Advice for starting a GSA
January 21, 2015 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Are you or were you part of a GSA or other LGBTQ organization in school? I'm a teacher starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at my public high school with the support of the administration.

I'd love to hear any suggestions, heads-up, and your experiences.

- What makes a GSA successful?

- What are some roadblocks to be aware of?

Some background: I'd describe the school environment as very diverse and overall progressive, although the greater community is more conservative. It's gotten a lot more open since I started there: for example, I now rarely -- if ever -- hear students use the word "gay" as an epithet. I believe most students and teachers will be neutral (tolerant) to positive (accepting and/or supportive.)

Social justice and equality are important to most teens, regardless of their own gender identity or sexual orientation. Same-sex marriage is legal in our state, and most teens have a positive relationship with someone LGBTQ in their lives, whether it's themselves, a friend, family member or celebrity they respect. You'll see queer couples at school dances and occasionally see (female) same-sex couples holding hands in the hallways. We've had a few openly transgender students before, although that's still a "new" concept for many liberal folks even.

Some specific questions:

1. Our administration would like for us to operate under the umbrella of a national organization. I'm familiar with GLSEN and GSA Alliance Network. Based on personal experience, would you recommend either or these or something else? (I plan to use PFLAG and HRC as resources rather than oversight.)

2. How do you do confidentiality right? This can get tricky because I'd like for the space to feel safe/r but I don't want to treat being queer as something people feel they must hide. I want students to feel comfortable and proud of their identities but not pressured to come out. I'd like for straight-identifying students to feel equally welcome and valued, too.

3. Any suggestions for activities? Our goal will be giving support, raising awareness, and celebrating diversity. Ultimately, it'll be by and for the students but I want to set-up a good foundation for them.

Thank you very much! I'd be glad to share more specific information via MeMail and welcome all responses.
posted by smorgasbord to Education (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
2. I think one of the primary goals should be to develop principles that are regularly referenced at each meeting, which (among other things) reinforce the personal journey everyone takes related to sexuality and/or gender identity, and the importance of protecting that privacy on behalf of other people. I think that the process of developing these principles can really help to create the right "culture" of respect for others, and should help the whole issue sort itself out in the longer run, with the principles playing the role of general reminder to keep people on track, or to be referenced should harmony need to be re-established after someone slips off the track.
posted by jph at 11:44 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you are near a university, these are wonderful questions for their LGBT center to help you answer.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:03 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

1. I've heard good things about the GSA Alliance Network, but never worked with them directly. I did a lot of work with GLSEN when I was in high school—they provided resources to help me start a GSA at my school and work to change local anti-harassment policies. I also worked with them as a student organizer around events like the National Day of Silence and helped other schools start their own GSAs. I'd highly recommend working with them.

2. Like jph said, this needs to be something that is agreed upon among the members. Maybe focus early meetings on developing shared principles as a group that everyone signs onto. Framing the early discussions, you should make sure to explicitly say things like "this club needs to be a safe space for everyone, so we should all agree that what is said in these meetings stays in these meetings so that people can feel comfortable speaking their minds here."

3. We usually chose the discussion topic for the next meeting by consensus at the prior meeting. We functioned as a hybrid support/advocacy group. We discussed things like coming out to one's family, same sex marriage legislation, DADT (holy crap, I'm getting old. It seems so recently that these things were seemingly impossible to win issues), building more inclusive sex ed curriculum, etc. We organized a few events each year, most notably Day of Silence and Trans Day of Remembrance. We had queer-themed movie nights, family-style dinners, and sometimes went to the pride parade as a group. You might consider working with other local GSAs to have a queer prom in the community or doing other collaborative events. Are there school district policies that could be improved (anti-harassment legislation, gender neutral restrooms/locker rooms, sex ed curriculum, etc.?)? If so, see if they want to make that a project of theirs.

Feel free to memail me if I can help in any way. Good luck!
posted by cheerwine at 12:52 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Former member/"officer" (inasmuch as we did anything) of a high school GSA, reporting in. It is great that you are doing this. As a queer teenager my GSA was such an awesome source of support and self-expression, and it was incredibly valuable to have a safe space, even in my very liberal district.

1. GLSEN is great. We weren't an official partner member of GLSEN but we used a lot of their materials and guides and they are on the mark. I don't know about GSA Alliance Network.

2. Our policy was that nothing discussed in the GSA ever left the room, and also that no one was ever required to disclose their LGBTQ identification. This was made explicit and announced at the beginning of discussion-centric meetings.

3. Broadly, activities at the GSA I was in fell into three categories. Discussions, where someone (this would either be the student president or you) facilitates a discussion on a decided topic/question/ current event/community issue; presentations, from either invited speakers or students with subject area knowledge; and events like Day of Silence, World AIDS Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, etc., including planning meetings for upcoming events. Another option might be watching a movie or TV show about LGBTQ topics, which may be subject to certain approvals in your school district. We also had some meetings where there was no set agenda and we just used the time as unstructured hangout/bonding time where students felt safe and comfortable to express ourselves. But having more than a couple of these in a year is too many.

And some general advice: let the students run it for the most part. You're absolutely right to step up and start it if no students have; you're going to be better than a student at testing the waters with the administration and knowing if this will float, and it's generally also a lot less intimidating for you to do this than for a student to. But when it comes to the day-to-day, the best people to run the meetings are the students themselves, who will have the best knowledge of what it's like to be an LGBTQ student in 2015. I mean, I graduated from high school in 2009 and it's already a whole different world out there. To today's teenagers I'm an old person :)
posted by capricorn at 1:37 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, we always started off meetings with at least basic introductions including name and preferred gender pronouns (sometimes with an icebreaker question too if there were a lot of new faces in the room). Please make sure to include preferred gender pronouns to make trans* students feel welcome and affirmed, but also make sure to explain what PGPs are—it's been my experience that at least one person in the room will think that the question is about what gender(s) they are attracted to, not what pronouns they self-identify with, which leads to people feeling pressure to out themselves.
posted by cheerwine at 3:05 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

In addition to the great advice above, this previous question might be helpful.
posted by dizziest at 3:42 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your awesome replies! I've included some personalized follow-up below:

jph, this is brilliant advice. The students must draft a constitution to be approved by the SGA but also having a set of principles to read at the beginning of each meeting (or when people get off track) is so practical and wise.

oceanjesse, we are near a university with a large LGBTQ presence at that but, sadly, no official organization that shows up on Google. I will look more into that and get in touch with the GSAs at other universities a bit farther away. Plus, a high school in a neighboring district has had a GSA for a few years and I am going to try to speak to their club sponsor.

cheerwine, hearing about your experiences is wonderful and so helpful. I love the PGP starter and just found this handy link to use. I will likely be in touch as things progress. And, yes, we may still have a long way to go but we have also come so far in the past few years (DADT, same-sex marriage becoming the status quo, etc.)

capricorn, you make so, so many excellent points! And I hear you on the age thing: I'm a queer woman in my early 30s but know I'm lightyears behind in terms of modern teen LGBTQ pop cultural references and issues. Yes, it will be by the students, for the students but I wanted to make sure they've got a safe and supportive environment to do so. Also, from sponsoring other student groups, I've found that the average student doesn't have a lot of leadership experience and officer training to be a important.

dizziest, that is a great link and I especially appreciated your advice there. I, too, was sad to see so many people there felt middle school was too young for a GSA; indeed, the disturbing rate of young LGBTQ teens committing suicide is beyond proof that such support is needed. (But you know all of this and more!)

I will take this advice forward and welcome any additional suggestions people would like to share!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:19 PM on January 21, 2015

One of my kids was a founding member of her high school's GSA. So I can offer the parent's perspective - not exactly what you asked for, but parts of it might be helpful.

In the beginning, it was very awkward. Most of the kids slipped through the door to the meeting room when no one was looking.
It seemed they struggled for the first several weeks just being comfortable meeting and being out with each other, much less around campus. For many of them, it was just really, really difficult.
Then they had the idea for a lunchtime event, to which they could each invite an ally from the faculty. They made a nice lunch for their guests. This was a huge success and a turning point. The teachers who were invited all showed up, and seemed very honored and took it seriously, and it gave the kids a strong feeling of being supported.
Another day, they did this again but invited student allies, and again it was a breakthrough.

Then one day, in a spontaneous event I thought was typical of high schoolers, they burst out on to the balcony of the classroom where they were meeting, which was above the lunch yard. I wish I could remember now exactly what they did, but it was something like singing and dancing and throwing glitter down on everyone. Like, they came OUT, with an exuberant bang. I guess it was their club, and they ran it their way.

One problem that came up was that there were kids who weren't out to their parents, and couldn't safely be, because the parents' reactions would have been violent.
So we had to figure out how to support those kids getting to events and so on without the parents catching on. There was some misleading of parents as to the nature of some evening activities (not that the staff necessarily knew this), with more supportive parents driving and chaperoning, and interacting in a reassuring way with the conservative parents.

As the group grew, and the kids were more out around campus, there were repercussions.

There was one boy I remember, who was bullied nearly daily as he walked home from school. Sometimes bottles were thrown at him and slurs shouted from passing cars. I worried, and argued that we should drive him, but the kids felt that would only make the situation worse. And it was their GSA. So he continued walking, and nothing too serious ever happened, and now high school is over, and it got better for him.

There was another boy who came out to his parents, and they reacted by beating him up and kicking him out. The staff member who ran the GSA ended up taking him in to her home for the remainder of his Senior year. I don't think anyone else at school knew she did it, though.

The biggest concern/regret my daughter had, and still has, is that no transgender kids ever showed up. In a student body of 3,000, she knew there should be a few. She felt that these were the kids at greatest risk, and that the GSA had failed to reach them. This is the only way in which she felt the club failed. In all other respects it was great for the kids who were in it, and helped change the culture in the school.
posted by Puddle Jumper at 9:39 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you have a good public library nearby, consider partnering with them. A good YA librarian can provide books, movies & resources, possibly even meeting space (sometimes it's nice to take a field trip), and might be able to advertise you meetings more widely or reach your demographic (bookmarks advertising your GSA in the teen LGBT books? posters in the library?). And some libraries do events that travel to other area libraries (I've seen it for books clubs, anime fests & battles of the book type events, so why not GSA events?). Each library hosts a particular event and invites all the other participating teens to join, then the next event is at another library. Great way to expand your community.
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:20 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A belated thank you to Puddle Jumper and carrioncomfort, too!

I'm glad to report that things are off to a very good start. While we definitely have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ rights and acceptance in the US (and most elsewhere), it's been awesome seeing that we've come much in even the past ten years.

Again, much gratitude and appreciation to everyone for taking the time to share your experiences, both good and difficult. I wish you all the best!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:19 PM on April 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

« Older Parenting an Anxious Kid   |   My back itches... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.