What may not be common knowledge is that every high school in the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts has a GSA. And most of the middle schools do as well. The widespread nature of these GSA clubs reflect a trend that has gained traction in recent years in schools across the country as a support system for GLBT youth. GSAs have historically stood for Gay-Straight Alliance, but over the last few years the names have shifted to be more inclusive, with many clubs identifying as Gender and Sexuality Alliance instead.
When Jason Bucklin started his position as the LGBT program coordinator and Out4Good program coordinator with Minneapolis Public Schools four years ago, there were only seven GSAs in the district. Now there are 21, making it one of the most active clubs in the district. Eleven of those are at middle schools, giving Minneapolis one of the highest numbers of middle school GSAs in the nation.
With memberships ranging from six to 40 students in Minneapolis, Bucklin says GSAs can be arranged to fit the building’s culture or students’ needs. “We see GSAs that are about support, activism, or creating social opportunities and often times we see them as a combination of those elements,” he says. “Whenever there is student interest, we encourage the creation of a GSA. Students should find an advisor and get started by building support among students and adults.”
As advisors of the GSA at Capitol Hill Middle School within the St. Paul school district, Regina Wehner and Ann Hebble feel blessed to be supported, financially and emotionally, by the district’s Out for Equity program, which strives to maintain a safe and welcoming school environment that fosters positive self esteem, respect for others, and academic success for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.
Wehner (who also works as Capitol Hill’s school counselor), says starting a GSA today is significantly easier than in years past. After securing a school-sponsored leader (like a teacher or counselor), the group must focus on a specific goal, whether social, social activism, or a small, more therapy-oriented support group. In addition, GSAs must determine when and how frequently they will meet.
“We, at CapHill, are fortunate in that we have a daily recess/lunch 45 minutes,” Wehner says. “Our GSA meets each Thursday during that time. Many schools are forced to meet after school and therefore must deal with transportation and snack issues.”
Hebble, the group’s co-advisor and an English language teacher, says there is no minimum number of participants to make a GSA a success. “When I first started Murray Middle School’s GSA three years ago, only about six students met after school each week,” she remembers. Now, the GSA has come into its own, having transitioned to a student-created name: G.L.O.W. (Gay, Lesbian, or Whatever). “At CapHill, we see an average of about 30 students per week! Keep in mind, though, that we meet during the day.”
According to information from the Human Rights Campaign’s website, 36 percent of LGBT youth participate often in Gay-Straight Alliance clubs at their schools. In an attempt to ensure the remaining 64 percent feel supported, these clubs dedicate a portion of their time to turning their schools into more welcoming environments.
And that support and need to create welcoming environments remains crucial, as during the 2014–15 school year, Wehner says the group faced some opposition. A couple of parents complained that the GSA was “recruiting gays and lesbians.” That same year, some students complained that the group shouldn’t be allowed to exist, citing religious reasons.
“Thankfully, in both of those cases, our administrators handled it and gave their full support to the group,” Wehner says. “Our biggest challenge is that we don’t have enough time with our students! There are so many projects they want to work on, and we just run out of time! What a problem, right?”
Those projects are the result of the students voting this year to be activists, creating projects that would help bring visibility to the group and make the school safe for all. Whether teaching lessons in elementary classrooms using a LGBTQ children’s book, hosting lunches with school staff, or bringing in speakers from various organizations, the middle schoolers demonstrated a passion for civil rights.
“I will say that at our particular school, there is a lot of activist energy,” Hebble says. “It’s imperative to find resources, to connect with other GSAs and share. We in St. Paul Public Schools are fortunate to have our own Out for Equity department support us and be a clearinghouse for resources.”