For LGBT High Schoolers, Gay-Straight Alliances Spell Safety

A pair of Vanderbilt University researchers found that the organizations improve campus climate for LGBT youths.
(Photo: Jon Gilbert Leavitt/Flickr)
Jul 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

High school is often viewed as the best time of your life, but thanks to discrimination and verbal and physical harassment, the teen years can be a nightmare for LGBT youths. Yet teenagers who attend schools with a gay-straight alliance don’t have to wait for graduation for things to get better.

That’s the main finding of a study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence on Monday showing that LGBT students who attend a high school with a gay-straight alliance, or GSA, are more likely to feel that they have a school community that cares about them. LGBT youths and their allies were also more motivated to stand up to homophobia on campus if there was a GSA at their school.

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“Over the last ten years, researchers have been working to better understand the roles of Gay-Straight Alliances and other youth-advocacy organizations in schools, and much of this research has focused on the ways in which GSAs may be associated with lower student reports of violence, victimization, and harassment,” Robert Marx, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Marx and fellow researcher Heather Hensman Kettrey analyzed data from 15 separate studies on high school GSAs and their effects on education and mental health. Of the nearly 63,000 high school students surveyed, they found that LGBT students attending a school with a GSA were 52 percent less likely to hear homophobic comments and 36 percent less likely to worry about their safety on campus. The presence of a GSA also made students 30 percent less likely to be victimized by their peers because of their gender or sexual identity.

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Educators have helped create safe spaces for students to discuss LGBT issues since the first GSAs were founded in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve expanded to more than 4,000 high school and college campuses nationwide. While they were initially created to help LGBT youths connect with supportive student and teacher allies, GSAs fostered a welcoming environment for a diverse group of students around the nation.

Joe Kosciw, chief research and strategy officer of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a national education organization on LGBT youth issues, applauded the role GSAs play in hostile environments.

“We find that in schools with GSAs, LGBT students are more connected to their education and community,” he told TakePart. “Schools with GSAs tend to reflect more positive attitudes toward LGBT people among the student population in general.”

Kosciw said that 50 percent of LGBT students who responded to GLSEN’s biannual survey in 2015 reported having a GSA on campus. Having more GSAs on high school campuses nationwide could help bring down the rate of harassment LGBT youths face. According to GLSEN’s data, 82 percent of LGBT youths were bullied because of their gender or sexual identity in 2011.

According to Marx, some people worry that the purpose of a GSA is to convert students to homosexuality. In February, the GSA at a high school in Tennessee became the center of a national controversy after students and community members spoke out against the club. Opponents of the GSA claimed that a “Future ISIS Members of America” club would be next and demanded that the school defend “traditional marriage.”

Other people think a high school is no place to discuss sexual or gender identity because a GSA could be a distraction from academics, Marx said. While data show that LGBT students benefit emotionally and academically from having one on campus, some folks believe a GSA impedes education. Schools are about learning, a school board member in North Carolina said in 2013, adding that allowing GSAs “will have a virtual guaranteed outcome of splitting the school and creating division.”

Marx, a former GSA adviser, told TakePart that nothing could be further from the truth in his experience.

“I’ve watched as students in my GSA helped each other with math homework, talked through problems with their friends, and offered each other the support needed to come to school each day and thrive,” Marx wrote. “GSAs, like other after-school clubs, give students a time to come together, form lasting connections, and better understand themselves and others. That is an integral part of education, and every student deserves the chance to be truly and fully themselves within the walls of their school.”

“GSAs really seem to promote positive feelings in the whole school and community, and they’re not just supportive of LGBT youth,” Kosciw said. “It raises awareness in difference and diversity, and the more people learn in school about people similar to themselves, the more they lend themselves to a more positive attitude overall.”