Gay straight alliances: Do they help and how?

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The first gay straight alliance formed in the late 1980s. Since then, gay straight alliances have grown in number. Even though this growth has mostly taken place in North America, LGBTQI (questioning) youth groups are now starting to spring up all over the world. You may be thinking about starting your own LGBTQI youth group. Pink Families explores some of the reasons why you might set one up, and we ask whether gay and straight alliances help and how?

What is a gay straight alliance?

A gay straight alliance is a student-run club that works to create a safe space for all. Although many gay straight alliances share the same aims, they often do different things.

Some groups  work towards raising awareness of sexual and gender orientation issues. They help educate others about LGBTQI topics. Others focus more on holding social events, such as PRIDE proms (in some parts of the world proms are called formals). Some gay straight alliances are much more casual. They meet to catch up and just hang out.

Regardless of this diversity, gay straight alliances usually meet so that students can support each other and identify their allies.

How do gay straight alliances help?

Feeling safe

Around the world we have come a long way in relation to rights and acceptance for LGBTQI individuals and families. However at school many LGBTQI students still experience some form of bullying or abuse.

For example, in the US lesbian and gay students still feel unsafe (61%), they hear derogatory remarks (72%), and they are even physically harassed (40%) due to their sexual orientation. Trans and gender-queer students experience these obstacles as well. Trans-identifying students are often verbally harassed (79%).

Unfortunately, this situation seems to be similar in Canada. 75% of LGBT students in Canada may, at some point, feel unsafe. Plus, about half of their straight-identifying counterparts agree that the environment isn’t safe for LGBTQ students.

Research has shown that gay straight alliances help improve how school environments feel for students. They help create school environments that feel safe.

Positive experiences

Gay straight alliances may also affect the school experiences of those who are not members of the LGBTQI youth group. They may make their school experiences more positive.

Therefore, gay straight alliances can help shape the culture of the school in a positive way. Gay straight alliances provide a vehicle for teachers and administrators to show their support to students. They let students know that they will be supported regardless of who they are and despite the difficulties they may face.

Help with coming out

Gay straight alliances may also help people to come out. A gay straight alliance might not feel safe to join if you are a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans- identifying or intersex individual. But they might feel safe enough to join if you identify as being straight.

In this respect, gay straight alliances sometimes help straight identifying students with meeting their LGBTQI peers. These meetings can help students who are closeted or questioning to come out.

Of course not all students who join a gay straight alliance are LGBTQI, many that join are straight. Nevertheless, gay straight alliances provide a safe forum for some students to explore their sexual and or gender orientation.

Keeping healthy and staying at school

LGBTQI youth are at a greater risk of social problems. This includes higher risks of suicide, dropping out of school, drug use and depression. One study showed that gay straight alliances assist with reducing depression and reducing the rates at which students drop out of school. Gay straight alliances may therefore help students’ mood and help keep students in school.

Strong allies

Gay straight alliances may provide opportunities for straight students to help fight for better rights. This means that straight students may develop their communication, advocacy and cognitive skills through gay straight alliance activity.

LGBTQI students can sometimes feel like they have nobody on their side. Developing alliances with straight students may help them know that they have friends and allies. Feeling accepted by peers helps with healthy development.

Loads of fun

Going to school can sometimes be tough if you don’t fit in. Gay straight alliances provide students with opportunities to feel connected and supported within sometimes problematic and even hostile environments. This can help build resilience. So finally, in addition to all of the wonderful developmental benefits, gay straight alliances can also just simply be loads of fun. They simply help connect like-minded people with common interests.

References

Birkett M. Espelage DL. Koenig B. LGB and Questioning Students in Schools: The Moderating Effects of Homophobic Bullying and School Climate on Negative Outcomes. Journal of Youth & Adolescence 2009;38:989-1000.

Espelage DL. Aragon SR. Birkett M. Koenig BW. Homophobic Teasing, Psychological Outcomes and Sexual Orientation among High School Students: What Influence do Parents and Schools Have? School Psychology Review 2008;37:202-216.

Fetner T, Kush K. Gay-Straight Alliances in High Schools: Social Predictors of Early Adoption. Youth & Society 2008;40(1):114-30.

Tips on how to start a gay-straight alliance are shared in this video from The American Civil Liberties Union that defends and protects the rights and liberties of individuals in the US.

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