrooms and libraries.

In 2022, a banner year for book bans in general, most of the targeted titles were books with LGBTQ+ themes and those addressing race and racism. Anti-LGBTQ+ violence is also on the rise, as the Colorado mass shooting at Club Q in November 2022 reminded us. The situation is especially perilous for Black, Indigenous and other LGBTQ+ young people of color, who often face added pressures and discrimination. And the combination of anti-CRT (critical race theory) legislation compounds efforts at erasure.

Not surprisingly, in this current climate, the number of GSAs has declined. In 2019, GLSEN reported that 62% of students surveyed had a GSA club at school; in 2021, that number was cut almost in half, to 35%. For students in the South, the number was 22%. “GSAs are absolutely under attack, and the young people who want to be in GSAs are absolutely under attack,” GLSEN Executive Director Melanie Willingham-Jagger said in a 2022 interview with the website Them.

Laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” are “intentionally vague so that way nobody can discern what conduct is prohibited,” says Castillo. As a result, these laws have a chilling effect on educators and schools. Some schools or districts are rolling back their anti-harassment guidance, Castillo explains, and some teachers are afraid to be GSA sponsors.

In his work with educators through the Safe & Healthy Schools Project, Siljestrom has heard teachers wonder out loud, “Can I even respond if students are using slurs in the classroom?”

The answer to that question is yes. Schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for all students. Moreover, while the anti-LGBTQ+ onslaught has intentionally stoked fears, it does not undo the basic rights that students have, including the right to a GSA.

“Clarity and calmness,” says Siljestrom, are the keys to Equality Florida’s work with school districts. Armed with specifics of what the law does and doesn’t allow and require, students, parents, educators and advocates are fighting back to protect queer students’ rights.

And LGBTQ+ youth are resisting attempts to erase them. Lambda Legal’s Help Desk gets hundreds of calls each year from students seeking legal assistance in their fight for their rights. In Florida, Siljestrom’s work with individual school districts often starts with a phone call from a parent who is not satisfied with a principal’s or school board’s efforts to address their concerns about their child’s well-being.

Building Hope for Change

GSAs help build resilience and provide the tools that LGBTQ+ young people need to fight for their rights. This is another reason—in addition to their documented benefits for students in everything from academic performance to mental health—for educators and parents to support and encourage students who have or want to have a GSA in their school.

Jeremiah Smith, co-founder and director of programming at the Rosedale Freedom Project, which sponsors a community-based GSA in Rosedale, Mississippi, talks about the value of authentic relationships, the kind of connection that Smith describes as “only possible when you know someone in their fullness.” As Smith explains, “Through their relationships with one another, [young people] get to a place where they feel hope that’s grounded in other people. They feel a sense of hope that they have people, a sense of hope that people can change, a sense of hope that spaces and dynamics can change.”

The power that kind of hope in humanity gives young people is impossible to overstate, especially amid the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from politicians and public figures. Smith recounts examples of young people who used to be overwhelmed by hopelessness and rage when they were mistreated but are now able to “step up rather than shut down” in response. “They start to handle their conflicts and struggles, which never go away, in ways that are generative,” he says, “in ways that hold on to their sense of self-worth and dignity, where they aren’t captured by a blind rage but instead articulate in their words and their actions a righteous rage that changes things.”

For LGBTQ+ young people and their adult allies, “a righteous rage that changes things” sounds like exactly what is needed at this perilous moment. GSAs are an essential model not just for the survival of queer youth but also for the transformation of the hostile environments that make GSAs necessary in the first place.

Help Young People Start a GSA

Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) clubs are critical supports for LGBTQ+ young people and a necessary part of creating safer and more inclusive school climates for all students.

Take action to support and sponsor a GSA in your school or in your community. Currently, 88% of all GSA advisors are white, 93% are cisgender and 45% are heterosexual. GLSEN’s research reveals that advisors feel most competent when they share a demographic background with their students, so increased diversity in GSA advisor ranks is an added support, particularly for Black, Indigenous and other young people of color as well as trans youth.

The following resources provide information on starting a GSA:

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