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Gay-Straight Alliances

Creating a Safer and Inclusive School Climate for Gay and Transgender Youth

SOURCE: AP/ Douglas Healey

A Gay-Straight Alliance meeting at Stratford High School in Stratford, Connecticut.

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The classic Alice Cooper song “School’s Out” always resurfaces this time of year to signal the end of another school year and the start of summer. For many schoolchildren this means the beginning of a few months of rest and relaxation. But if you’re a student who is (or perceived to be) gay or transgender, the next few months also provide a respite from bullying and harassment.*

Bullying and harassment are major problems for gay and transgender youth. As a result, gay and transgender students are suffering academically and socially. These youth deserve better. They deserve to be part of a safe and inclusive school environment where they are free to be themselves. Gay-straight alliances, or GSAs—youth-led clubs that work to make schools safer by specifically addressing antigay and antitransgender behavior—are one way to help create a climate that is inclusive of gay and transgender youth.

Having a GSA can be invaluable for gay and transgender students. A research brief from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN—a national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students—presents some positive findings about GSAs and their ability to help create safe and inclusive school climates for gay and transgender youth. Some of the brief’s major findings are:

  • Students in schools with GSAs are less likely to hear homophobic remarks in school on a daily basis than students in schools without a GSA—57 percent compared to 75 percent.
  • Gay and transgender students who attend schools with a GSA are less likely than those at a school without a GSA to report feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (61 percent vs. 68 percent) or because of their gender identity (38 percent vs. 43 percent).
  • Fifty-three percent of secondary school teachers believe that having a GSA would help make schools safer for gay and transgender students.

The benefits of GSAs also extend to academic achievement. While there is a void of national research about academic achievement for gay and transgender youth, the California Safe Schools Coalition has produced a number of research briefs that look at the impact harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has on academic achievement and school safety in California schools. According to the brief, “School Safety and Academic Achievement,” school safety is linked to a higher GPA. In particular, the California Safe Schools Coalition found:

  • Thirty-one percent of gay and transgender youth who felt safe at school received mostly A’s, compared to 18 percent who did not feel safe at school.
  • Thirty-five percent of gay and transgender youth who felt safe at school received A’s and B’s, compared to 26 percent who did not feel safe at school.
  • Eighty-three percent of gay and transgender students who strongly feel safe at school have plans to go to college, compared to 67 percent of those who do not feel safe at school.

A study from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University had similar findings to research conducted by GLSEN and the California Safe Schools Coalition, although its sample size was smaller. The study found that gay and transgender students in schools with GSAs are less likely to drop out and more likely to succeed in higher education. Additionally, these students are less likely to experience depression and more likely to have higher self-esteem.

Despite knowing the harm that bullying and harassment have on gay and transgender youth—and that GSAs can help lessen this impact—there are some schools across the country that try to prohibit youth from forming these groups. To help reduce the barriers to creating GSAs, the U.S. Department of Education issued an historic Dear Colleague letter last June that affirmed students’ rights to form GSAs. According to the letter:

…the Equal Access Act requires public schools to afford equal treatment to all noncurricular student organizations, including GSAs and other groups that focus on issues related to [gay and transgender] students, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  [School] officials need not endorse any particular student organization, but federal law requires that they afford all student groups the same opportunities to form, to convene on school grounds, and to have access to all the same resources available to other student groups.

By affirming students’ rights to form GSAs, the Department of Education is underscoring the need for safer schools in general and the particular challenges that gay and transgender students face.

The research and data cited above show that GSAs are a critical component to creating a safe and inclusive environment for gay and transgender youth. GSAs reduce levels of harassment and thereby help gay and transgender youth focus on their academics and reach their full potential. They also create inclusive environments where gay and transgender youth are able to simply be true to themselves.

Gay and transgender youth should not have to look forward to the summer because it provides a few months free from bullying and harassment. They deserve to be part of a school that makes them feel safe. A GSA will not completely eliminate bullying and harassment, but these groups do help create a climate where gay and transgender youth can thrive, learn, and grow.

Jerome Hunt is a Research Associate for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress.

*In this column, the term “gay” is used as an umbrella term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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