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Gay-Straight Alliance in Schools

Updated July 20, 2021
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In this paper, the debate surrounding the gay-straight alliances in schools from the “Sexual Identity” passage in the Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society (What’s New in Curriculum & Instruction) textbook is investigated. Support and opposition found in previous studies will be examined to answer specific questions regarding this topic. This report will conclude with discussion of possible ideas for further research and potential contrasting approaches for this topic.

The Debate

Gay-Straight Alliance clubs were introduced to schools in the 1980’s to provide a safe place for students to meet, support each other, and talk about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (“What is a GSA”, n.d.). Sexual identity is critical to the development of a person’s identity. Each student brings their culture to school with them; this includes their sexual identity. Many who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are mocked and ridiculed on a near daily basis, which can affect their performance at school. While the climate of schools has progressively advanced to become more inclusive to those in the LGBTQ community, things are still not perfect. Are Gay-Straight Alliances necessary to improve the school environment for LGBTQ students?

Arguments For Gay-Straight Alliances

GSA clubs in schools provide peer support, leadership development, and community organizing and advocacy (“What is a GSA”, n.d.). Adolescents who are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or gender non-conforming (LGBTQ) are at an elevated risk for victimization. Homophobic victimization can have adverse effects on the development of LGBTQ youth, as homophobic victimization has been correlated with negative outcomes such as depression, substance use, and suicidality. Homophobic victimization is more strongly associated with depression and suicidal ideation than non-homophobic victimization of youth (Marx & Kettrey, 2016, p. 1269).

Those that identify as part of the LGBTQ community are at a greater risk for experiencing psychological distress. Previous studies have shown that others’ reactions to an individual’s sexuallity is quite possibly a major factor in identifying the elevated risks the members of the LGBTQ community face. As an example, LGBTQ youth who experience parental rejection upon disclosure of their sexual orientation seem to be at an elevated risk for use of illegal drugs, developing depressive symptoms, and for attempting suicide, whereas parental support has been shown to arbitrate the relationship between sexual orientation and depression and sexual orientation and suicidal thoughts in young adults (Heck, Flentje, & Cochran, 2013, p. 80).

There are many benefits for schools that have a GSA club. GSA presence is associated with significantly lower levels of youth’s self-reports of homophobic victimization, fear for safety, and hearing homophobic remarks (Marx & Kettrey, 2016, p.1269). This translates to a decrease in likelihood of students that identify as part of the LGBTQ community will use illegal substances, develop depression or symptoms of depression, or experience suicidal tendencies.

The presence of GSAs in schools may contribute to a safer atmosphere for LGBT youth by sending a message that hate speech and victimization will not be permitted. Students who attend schools where GSAs are present are much less likely to hear hate comments from peers. After the completion of a 2002 study, it was determined that students felt safer and harassed infrequently because of their involvement with the GSA (Heck, Flentje, & Cochran, 2013, p. 82). Youth are more likely to come to school and be engaged in their learning if they feel safe.

A study conducted in 2006 found that LGBT youth attending a school with a GSA appear less likely to miss school because of concerns for their physical safety when compared to peers who attend a school without a GSA (Heck, Flentje, & Cochran, 2013, p. 82). Students that attend schools that have a GSA feel more accepted and connected to their peers than those who do not go to schools with a GSA. The main goal of GSAs are to break down barriers and help students build a foundation of respect among peers and teachers. All students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation should feel accepted and supported in their schools.

It is vital to prepare students to be engaged members of society. Through GSAs in schools, students have the opportunity to be involved in raising awareness of the struggles facing LGBTQ youth, as well as involvement with civic matters and advocacy. Members of GSAs who are actively involved in the conversation at meetings, take on more leadership roles, and spend more time on projects in and relating to GSA are more likely to participate in civic matters. The considerable correlations between GSA involvement and forms of civic engagement are important to note, especially because of previous knowledge that many LGBTQ youth feel unsafe in accessing other youth programs inside or outside of school with the absence of attention to issues of diversity and social justice in such programs (Poteat, Calzo & Yoshikawa, 2018). In these ways, GSAs give students the opportunity to potentially enhance their potential to be active and engaged citizens in society.

Arguments Against Gay-Straight Alliances

While there are not many outspoken critics of GSAs as a whole, there exists debate on what ways these programs should be structured and what methods should be used to facilitate an inviting atmosphere for LGBTQ and straight students alike. Some researchers question whether GSAs, regardless of individual effectiveness, are necessary to provide students a sense of belonging. Criticism regarding participation in and the effectiveness of these groups to respond to the diverse needs of students is largely founded in the inconsistency of GSAs across the country to meet the needs of students both identifying as LGBTQ and straight allies.

Two of the biggest contributors to this inconsistency is that GSAs typically skew their effectiveness to a non-trans, white population. While data does not indicate that trans students are barred from entering into GSAs, the correlation between engagement and bettered self-identity is not nearly as strong as with non-trans members (Chong, Poteat, Yoshikawa, & Calzo, 2018). This inability to improve trans self-efficacy is mirrored outside of the GSA environment as well: “The moderating effects of transgender-queer identity were not significant with GSA engagement, transgender friendships, or transgender-related discussions” (Chong et al., 2018, p. 5). With trans youth unable to improve their self-efficacy with engagement, friendships, or discussions within the GSA, it becomes clear that these shortcomings could be problematic to the end goal of these organizations.

This is also true for GSA members who are racial/ethnic minorities where discussions of intersectional issues can be largely detrimental if the group is not well-equipped to engage in them. While these interactions can be positive if racial/ethnic minorities are in diverse environments that actively engage in these discussions, GSAs often are incapable of doing so due to their own demographic makeup or inability to foster positive engagement on issues not squarely related to the LGBTQ community (Chong et al., 2018, p. 8). These two demographic shortcomings of GSAs, supporting trans and minority youth, do vary between individual organizations. However, metadata indicates that engagement in these organizations may not be an effective means to benefit all members equally.

As a means to protect students from bullying and issues of harassment, some authors also contend that the presence of a GSA may not play an effective role. In a study conducted between LGBTQ and straight members of GSAs across the United States “found no longitudinal associations between GSA presence and participation and either measure of psychological well-being (depression or self-esteem)” (Ioverno, Belser, Baiocco, Grossman, and Russell, 2016, p. 402). Largely, while these organizations strive to act as a safe haven for bullied or emotionally vulnerable students, the data demonstrates that students’ perceptions of their own mental health have seemingly not improved when involved in a GSA.

This is largely correlated with perceptions of safety at school from bullying or other harassment where “having a GSA and participation in it… did not predict an increase or decrease in perceived school safety” (Ioverno et al., 2016, p. 403). This data contends that, regardless of actual increases in school safety that may result from GSAs, students perceive little overall changes to their own personal safety. As a result, mental health issues that stem from bullying and harassment may not be remedied by joining a GSA.

Many of the difficulties these organizations have in protecting these students stem from structural issues in how GSAs are comprised. Regardless of the objectives of any particular GSA, the means for those objects to be achieved stems from stable, consistent structures: “the indices of organizational structure… were likely critical to ensure continuity across meetings and sustainability of collaborations both within and external to the GSA” (Poteat, Calzo, & Yoshikawa, 2016, p. 1448). This means that alliances that do not have effective student engagement or are disorganized in planning meetings and events may have a negative impact on students’ experiences. This is especially true for strengthening students’ identity, as “organizational structure in the GSA moderated the extent to which support and socializing was associated with agency” (Poteat, Calzo, & Yoshikawa, 2016, p. 1445). Considering that organizational structure within GSAs varies significantly between groups, and that negative experiences may arise from poor structures, researchers suggest that it may be unjustified to treat GSAs in a monolithic, positive manner.

Compelling Reasons for Future Research

Due to their sustained abundance within the United States and the increased institutionalization surrounding them, questioning whether or not GSAs are necessary in the school system is important for educators everywhere. Rapid developments in the practices and goals of GSAs mean that further and more frequent research is necessary to analyze the effectiveness of current organizations. Over the course of as little as two years, researchers’ observations on GSA structures have changed with recent developments: from one of apprehension with techniques used to one of support for current practice (Poteat, Calso, & Yoshikawa, 2016, 2018). That is not to say that all questions surrounding GSAs have been fully resolved. Rather, it demonstrates that continued study is necessary to determine what aspects of these structures are effective and whether current developments are sustainable.

The necessity for further research is also demonstrated in the often narrow scope of current data. Some metadata analysis exists but most published studies involve data collection in isolated pockets of the country. With research collected by many of the same authors most frequently in Northeastern coastal states, current researchers contend that “future studies should include more nationally representative samples of youth in GSAs across multiple states” (Chong et al., 2018, pg. 8). For more convincing data on whether GSAs are effective able to meet the diverse needs of students, authors indicate that diversity needs to be reflected both demographically and regionally within future studies.

As LGBTQ youth continue to be bullied and harassed and suffer from mental health issues at staggering rates, the GSA question needs to be further illuminated to help this vulnerable youth. It is important for educators to support future research to find practices that can mitigate and eliminate these issues within the school system by examining if GSAs can effectively serve that role: “if GSAs are a source of protection for LGBT youth, future research with this population can, and must, be guided to better maximize this protectiveness while advancing theories that seek to explain why LGBT youth are an at-risk population in the first place” (Heck, Flentje, & Cochran, 2013, p. 88). Maximizing the protective nature of GSAs is not only reliant on future research but is also sustained on the need for implementation of these more effective practices. If GSAs are the medium in which LGBTQ support strategies can best be examined, then it is necessary to continue researching these strategies so they can be used in general education.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, issues of social justice are important in the daily lives of LGBTQ people and their families (Gollnick & Chinn, 2017, p. 111). To respond to these issues, groups such as Gay-Straight Alliances can provide students with the social support they need to cope with their own feelings and with the negative responses of some peers to their sexual orientation. Regardless of their sexual orientation, students should feel accepted and supported in school and being a member of a Gay-Straight Alliance can help with that. While some studies suggest that GSAs are not necessary to improve the school environment for LGBTQ students, the arguments for GSAs in schools seem to outweigh the arguments against Gay-Straight Alliances in regard to improving the school environment for LGBTQ students.

In order to be an effective teacher, you need more skills than just expertise in an academic field. The skills needed include being supportive and encouraging of all students and creating an accepting and safe environment. When students don’t feel supported at school, their education often lacks (Valenti & Campbell, 2009, p. 235) and they are more likely to experience problems in school. In regard to Gay Straight Alliances, a teacher can become a more effective educator by having a protective attitude toward LGBTQ youth and making a personal connection with students who deal with sexual minority issues (Valenti & Campbell, 2009, p. 234).

Educators are likely to find students in their classrooms who fall at different points along the gender and sexual identity continuum (Gollnick & Chinn, 2017, p. 113) and if a teacher does not demonstrate these skills in the classroom, an LGBTQ student may feel alone and isolated. Positive attitudes towards these groups may help students express themselves as well as make friends and connections. According to Gollnick & Chinn, 2017, “Understanding the influence of students’ cultural memberships will be important as teachers try to open up the possibilities for all of them, regardless of their gender and sexual identity. Having teachers who are supportive of LGBTQ students and who intervene on their behalf contributes greatly to successful school experiences for these children and youth” (p. 113). All in all, by encouraging and understanding sexual diversity, while also being supportive of GSA will help teachers to be more effective to their students.

While there have been many studies conducted regarding whether Gay-Straight Alliances are necessary to improve the school environment for LGBTQ students, the research is lacking in certain areas. For instance, some studies show that a GSA can benefit LGBTQ youth by deterring victimization and fear for safety, other data show that bullying and harassment may not be remedied by joining a GSA. More research should be done comparing how safe students feel in school versus how they feel their personal safety has changed after joining a GSA.

Perhaps the Gay Straight Alliance could extend to the surrounding communities and have citizen participation, so students have a safe place in and out of school. More research also needs to be done regarding GSAs supporting minority youth. To truly be effective, a Gay-Straight Alliance should benefit all of its members regardless of their race. In other words, new research should be conducted to test whether Gay-Straight Alliances equally benefit racial/ethnic minority groups compared to white youth. In the end, continued research of GSAs and their effects on students in schools across the country would be beneficial.

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Gay-Straight Alliance in Schools. (2021, Jul 20). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/gay-straight-alliance-in-schools/

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