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What is a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA)?

Gay Straight Alliance Clubs (GSAs) weren’t around when I was in school. If they were, I’m confident that I would have joined one.

School is hard. Period. If you’re different in any way, it’s even harder.

For LGTBQ kids, it can be the worst years of your life and nobody might even know it, especially as you’re still discovering who you are.

If you’re an ally or identify as LGTBQ and want to make your school a safe place for other kids like you or you friends, starting a Gay Straight Alliance Club (GSA) is great way to start.

What’s a GSA, you ask?

A GSA is a student run and teacher supported school-based group that works to create safe, caring and inclusive space for students to meet, socialize and support one another as they discuss their feelings and experiences related to sexual and gender identity issues.

There are more than a dozen schools in Edmonton that have GSA clubs and they’re becoming more popular as students, parents and teachers learn more about LGTBQ youth and how they, as a collective, can offer support.

So, how do you start a GSA?

Dr. Kristopher Wells, Assistant Professor & Associate Director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies & Services, sent me some great resources, including:

10 Steps to Creating a GSA in Your School:

1. Follow all school/district policies and guidelines

A GSA should be established in the same way that any other group in your school is formed. Check your student handbook or district policies to see what the school’s rules are for student groups. These rules may require you to seek the permission of a teacher, the school administration, and enlist the support of other students. If you can, find lots of support and look for a diverse group of allies to help get you started.

2. Find a GSA advisor

Find a teacher, administrator or school staff member who would be willing to serve as a supportive ally for your group. If possible, try to include both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ advisors in your group. Remember, diversity will be your groups greatest strength.

3. Speak to your school administration

Encourage your school administration team to become your allies. School administrators can work with your GSA to help demonstrate that your group is a valued and important part of the school community. Administrators also serve as important liaison between Dr. Kristopher Wells, Institute for Sexual Minority Studies & Services, University of Alberta, kris.wells@ualberta.ca students, teachers, parents, school boards and the larger community – be sure to include them in your planning.

Remember, if you follow all the proper procedures, a school cannot turn down your request to start a GSA!

4. Inform school counsellors and other school resource people about your GSA

School resource workers, like police officers and school counsellors, will often know of students who might benefit from your school’s GSA. School counsellors, in particular, may be an important source of support for students who need professional support and guidance. School can be a lonely and difficult experience for all youth in general, but especially so for LGBTQ youth. Your GSA can help to make a difference!

5. Develop a mission or vision statement

A guiding core statement of beliefs can help to focus your group, and in turn, demonstrate how serious and important your GSA is to the school community. Organize your GSA’s goal and value statements to include principles related to diversity, human
rights and social justice. Find out what your school or districts educational priorities and goals are and demonstrate how your GSA helps to live them out.

6. Find a safe meeting place

Select a safe and comfortable location in your school that is relatively private. Remember that some students may feel uncomfortable and nervous when first attending meetings.

Try to create an atmosphere that accommodates all individuals and comfort levels. Safety and confidentiality should always be the primary concerns of your GSA. It might not be best to pick a meeting place right next to where the high school football team hangs out.

Then again, you could always invite them to attend!

7. Advertise your group

Work with your GSA advisor to discuss the best ways to advertise your GSA. Consider having a “poster party” to design flyers announcing your group’s meetings. Remember to emphasize that ALL students are encouraged to attend your GSA. Remember, it is a gay AND straight student alliance!

If posters become defaced or torn down, don’t get discouraged. Work with your advisor to use this opportunity as a “teachable moment” to talk about discrimination. The simple presence of your group’s posters and the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified can send a power message of inclusion and they can help to educate students and staff
about the diversity in your school.

By simply putting up posters and being visible, many students might begin to feel safer at school by knowing that they and/or their families and friends are recognized as important members of the school community. Some of these students might never attend your GSA, but be assured that they will know that there is a safe and supportive space for them should they ever need it.

Make sure your posters set a positive tone for your group. Include the meeting time, location and date. Think about including a small description about what goes on at your meetings and be sure to highlight that everyone is welcome and that their confidentiality and safety are guaranteed. If your school has a web space for student groups, consider developing a website for your GSA and advertise the weblink.

8. Schedule your first meeting

Select a meeting time that is convenient for most of your participants. Revisit the group’s mission statement and brainstorm possible activities and topics of discussion for future meetings. Some GSAs hold meetings on a weekly basis, others monthly. Determine what kind of schedule will work best for your group.

If your GSA has a budget, don’t forget to bring snacks to your meetings. Everyone loves free food!

9. Establish clear guidelines

Think about establishing specific ground rules for group discussions that reaffirm responsible and respectful behaviors. Reinforce the importance of straight allies in your group and make an extra effort to make your GSA welcoming to trans-identified, two-spirit, and youth of colour and/or youth with differing ethnic, class or ability backgrounds. In addition to creating a welcoming environment, work together to develop and establish a group philosophy or mini Charter of Rights & Freedoms that can be
posted and/or read at the beginning of each meeting.

Keep a positive and supportive tone in your group meetings and remember to emphasize the importance of equal participation (by students and advisors), confidentiality, safety, and the right of individuals to make mistakes and learn from them. Be clear that gossip and labels have no place in your group.

10. Plan for the future

Work with your GSA to develop an action plan that will help to make your group an active and sustainable presence in your school. Your action plan might include long and short-range goals and priorities. Possible activities could include:

  • LGBTQ themed movies from the National Film Board of Canada; guest speakers
  • holding joint meetings and events with other school groups
  • writing articles for the school newspaper or website
  • networking with local LGBTQ community groups; doing a web search on LGBTQ youth issues
  • visiting your school library and suggesting potential LGBTQ student resources
  • creating bulletin board displays about LGBTQ history
  • starting an LGBTQ book club
  • inviting LGBTQ school alumni to come and speak to your group or planning activities to celebrate National Coming Out Day (October 11), the Day of Silence; the National Day Against Homophobia (the first Wednesday in June), Transgender Day of Remembrance (in November); and/or Edmonton’s LGBTQ Pride Week.

The possibilities are endless.

Be creative and have fun!

Download 10 Steps to Creating a GSA in Your School and teachers, please download the GSA Guideline for Teachers and check out the ATA GSA resources. For more information on GSAs and ATA, please contact Kris Wells (kris.wells@ualberta.ca).

If you have any GSA stories you would like us to share or would like I Dig Your Girlfriend to participate with your school’s GSA, please contact us!

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