[I]n spite of the positive effect these groups can have in schools, some such groups have been unlawfully excluded from school grounds, prevented from forming, or denied access to school resources. These same barriers have sometimes been used to target religious and other student groups, leading Congress to pass the Equal Access Act.
--U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a June 14, 2011 letter to colleagues
Most schools in North America have sports teams. Those teams practice together six out of seven days a week so that they can perform better at competitions. Many students like to be a part of a team because they feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves. Coaches have great influence on their athletes, and students strive to do better so that they can make their coach proud. Sports fit a niche for many students and can have life-changing effects.
Besides sports, schools offer after-school activities like drama, where students can perform in plays, which provide them with an outlet for their dramatic or artistic sides. Just like with sports, we know that most of these students perform better in school. Participating in an after-school activity can help them become well-rounded, which can increase their likelihood of getting accepted to the college of their choice. In addition, it can also have life-changing effects. Everyone needs an outlet to properly deal with their emotions, strengths, and weaknesses.
The reality is that most schools offer extra activities to students so that they can flourish and become better human beings. One of the main reasons that schools exist is to prepare students for the future. If schools do this for so many of the populations of students that enter their doors, why is it that many of these schools that offer students choices do not offer gay-straight alliances (GSAs)? The answer is fairly simple. Most staff and administrators do not want to deal with the community pressure that comes with organizing such a group.
Even in the most liberal and accepting communities, there are conservative or homophobic community members who do not want their children exposed to LGBT issues. There are school officials and staff who do not think it's important to discuss LGBT issues, and they prefer a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If schools happen to be located in a highly conservative or homophobic area, they are less likely to offer a GSA. In a 2011 Education Week piece titled "Duncan Warns Schools on Banning Gay-Straight Clubs," Nirvi Shah wrote:
Although these groups have been around for more than 20 years, students attempting to create gay-straight alliances still face many hurdles. In Clovis, N.M., this year, the school board voted to ban clubs that didn't have a tie to schoolwork from meeting during the day, though their sights were set on one club in particular: a gay-straight alliance Clovis High School students wanted to form. In May, the school board relented, in part because of the threat of a lawsuit from the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Unfortunately those are the areas of the country that desperately need GSAs, because LGBT students who live there may be more likely to hear homophobic comments and feel very alone. In his June 14, 2011 letter to colleagues, Arne Duncan wrote, "Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments."
GSAs offer so much more than just a place for LGBT students to belong, although that alone is highly important. Studies show that schools with GSAs have more accepting climates and are places where students feel safe. GSAs also offer a place where straight students can come to learn about LGBT issues. In addition, if there are straight students with a gay sibling or relative, a GSA can offer a place where they can come and get a better understanding of their loved one. If a student is questioning their sexual orientation, a GSA is a great place to go and find resources that can help them in the process. Arne Duncan wrote in his 2011 letter:
Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students. By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.
Overall, GSAs are a win-win for a school system. They're a win for school administrators because they help create more inclusive high schools where everyone feels that they belong, which helps create a more accepting school climate. They help teachers and staff because they enrich the conversations these adults can have with students during class, which provides a deeper educational experience. Most importantly, they help students, whether they are gay or straight, because they create a community of learners who can help educate the whole child, which makes for a better society.
Follow Peter DeWitt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PeterMDeWitt