Conservative Parents and Politicians Fight LGBTQ Youth Clubs
But GSA clubs save lives and keep kids healthy and safe
LGBTQ youth suicide rates are sky high in the United States and Canada.
Schools, particularly in rural areas, are often not safe for LGBTQ teens. Gender and Sexual Alliances (GSAs) are student-led school clubs where LGBTQ and straight/cis kids socialize together in accepting spaces. Data show that schools with active GSAs are safer and healthier for all students. Yet across the US and in Canada, conservative parents and politicians are fighting to shut GSAs down or keep kids of out of them.
Here’s a story to bring the problem to life. What you’re about to read is true, as reported in a recent New Jersey state court case —
A teenage boy, LW for short, was standing in line for lunch in his school cafeteria. Another boy jostled him, called him “gay” and “faggot,” then grabbed his genitals and “humped” him, asking, “Do you like it? Do you like it like this?” LW walked away, but the second boy followed and “humped” him again as the entire cafeteria laughed and hooted.
School staff members witnessed the homophobic bullying and did nothing. LW reported a continuing pattern of harassment and assault to school officials, but his guidance counselor responded by telling him to ‘toughen up’ and ‘turn the other cheek.’ The school took no action to protect the boy or to stop the bullying. That’s not unusual.
Anti-LGBTQ bullying in endemic in US schools
According to the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, openly LGBTQ youth often face intense harassment in school from fellow students, teachers, and school administrators. The journal cites recent studies showing that openly LGBT teens are three times more likely than straight teens to feel unsafe at school, and over 90% have been seriously harassed or assaulted in the last year.
LGBTQ students appear to suffer less bullying and victimization in schools with GSAs, even if they don’t attend any meetings.
The same studies show that school officials often ignore harassment or actually discipline the student being harassed. Commonly, they interfere with the harassed student’s attempts to create LGBTQ-safe spaces like GSAs.
School bullying is deadly, especially for LGBTQ kids
Bullying does not affect all students equally. LGBTQ students are not only more likely to be bullied, but more likely to be seriously harmed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students are 90% more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers, and much more likely to suffer serious mental health problems because of it.
But students who are bullied for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression are more significantly likely than other bullied students to experience depression and suicidal thoughts.
GSAs reduce LGBTQ stigmatization and bullying
In GSA clubs, LGBT students and their friends meet to socialize, watch movies, chat about social issues, and plan dances and events for their school. They also organize advocacy events like Day of Silence and No Name Calling Week, to bring attention to school bullying and harassment.
Data show that schools with GSAs are safer
One very large meta-study recently collected data from 15 independent studies involving approximately 63,000 teens, investigating GSAs and school bullying. Students at schools with active GSAs were 52% less likely to be verbally harassed or bullied and 30 percent less likely to experience “homophobic victimization” like being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
While suicide rates are more difficult to quantify, two of the independent studies noted significant decreases in reported suicide attempts in schools with active GSAs.
The “GSA effect” applies across the board
LGBTQ students appear to suffer less bullying and victimization in schools with GSAs, even if they don’t attend any meetings. What’s more, non-LGBTQ students ALSO report less bullying when they attend schools with active GSAs. It appears that GSA clubs foster tolerance and decrease bullying for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the US, federal law requires schools to let students form GSAs
The right of students to organize an LGBT group at school comes from the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and is reinforced by the Equal Access Act of 1984, which applies to public schools that receive federal funds. If they allow more than one non-curricular group to meet at school during non-instructional times, they must allow Gay/Straight Alliances — even if a school disapproves of or disagrees with the group’s message and goals.
In practice, US schools can and do suppress GSAs
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, school administrators frequently try to shut GSAs down or discourage students from attending. A favorite tactic is requiring parental permission to join clubs or informing parents if students have joined any club.
For students in rural, conservative areas like in Franklin County, Tennessee, this tactic has proven effective. Franklin County School Board member Adam Tucker calls parental permission policies a “tactic” to target GSAs:
Prior to January, there was never any discussion by this board, or to my knowledge, discussion among any administrative employees, about seeking approval from parents before children participate in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or P7. It’s a double standard.
But in rural Tennessee, the double standard is working. Because of parental permission policies, many teens are unable to join their school’s GSA. They know their conservative Christian parents would never grant permission. Many of them are afraid of coming out to their parents at all.
Because the school board applies the permission policy to all clubs, it’s harder to make a legal case that the GSA has been singled out — even when it clearly has been.
That conservative tactic has now spread to Canada
The Alberta provincial legislature just passed a law making it more difficult for LGBTQ teens to form or join GSAs in schools. The new law allows schools to notify parents when a student joins a GSA.
Grassroots United Conservative Party (UCP) members had demanded mandatory reporting to parents if children joined GSAs. Even though the majority UCP implemented Bill 8 differently, (allowing schools discretion to report), the opposition New Democratic Party filibustered for 40 hours, an Alberta legislature record. An NDP spokesperson says the new law “rolls back protections for kids when it comes to GSAs.”
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the law is a major setback. It includes provisions for GSAs, but it dilutes existing rules to allow schools to delay setting them up and lets teachers and administrators inform parents if their children join one.
The intent of the law is as clear as the grassroots mandate of the the party membership: Stop or slow down GSAs. Discourage teens from joining GSAs. Help parents keep their children out of GSAs.
Most Albertans say parents shouldn’t be notified when a child joins GSA, according to reporting by the CBC.
Even so, conservative Christian parents are demanding notification, just like they are in the US. The anti-LGBTQ culture wars are spreading to Canada from the United States, where they’ve been burning out of control since Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
The situation in Alberta is a fairly shocking development given Canada’s LGBT-friendly reputation. Just this past February, Forbes Magazine rated Canada as one of the best countries in the world for LGBT visitors, tied with Portugal and Sweden for first place.
LGBTQ kids deserve to be safe in school, free from bullying and assault
GSAs do a great job suppressing bullying and fostering respect and tolerance for all students. It’s important for all of us to be aware of what positive forces they’ve become across North America, and to fight to keep their good work rolling along.
All of us need to be aware of debates at our local school boards and town or city councils. If GSAs are on the agenda, we need to prepared to stand up and be counted as supporters of love and respect for all human beings, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
All of us need to let our local, state, provincial, and national political representatives know that we value GSAs, that we insist that they not be suppressed, and that parental notification is unacceptable.
Are you a student who wants help setting up a GSA in your school? Contact GLSEN and and ask for a Jump-Start Guide. Are you an educator who wants to be an ally to LGBTQ youth? Ask GLSEN for a Safe Space Kit.