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Gay-Straight Alliances: Ground Zero for School Tolerance

No other extracurricular activity has sparked the controversy and legal challenges that the formation of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs has. What upsets communities so? Why are students, their supporters, and those who oppose them willing to take this issue to court? Education World examined the issues with club advisers, opponents, and experts. Included: Tips for promoting tolerance in schools.

"Our school community was reluctant about the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at first," Coginchaug (Connecticut) Regional High School teacher Liz Welsh told Education World. "There was concern about whether it could be in school and whether it was a legitimate extracurricular club."

Tips for Promoting Tolerance

Tips for Administrators

* Educate yourself about the needs of gay students and their families.

* Assume there are gay students, parents, and staff at your school.

* Support the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance club.

* Develop policies protecting students from harassment, violence, and discrimination based on sexuality.

* Provide personnel training on sexual-difference issues.

* Provide school and community-based counseling and support for students and families.

* Hire openly gay faculty and staff to serve as supportive role models.

* Include accurate, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information about gay issues across the curriculum.

* Update school libraries to include resources and information on gay issues.

Tips for Teachers

* Educate yourself about the needs of gay students and their families.

* Make your room a "Gay Safe Space."

* Interrupt homophobic jokes and epithets.

* Assume there are gay students in your classroom.

* Use inclusive, affirming, and gender-neutral language when referring to sexuality and human relationships.

Adapted from e-interview with Dr. Warren Blumenfeld, a professor at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and the author of "Making Colleges and Universities Safe for Gay and Lesbian Students: A Report for the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth"

"There is a lot of fear," added Candy Brickley, Welsh's colleague and GSA co-adviser in the small rural high school. "Some of the opposition comes from a concern that the club is a vehicle for recruitment into homosexuality."

"The opposition to our GSA believes that we are teaching kids how to be homosexual and promoting immorality," concurred Susan Meara, North Olmsted (Ohio) High School GSA community adviser.

"It's a way to get gay curriculum in schools," Tim Wildmon, vice president of the Mississippi-based American Family Association, a national conservative watchdog group, was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times(October 16, 2000). "We view these kinds of clubs as an advancement of the homosexual cause."

Although there are more than 700 Gay-Straight Alliance extracurricular clubs in the nation's schools, the existence of the clubs and their real or perceived agendas continue to ignite protest and controversy. Across the country, schools grapple with an issue that polarizes communities, setting religious and moral convictions against an educational mission to promote tolerance and diversity and provide support to all students.


In September 2000, the Orange (California) Unified Board of Education settled a contentious federal lawsuit stemming from its refusal to recognize the El Modena High School GSA as a legitimate student club. That month, the Salt Lake City (Utah) School District settled a lawsuit over its four-year ban on all extracurricular clubs, finally allowing the formation of a high school GSA. Similar cases were settled in favor of GSAs in Colorado and New Hampshire.

On November 7, 2000, Oregon voters defeated a ballot measure that would have required the state board of education to define and prohibit instruction that "encourages, sanctions, or promotes" homosexual or bisexual behavior. Under the measure, violators would have lost state funding. Opponents of the measure saw the proposed legislation as a threat to the GSA clubs' right to exist or to set their own agendas.

"I in no way would seek to deny anyone his or her legal rights," said Jos Solano, a Portland (Oregon) High School teacher and supporter of the defeated Oregon initiative. "If students come together to question and seek guidance to overcome their gender-identity disorders, such clubs may be of some value. Unfortunately, school homosexual clubs presently serve only to reinforce students' misdirected sexual urges. They merely offer students a place to 'affirm and celebrate' their gender-identity disorders," Solano stated. "This is very dangerous."

Some school administrators have aired concerns that GSAs make sexual minority students more visible, thereby subjecting them to increased harassment. "GSAs themselves do not subject students to increased harassment," Dr. Warren Blumenfeld, principle author of "Making Colleges and Universities Safe for Gay and Lesbian Students: A Report for the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth," told Education World. "GSAs do a great service by exposing the harassment, which in a number of ways makes it easier to eradicate."


The rights of students to form GSAs are protected under federal law, according to Defending Gay/Straight Alliances and Other Gay-Related Groups in Public Schools Under the Equal Access Act, a memo of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Any public high school that provides a meeting place during non-instructional time for even one voluntary, student-run, non-curricular club is providing a "limited open forum." Such a school is legally bound under the Federal Equal Access Act of 1984 to provide the same facilities to any extracurricular club, regardless of content. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of students to discuss what they choose, even if their views are in the minority.

According to an article in the Denver Post, on February 5, 1999, Jay Engeln, principal of Palmer High School, denied a request to form a GSA. He expressed concern in the article that if he recognized the GSA, "he would also have to recognize devil worshipers, white supremacists, and hate groups" who could potentially request to meet on campus under the same legal protection.

"More than 700 Gay-Straight Alliances have formed in schools around the country over the past five years. I have yet to hear of any neo-Nazi hate clubs, so if they pop up now, I'll suspect outside groups are behind it," David S. Buckel, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund told Education World. "Keep in mind that schools always retain their authority to prohibit groups that materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school."

According to Buckel's question-and-answer memo Defending Gay/Straight Alliances and Other Gay-Related Groups in Public Schools Under the Equal Access Act, if a group's opponents interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities, a group cannot, by this 'heckler's veto,' be prevented from meeting.


Statistics make a sad but eloquent case for school support and intervention for students who belong to sexual minorities. In a 1999 survey of 496 sexual-minority students from 32 states, Youth Speak: GLSEN's School Climate Survey, more than 90 percent sometimes or frequently heard homophobic remarks. More than a third of those students heard homophobic remarks from teachers. Two-thirds of the students experienced verbal or physical harassment at school. The Massachusetts Board of Education 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that sexual-minority students are at significantly increased risk for violence. They are three times more likely to be the victims of weapon attacks at school and four times more likely to attempt suicide.

"I have seen changes in students who come to the GSA," teacher Welsh told Education World. "Kids with support move away from risk behaviors and experience school success. You can't pretend these kids don't exist. Even kids who won't step foot in the room benefit. At least they know there is a safe place; someone is acknowledging them and the issues they face."

"It is important to promote the psychological and physical health and intellectual development of all students," Dr. Arthur Lipkin of Harvard's Graduate School of Education and author of Understanding Homosexuality, Changing Schools told Education World. "We can reduce bigotry, self-hatred, and violence by increasing tolerance for sexuality differences." According to Lipkin, forming a GSA is one of the most important things a school can do to become a better, safer place for sexual-minority students.


From rural to urban settings, from east coast to west, GSAs around the country provide students with support and positive role models. The clubs channel teen energies from combating isolation to promoting education and increasing understanding.

"The Trinity (New York City) School GSA holds lunch meetings and sees films after school," teacher-adviser David Murphy told Education World. "We visit art galleries and attend national and local conferences. The students present workshops at those conferences and prepare school assembly programming."

"Spectrum [the North Olmsted Ohio GSA] meets three times per month at our off-campus location and once a month at school," said adviser Meara. "We have group discussions about confronting homophobia respectfully, and we host educational speakers. We lobbied the school board to amend the anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation [with partial success]. We have organized observances of events such as National Coming Out Day, Day of Silence [a nationally organized show of solidarity with gay youth who can not speak out], and UN World AIDS Day."

"Our group is a true gay-straight alliance," Connecticut teacher-adviser Welsh told Education World. "The kids got organized and set goals so the group would not be just a gripe session. They sent speakers to health classes in our school. They have tried, with some community opposition, to participate in a panel at Diversity Day and to organize a Day of Silence." Welsh sighed. "Some students [not in the group] were irate. It is just a lack of understanding of what kids are facing."


It is important to note that in these times of heightened fear about general school safety, sexual-minority harassment issues play a role in a dramatically disproportionate percentage of violent school incidents -- for both gay and straight students.

"Homophobic conditioning compromises the integrity of people by pressuring them to treat others badly, contrary to basic humanity," said author Blumenfeld, a University of Massachusetts (Amherst) professor of social justice education. "It compromises the entire school environment for all students and staff. When any one of us is demeaned, we are all diminished. When any group of people is scapegoated, it is ultimately everyone's concern."

Gay-Straight Alliances continue to spring up around the nation, meeting needs and serving a purpose in school communities -- gay and straight. The most effective and efficient system of chipping away at fears and misperceptions may be one meeting at a time.

At Trinity School in Manhattan, teacher David Murphy has seen initial fears of the GSA as a "dating service" or "recruitment club" being addressed through the open-door meeting and activity policy. "The more you leave the doors open, the more you desensitize language such as gay by its casual, offhand use, the more you create an environment for kids to trust one other, and the easier everyone breathes. My strategy for institutional change is that of John Wayne on acting," Murphy joked. "Like he said, 'I show up, and I try not to knock over the furniture.'"


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Leslie Bulion
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 12/19/2000; updated 06/29/2007.