Palette Magazine

Gay-straight alliances make safer schools

By Andrew Printer

Toward the end of his first term, President Obama indicated that his thinking about gay marriage had evolved and that he had come to the conclusion that the union of a same-sex couple should be afforded the same rights and respect as a marriage between a man and woman. They were equal.

It’s quite possible he held this position long before he took office, but wisely waited for a majority of the population to grow comfortable with the relentless march toward greater levels of acceptance.

Many factors contributed to the undeniable sea change in public attitudes toward LGBTQ people that preceded the president’s comments and the legal rulings that followed. The proliferation of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in high school and college campuses from the mid-1980s on is certainly one of them.


We’re Going To Be Friends

Acceptance into the fabric of a school’s clubs and classes has been a bumpy road for GSAs. Even now, a scant 35 percent of high schools nationwide support this type of club. What has remained constant from the start, however, is the creation and protection of a safe space where gay and straight students can process their experiences and do the work of normalizing, perhaps even celebrating differences.

Brad Koogler is the executive director of Safe Schools South Florida, a non-profit organization that has partnered with public school systems in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties for 26 years. Created by teachers for students, the organization’s mission is to support LGBTQ students and student organizations, including gay-straight alliances.

Koogler praises the support given to LGBTQ students throughout South Florida’s varied school districts. In particular, he recognizes Broward and Miami-Dade as school districts that are national leaders in providing professional development to staff and K-12 students.

“Research indicates all students, including LGBT students, benefit when recognizable supports are in place,” Koogler says. “GSAs — along with professional development, safe zones, visible adult allies, direct support services, inclusive policies and inclusive curricula — are critical for the safety, health and academic achievement of LGBTQ students.”

Each spring Safe Schools South Florida organizes a GSA Leadership Summit, a half-day training workshop for club sponsors, those teachers dedicated to facilitating clubs and activities during lunch breaks and/or after school. In the fall, a Diversity & Empowerment gathering takes place. This event also recognizes student leaders and has a more celebratory tone.

With such a plethora of excellent support mechanisms in place for students in these trend-setting South Florida school districts, is there a need for the old fashioned, student-led, gay-straight alliance?

Koogler says yes.

“GSAs continue to play a critical role in diminishing isolation, fostering connectedness to school and understanding diversity,” he says. “In a number of cases, students involved are not out at home and so a gay-straight alliance in a familiar classroom setting is their first and only place to be themselves.”

With only 35 percent of the nation’s high schools served by a GSA or similar organization, clearly the vast majority of schools are doing without. Clubs established by bold students, utilizing existing school guidelines for any proposed extra-curricular activity are the best, most effective starting point.


We’re All In This Together

In Key West, there is one GSA at the high school and one at the middle school, a phenomenon that is gaining ground and quite telling for such a small city. According to Koogler, some elementary schools are recognizing the need for supportive, structured groups as well.

Jon Kuhn identifies as straight. He was president of the GSA at Key West High School during his senior year, three years ago.

“I participated in the GSA because it was the right thing to do. I had a gay friend who was bullied a lot in high school, and he asked me to go to a meeting with him and I said ‘yes.’ Four years later, I was president of the club.”

Kuhn adds that he did not join for any profound reason. His modesty underscores how important the alliance between gay and straight students is in effecting change.

Caspian Cassidy is the current president of Key West High School’s gay-straight alliance. He is precisely the kind of young person these student-led organizations meant to help. Cassidy began high school as Anastasia, a sensible, academically gifted girl from a troubled home. He is candid about his multiple suicide attempts, which he says had little to do with his gender issues but served to catalyze his circumstances. Thanks to his remarkable fortitude Cassidy spent his sophomore year segueing out of a relationship with a supportive boyfriend, adopting the name Caspian (note the clever continuity of his Russian heritage) and beginning the process of identifying and presenting as male

Without a family or home life that could support this intellectual, emotional and practical journey, Cassidy relied on the weekly meeting of GSA peers to process some of his experiences.


Girls & Boys

According to Koogler, in the U.S. GSAs typically adopt one of three types of roles, and as both Kuhn and Cassidy can attest, their effectiveness changes from year to year as the motivation of students and classroom sponsors ebbs and flows. The breakdown goes something like this:

Social: Creates a fun and safe place for students, on and off campuses, to meet other LGBTQ and ally students, make friends and celebrate being LGBTQ and allies.

Support: Creates a safe space for LGBTQ students to talk about their feelings, questions and the issues they face at home, school and in their everyday lives.

Activist: Focus is primarily on educating students, teachers, parents and community members as to how to create a safer and more accepting school for LGBTQ students by changing school rules and policies, training staff and students, and helping stop harassment and discrimination.

It’s too early to tell whether there is a trickle-down effect, if the new administration alters or abolishes the raft of progressive actions that quickly followed President Obama’s declared support of same-sex marriage.

Koogler says that President Donald Tump’s manner and rhetoric have spooked some students, especially after actions like his reversal of the Obama administration guideline for public schools regarding transgender students and their use of gender-specific facilities on school grounds. Many are fearful that long-awaited advances may not come to pass and that some hard-won progress will be undone. A few also wonder whether Vice President Mike Pence’s opposition to lesbian and gay protections will have an influence on public policy over time.


Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Many cities and towns have instituted human rights ordinances to ensure their communities are supported at the municipal level. In Key West, city commissioners unanimously outlawed so-called conversion therapy for children in February. Speaking before the vote took place, Commissioner Jimmy Weekley reiterated what most of the island’s residents already know:

“LGBTQ youth are born perfect, and they all deserve to grow up knowing they are celebrated and valued for exactly who they are.”

Cassidy absorbed that message via his involvement in his high school’s GSA and the sensibility of a community that enabled it. He could have fallen by the wayside or, worse, succumbed to an attempt to end his own life. Instead he has doubled-down on his resolve to become a vital, happy member of society.

He will begin college in the fall, studying to become a flavor technician in the world of food technology. He is a promising student and a budding community organizer. With the hint of a rare smile, the serious young man says what many in his community already know:

“I help make a lot of things happen.”


FOR YOUR INFORMATION is a good resource for anyone interested in learning more about GSA history and activities.