As right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ discussions in schools continue to spread across the country, gay-straight alliances, (GSAs) have become more and more vulnerable. GSA’s, also called gender and sexuality alliances, are often headed by a faculty advisor and have a range of missions: Some want to provide a safe space for queer students and allies, while others also engage in local advocacy.
Studies have shown that GSAs improve mental health outcomes for queer students and lead to an overall healthier school climate for all. As a safe space, GSAs play a big role in the lives of queer youth and serve as a general plus for any school community.
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As such, the relentless right-wing vendetta against LGBTQ+ youth has made GSAs more important than ever. But for students looking to start them, it can feel pretty overwhelming. The internet is host to plenty of resources on this topic but most are written from the perspective of a faculty or attorney — not the people who are day-in and day-out running these clubs.
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As a former GSA leader and queer young person myself, I understand the immense responsibility that comes with running these clubs. I spoke with one young leader about what she keeps in mind to ensure her members feel safe, supported, and happy, as well as some of the challenges they have come to expect along the way.
Understand your responsibility
“There are so many people that can benefit from a GSA,” said Thalia Harris,17. “You’re not leading a club, you’re leading a community.”
As a senior at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Harris serves as her club’s president. She says that any prospective club organizer must be really dedicated to their role in fostering a safe space, and she cautions against dropping the club mid-year. The role a GSA leader has is immense and must be taken seriously since members are relying on you.
Oftentimes, members will confide in you and look to you for guidance. I would often give my club members my personal cell number and receive late-night texts saying things like, “Hi. I don’t know what my sexuality is.” For Harris, classmates would confide in her about their parents’ disapproval in joining the club.
As a leader, be prepared to be an ally for your members.
Administrators are not always on your side — and that’s O.K.
“[School administrators] have a lack of action on issues important to us when it comes to homophobic behaviors from students,” said Harris. Despite living in a relatively accepting community, Harris says she still often hears hateful remarks from classmates.
Despite reporting such incidents to her school administrators, the homophobic classmates were still allowed to continue. It’s an “infuriating” ordeal, Harris said, but she encourages club leaders to remain steadfast.
Similalry, my school administrators would often shy away from meetings with me, and it took a lot of persistence and follow-ups to gain approval for the events we wanted to host. It takes a toll on your mental health, especially if you allow yourself to take it personally.
“Don’t bottle up your feelings,” said Harris. “It’ll only cause you to feel more stress, more anxiety, and you’ll lash out.”
Make your mental health a priority, and try to take a step back to gain some perspective, said Harris, adding that it’s good to focus on the little things, like planning fun activities or talking to others about your emotions.
Negative energy among leaders trickles down
“When board members are having an argument, it reflects in the club,” said Harris. “The group members can tell and it does the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”
Disagreements are perfectly healthy for any organization and often lead to better ideas in the long run. However, there’s a point when it becomes a conflict and adversely harms the safe space the GSA is trying to promote.
As a young person, you’re inclined to believe that everything is in black and white. But truthfully, consensus is possible in the gray area we all too often refuse to see. That’s why Harris strongly suggests bringing any conflicts to your faculty advisor before things are blown out of proportion.
“We’re only high schoolers,” said Harris. “We might be mature but here’s an adult who has more life experience than we do.”
Don’t shut out your advisor; lean on them and allow them to moderate. All it takes is a little guidance from your every so often.
Always find the joy
“Although there’s sometimes negative encounters,” said Harris. “It’s an overall positive experience in your life.”
For Harris, being involved in her local GSA meant finding a supportive and understanding community with whom she can share her experiences as a queer teenager. And while the going gets tough at times, she doesn’t let it get to her.
There will be times when you wonder if you should’ve done more, prepared more, advocated a little more; this is to be expected as a member of any organization. But queer youth are resilient and they are fighters, and running a GSA is no different.
Celebrate your wins and lean on your community of support. Take pride in the work you’re doing and the impact you are having on your community.
“It’s an incredibly rewarding experience,” said Harris. “Validation makes you feel joyful and it creates joy for a community of students.”