A student’s opportunity for camaraderie and community in school shouldn’t depend on where they live. Yet, that seems to be the case for many LGBTQ students across the country.
GSAs – also known as Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender-Sexuality Alliances – are student-led clubs whose members explicitly address LGBTQ topics. In doing so, these clubs raise awareness of diverse sexual and gender identities at school, and can have an impact on overall school climate through education and advocacy efforts. They also help LGBTQ students to meet, support, and affirm one another.
Unfortunately, according to the most recent School Health Profiles (SHP) report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many LGBTQ students are left without access to this critical support. In fact, the SHP data, as reported by school principals, indicate that the distribution of GSAs across the country is far from uniform.
GSAs and similar clubs are least common in the South and Midwest. For example, you’ll find them in fewer than 1 in 10 secondary schools (9.3%) in South Dakota, and only 1 in 7 (13.9%) secondary schools in Arkansas. You’re far more likely to find an LGBTQ student club in the Northeast or West. In Massachusetts, these groups are in 6 in 10 secondary schools (60.5%). And, when looking across the U.S. as a whole, CDC data indicate that schools commonly lack a GSA. In fact, besides Massachusetts, there are only 2 other states (Connecticut and New York) in which a majority of secondary schools have any GSA or similar club.
These results corroborate some of GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey (NSCS) findings, in which we found similar patterns of GSA availability, as reported by LGBTQ students. For example, we also found GSAs to be less common in the South and the Midwest. Our data also indicated that LGBTQ students in the South and Midwest were less likely to have LGBTQ-supportive staff and administration in school. These lower levels of institutional support could contribute to the scarcity of GSAs in these areas. It may be tough for students to start an LGBTQ student club if a school’s staff and administration have given no indication that they will be receptive to the idea.
This is troubling, because NSCS data link GSAs to fewer instances of anti-LGBT remarks and a stronger sense of school community for LGBTQ students. Our From Teasing to Torment report on school climate also noted a connection between GSAs and greater feelings of school safety for both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ students alike.
For those working at a school that does not yet have a GSA, it can be crucial to demonstrate to students that they will have your support if they want to form a club. For school staff, this may mean advertising your classroom or office as a Safe Space or offering to be a GSA advisor. For school administration specifically, this may mean introducing supportive policies to your school or district.
Ultimately, however, GSAs are created and led by students. For those ready to take on that task? GLSEN has your back!
For students seeking institutional support for their GSA, check out our guide to meeting with decision makers. For step-by-step help in forming your GSA, check out our Jump Start guide, then browse our growing library of GSA resources to help to keep your club a success. Finally, be sure to stay in the loop, and always have the latest resources on hand, by registering your GSA with us.
So, where does your state stack up? Look up how common GSAs are in your state with the map below, or check out the full SHP 2016 report to read more about GSAs as well as other LGBTQ school resources.
Though they are relatively scarce, our own research has uncovered a promising trend regarding GSAs: their numbers are growing. And, with some help from the resources listed above, you can foster that growth by taking action in your local community, regardless of where you live.
Adrian Zongrone, MPH is a Research Associate at GLSEN.