Serendipitydodah – Home of the Mama Bears is one of the Mama Bears private Facebook groups for moms of LGBTQ kids. This series addresses common questions that often get asked by members of the group. Mama Bears is a whole network of groups, projects, resources and websites dedicated to supporting, educating and empowering moms of LGBTQ kids and the LGBTQ community.
GSA clubs are powerful tools that can transform schools and make them safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ youth, youth with LGBTQ parents, and straight allies. Moms of LGBTQ kids often ask how to start a GSA at their LGBTQ kid’s local middle or high school because research has shown that LGBTQ students hear fewer homophobic slurs, experience less harassment, have better attendance, and feel safer at schools that have GSAs.
The first thing to note is that GSAs or Genders & Sexualities Alliances (formally known as Gay Straight Alliances), are student-led and student-organized school clubs that aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Typically only students can start GSAs.
The three typical functions of a GSA is to support students, build community and create change.
GSAs function as a support group and provide safety and confidentiality to students who are LGBTQ as well as those who are experiencing harassment at school because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. These groups often provide one of the few safe spaces for students to express themselves.
GSAs are also social groups. They provide a sense of community and a space for LGBTQ and allied youth to build a social network where their identities are respected. Lots of GSAs organize barbecues or movie nights, organize field trips to a local LGBTQ prom or Pride parade, and attend conferences together. GSAs are a great way to build community at your school and lessen the isolation that LGBTQ+ students might otherwise experience.
In addition to providing support and community GSAs often effect change by allowing LGBTQ and straight students to work together to take on issues that affect all students, including harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
Starting a Gay/Straight Alliance
Here are the basic steps a student should take to start a GSA at their school. Chances are they’ll be able to start a GSA with no problems – after all, over 4,000 GSAs already exist in every state in the nation. Sometimes, though, administrators, parents, or other students try to stand in the way of GSAs. In case that happens we’re including information on how to handle opposition.
1. Be able to explain why you want to start a GSA. Some of the people you have to talk to along the way may ask you why you want to start a GSA. That’s not a bad question to ask yourself. Under the law, you don’t have to have a reason to start any non-curricular club. But it’s important to be able to explain your reasons for wanting a GSA. Is anti-gay harassment a problem at your school? Do LGBTQ+ students or allies want a safe, supportive space where they can be themselves? Those are both really good reasons to start a GSA.
2. Follow guidelines for setting up a club. Starting a GSA is just like starting any other school club. Get a copy of your student handbook, and look up your school’s requirements for student organizations so that you can be sure to follow the rules carefully. If it’s not in the student handbook, ask an administrator, guidance counselor, or the faculty sponsor of an existing club what steps are required to start a club. You most likely will need to find a faculty member to sponsor the club or write a constitution or mission statement. Be sure to do everything you’re supposed to do according to the school’s rules.
3. Find a sponsor. Most schools require that clubs have a faculty member as a sponsor. However, even if your school doesn’t require one, it’s not a bad idea to have one. Ask a teacher, counselor or librarian who has shown themselves to be supportive of LGBTQ+ students to be the advisor or sponsor for your GSA. A sponsor can help with things like writing a constitution and explaining why you want to start a GSA to others. Keep in mind that if your school isn’t very friendly to the idea of a GSA, some teachers who want to help may be more comfortable doing so in a more behind-the-scenes way.
4. Talk to your school principal or assistant principal and let them know that you plan to start a GSA. A supportive administrator can really help you move things along, and if they are not supportive, then at least you’ll know where you stand, which will help you figure out what to do next. If the principal or assistant principal says a GSA won’t be allowed, ask why so that you can prepare yourself to address their concerns. Be prepared to say that preventing a GSA from forming is against the law under the federal Equal Access Act if other non curricular clubs have been allowed. Be respectful and don’t get into a big fight about it in your initial meeting, but make notes of the reasons given for denial. You can take the time to respond to their arguments at a later date. See “Common Arguments Against GSAs and Why They’re Wrong” listed below if you are told you cannot start a GSA at your school.
5. Write a goal for your GSA. With the help of your sponsor, write a mission statement outlining what your GSA will and will not be. This can make it clear whether the GSA will be a club that will only be a safe space, or whether the club might get involved in activist events. Make sure to include that the GSA is all inclusive and non-discriminatory. Be sure to mention that it is for the purposes of peer education and support. Outline the type of activities you hope to have, as well as the reason a GSA will be an asset to the school and community as a whole.
6. Inform guidance counselors and social workers about the group. These individuals may know students who would be interested in joining.
7. Pick a meeting place. You may want to find a meeting place that offers some level of privacy or confidentiality. A high-profile meeting place may discourage reluctant participants.
8. Advertise. Figure out the best way to advertise at your school. It may be a combination of school bulletin announcements, fliers and word of mouth. If your fliers are defaced or torn down, don’t be discouraged! Keep putting them back up. Posting fliers with words like “end homophobia” or “discuss sexual orientation” can help raise awareness and can make other students feel safer even if they never attend a single meeting.
9. Get food. It really does help to get people to come to your meetings. People are more inclined to come to meetings when you provide food.
10. Hold your meeting. You may want to start out with a discussion about why people think the group is important. You can also brainstorm things your club would like to do.
11. Establish ground rules. Many groups create ground rules to ensure that group discussions are safe, confidential and respectful. Many groups adopt a rule that no assumptions or labels are used about a group member’s sexual orientation. This can help make straight allies feel comfortable about attending the club.
12. Plan for the future and register your club with the GSA network in your state. Develop an action plan. Brainstorm activities. Set goals for what you want to accomplish. Contact GLSEN or the GSA Network (for students in California) to connect with other GSAs in your state and learn about ways to get involved.
Common Arguments Against GSAs and Why They’re Wrong
“We can’t let our students have a club that’s about sex.”
GSAs are NOT about sex. GSAs are about valuing all people regardless of whether they’re gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. Like any other club GSAs offer students with a common interest a chance to connect and give students a respite from the day-to-day grind of school. They’re about creating a supportive space where students can be themselves without fear and making schools safer for all students by promoting respect for everyone. A GSA meeting is no more about sex than the homecoming dance or any other school-sponsored activity. And several federal courts have ruled in favor of GSAs when schools have used this as an excuse to try to stop them from forming.
“We can’t let outsiders come in and start this kind of club in our school.”
Outsiders don’t form GSAs. GSAs are started and led by students. While there are a couple of organizations that have tried to create contact lists or loose coalitions of the over 4,000 GSA clubs across the country, GSAs aren’t chapters of some larger organization. There is no big conspiracy out there trying to get its hands on the youth of America. And according to the federal Equal Access Act, students can start any kind of non-curricular club at their schools that they want.
“It’s just too controversial.”
Sure, a GSA may be controversial, but it’s illegal for schools to use that as excuse to silence them. If other students, parents, or community members are in an uproar over a GSA, the school’s responsibility is to address those people’s concerns, not shut down a group that is peacefully doing its thing just because some people don’t like it. Besides, when a GSA becomes a point of contention in a community, it really only proves the need for the GSA to exist in the first place. And again, several federal courts have ruled in favor of GSAs when schools have used this as an excuse to try to stop them from forming.
“If we let students start a GSA, then we’d have to let students form any other kind of club they want. What if they wanted to start a KKK club?”
If a club’s purpose is to harass or intimidate other students, then the club is disruptive to the educational process and the school can stop it from forming, so this kind of argument doesn’t work. Letting students start a GSA doesn’t mean all sorts of other crazy clubs are going to materialize out of thin air.
Ideas To Find New Members
Advertise your group, meetings, and activities! This can be through posters, word-of mouth and social media. Set up a table during lunch or at a club fair to share information about your group. Write an editorial or letter to the editor in your school newspaper and share it with those who make the daily school announcements too.
Bring-A-Friend Day. Every member brings one friend to a meeting.
Invite a guest speaker. Invite someone from a community group (Time Out Youth, PFLAG, ACLU, etc.), a local activist, or someone who does work in a related area.
Club Share. Build coalitions with other student clubs at your school by attending their meetings and partnering on future projects/activities.
Movies! Screen a movie with an LGBTQ theme.
Provide snacks. Everyone loves free food! It is a great way to get more people to your meetings.
Special Events! Plan special events. Have a Halloween themed event, a spirit day or a thanksgiving potluck. Once your club is going ask your members for ideas for fun themes.
GLSEN, ACLU and Time Out Youth were resources used for this post.