A generation ago, it was the pre-Bobby, pre-crack-is-whack Whitney Houston who lyrically professed her belief that children are the future. The woman was a prophet: Today’s millennials are proving that: (A) They are no longer children; and (B) They are in fact the present. They are making each of these points via the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). The current generation of GLBT activists would do well to pay heed to the example of today’s high-schoolers.
GSAs are student-formed, student-run organizations intended to create a safe—that is, nonhostile—space for GLBT students and their allies. More times than not, contrary to stereotype and expectation, it’s the allies who do the forming of these clubs. Within the space provided, students meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation, and work to end homophobia.
The most ambitious GSAs actively seek to educate themselves and the larger school community on queer issues relating to gender identity and sexual orientation. This education usually manifests in the form of guest speakers, workshops, panel discussions, or Pride observations.
Some GLBT-themed GSA events may be no heavier than a barbecue or movie night. Once in a while, these lighter activities take on a particular kind of gravity, as in the case of gay proms or parades.
Other GSAs try another tack—attempting to inject GLBT concerns into the curriculum, the library, or the policy boards.
Many GSAs choose to affiliate formally with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national antidiscrimination confederacy. The United States is home to more than 3,000 registered GSAs, and that number is growing by the week.
Operating in a fashion similar to that of a franchise, each GSA is intended to raise national consciousness by—yes, we’re going to say it—acting locally. Chronological rallying points include the Day of Silence (an annual day of action to protest bullying and harassment of GLBT students and their supporters); No Name Calling Week (an annual week of educational activities aimed at ending bullying of all stripes); and National Coming Out Day (exactly what it sounds like).
One often-overlooked beneficiary of the safe space provided by a GSA is the high schooler who’s questioning his or her gender identity. GSAs afford such youth a secure haven with supportive and like-minded peers until they’re prepared to declare a major, sexuality-wise.
Like many things queer (or queer-friendly), GSAs often are misunderstood—or maliciously misinterpreted. Detractors ply from a place of willful and nearly perfect ignorance. GSAs falsely—and formally, in the form of lawsuits—have been accused of serving as satellites dedicated to dating, masturbation, or sex. These misinterpretations lead to the legal ebb and flow of civil court opposition.
This national trend was mirrored locally by a 2005 legal action. Two students sued Maple Grove Senior High School after its faculty refused the formation of a GSA. The alleged grown-ups claimed that the GSA in question was a noncurricular group. Surprising no one, the lawsuit and appeal ended in favor of the GSA—as is the case in every legal challenge cast against American GSAs.
Each of these challenges has been struck down by some combination of First Amendment protections and the 1984 Equal Access Act, which doesn’t allow any public school to “deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limit public forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
These laws even have countermanded administrative scorched-earth policies employed by school districts in Utah and Louisiana—that is, all student groups were banned, just to abort the formation of a particular GSA.
Further protection is proffered locally by the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in education.
Ultimately, the purpose of each GSA is support: of the student, of the faculty, of the school, and of the larger community—creating an environment where everyone can learn.
Or, as the fabulous Houston once put it, “Learning to love yourself—it is the greatest love of all.”
For more information, visit www.gaystraightalliance.org.