Before school-shooting survivor, Emma Gonzáles, burst into the public spotlight for her role in pressing U.S. legislators to tighten up gun control, she was contributing to a life-saving cause of another sort. Emma Gonzales is the president of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s gay-straight alliance (GSA).
GSAs are clubs to provide support and safety for gender and sexual minority (GSM) students, and to improve the campus climate for this demographic. The acronym GSA historically stands for Gay-Straight Alliance, but has been updated by some to mean Genders & Sexualities Alliance, a more accurate reflection of the youth running them. Allies are usually invited to participate, providing an outlet for heterosexual, cisgender students and faculty to acknowledge their privilege and contribute to making schools more inclusive.
GSAs originated in American high schools in the 1980s, but have spread around the world since. These alliances change – and even save – lives. Here’s how:
Gender and sexual minority (sometimes called LGBTQ+) students are more likely than their heterosexual, cisgender peers to miss school because they feel unsafe, to achieve lower grades, and to report less support from teachers and other adults at school. Indeed, large-scale studies show that the vast majority of students who do not identify as heterosexual and cisgender are subject to frequent verbal and physical harassment and discrimination at school, at the hands of both students and faculty, based on their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Furthermore, this stigmatizing school climate leads to serious negative outcomes for GSM students, including increased risk of mental health issues and suicidality.
Fortunately, GSAs make a concrete positive impact on school climate, and can mitigate these serious risks. For example, students attending schools with a GSA reported significantly higher feelings of school belonging compared with those who attend a school without a GSA. Schools with GSAs see lower truancy rates for their GSM students. GSA presence is associated with significantly lower levels of homophobic victimization and fear of safety at school, and can improve overall GSM student well-being. In fact, the mere presence of a gay-straight alliance at school has been reported as more impactful on GSM students’ well-being than whether they had actually been a member or participated in the club in any way, so it’s worth hosting even if only a few students attend. GSAs have even been associated, in multiple studies, with lowering the suicide risk for sexual minority youth. These organizations make a difference.
Most of the studies on GSAs have been carried out in the U.S., but it stands to reason that their impact may be felt at least as strongly where they are present in international settings. Seeing as plenty of international school students are limited by language skills or cultural barriers from joining organizations in the local community, school is often the hub of social support for our expat children. Your school’s GSA may be the only option for students to meaningfully connect with other GSM children.
GSAs may be unsafe for students in some countries, where gender and sexual non-conformity is harshly penalized, so exercise caution according to your context. If you are in a place where these groups are possible, I encourage you to attend a meeting or event with your school’s GSA to show encouragement for the students running it, and for the many other children who are quietly noticing your support. If your school does not yet host a GSA (you may be surprised to learn that they do exist in conservative regions and in religious schools), this resource from GLSEN offers a how-to guide for getting started.
Tell us about your school’s GSA: what impact does the group make in the city/country where you work?
 Russell, S., Muraco, A., Subramaniam, A., & Laub, C. (2009). Youth Empowerment and High School Gay-Straight Alliances. J Youth Adolescence, 38, 891-903.
 IOM (Institute of Medicine). (2011). The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
 Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.
 HRC (Human Rights Campaign). (2012). Growing up LGBT in America.
 Hatzenbuehler, M. L. & Pachankis, J. E. (2016). Stigma and minority stress as social determinants of health among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: Research evidence and clinical implications. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 63(6), 985-997.
 Lick, D. J., Durso, L. E., & Johnson, K. L. (2013). Minority stress and physical health among sexual minorities. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(5), 521-548.
 Russell, S. T. & Joyner, K. (2001). Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 1276-1281.
 Heck, N., Flentje, A., & Cochran, B. (2011). Offsetting Risks: High School Gay-Straight Alliances and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth. School PsychologyQuarterly, 26(2), 161-174.
 Poteat, V. P., DiGiovanni, C. D., Sinclair, K. O., Koenig, B. W., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Gay-straight alliances are associated with student health: A multischool comparison of LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(2), 319-330.
 Marx, R. A. & Kettrey, H. H. (2016). Gay-straight alliances are associated with lower levels of school-based victimization of LGBTQ+ youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45, 1269-1282.
 Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., & Diaz, R. M. (2011). High school gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and young adult well-being: An examination of GSA presence, participation, and perceived effectiveness. Applied Developmental Science, 15(4), 175-185.
 Toomey, R. B., McGuire, J. K., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Heteronormativity, school climates, and perceived safety for gender nonconforming peers. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 187-196.
 Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286.
 Goodenow, C., Szalacha, L. & Westheimer, K. (2006). School support groups, other school factors, and the safety of sexual minority students. Psychology in the Schools, 43(5), 573-589.