For nearly four decades, GSAs have been a supportive environment for LGBTQ students and community members.
Once called “Gay-Straight Alliances,” many such groups have changed the acronym to “Gender-Sexuality Alliance” to be more inclusive and reflective of its membership.
The organizations continue to play an important role in the lives of LGBTQ people throughout western Pennsylvania, especially people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
Lucas Pater is a member of his local Washington County GSA. On a recent Friday evening, he eyed a table filled with sweets.
“It’s great! There’s chocolate,” he laughed.
Twelve-year-old Lucas and his mom, Dina, were at a potluck held monthly by the Washington County GSA in Washington, Pa. The room is packed with people who identify across the LGBTQ spectrum. This diverse display of gender expression is exactly what appealed to the Pater’s about this group.
“It’s nice to have a place where I can be myself,” Lucas said. “I just came out at school and everyone’s caught on. It’s nice to be at a place where they’ve only known you as who you really are.”
By mess-ups, Lucas means being misgendered or having someone use his old name, known as a dead name. Lucas is transgender, and negative interactions like that can cause significant harm. His middle school doesn’t have a GSA, so his mother brought him here to meet people who have shared experiences.
“I know everybody here is going to be accepting and loving,” Dina said. “There’s not going to be any kind of social awkwardness for him.”
According to research from the non-profit LGBT advocacy group GLSEN, because Lucas is involved with a GSA, he’s more likely to have a sense of belonging in his community, perform well in school and have higher self-esteem. That’s important for his family, because GLSEN’s 2017 biennial National School Climate Survey found that 2017 was the first time in nearly two decades that incidents of harassment toward LGBT students — specifically those who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming — did not decrease.
“We found that there are serious consequences that anti-LGBTQ victimization and discriminatory school policies and practices have on LGBTQ students’ academic success and wellbeing,” said Nhan Truong, a senior research associate at GLSEN. Truong added that the study’s results might be due to an increase in public discourse about trans and gender non-conforming students. More discussion about bathroom access for transgender people, for example, could contribute to the rise in negative comments due to misinformation about the issue.
Changing the culture
For students growing up in this climate, GSAs can provide support and safety. That was the case for Brashear High School senior Avery Steck. Steck is transgender and was an advocate for the creation of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ policy on transgender students, which was unanimously approved by the board in 2016 after a trial run at Brashear.
“We kind of set the template for the rest of the district to develop this policy and become better at implementing it,” Steck said. Under the policy, teachers and staff must use a student’s preferred pronoun and name and keep a student’s transgender status private. The district also allows students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Now, Steck, 18, said she’s become the “GSA mom,” who younger students turn to for advice and support.
“A lot of the times these kids are just looking for somewhere they feel that they belong,” Steck said. “Sometimes they just need someone who can hear them and make them feel like their feelings and emotions are valid toward something that’s happening in their life.”
Speaking after PPS’s first Gender Inclusive Schools Communities symposium in March, Steck said she’s optimistic about the next generation of GSA members in the district.
“I’m really confident that this generation that’s coming up right now, is going to be the generation that, if not end, make homophobia, transphobia and all forms of bigotry less acceptable than they have been for ages,” Steck said.
Brashear’s GSA is nine years old and was started by a group of seniors who “wanted to make a change in the building,” according to advisor and French and Russian teacher Devin Browne. The group’s formation was a response to the common experience of hearing gay slurs and homophobic rhetoric in the hallways and classrooms. Browne said student peers rarely intervened and teachers didn’t feel comfortable stopping the language then, either.
“They wanted to make a change in that. They came up with this idea of doing presentations to all the ninth grade,” Browne said. At these presentations, GSA members dispelled stereotypes about LGBTQ people, talked about queer history and played educational games.
“They also brought in statistics about the higher likelihood of LGBT students being harassed in school, being kicked out of homes, contemplating suicide, attempting suicide,” Browne said. “So they were pretty skillful at opening kids up, 14 and 15 year old kids up, to these pretty dire statistics that are realities for LGBTQ students.”
These presentations continued for years in freshman classrooms and eventually, Browne said, the school’s culture started to shift. Homophobic incidents among students began to decline and teachers felt more empowered to intervene, too. Now, Brashear’s GSA is a visible part of the school and a popular club.
Pushing for more
Members of GSAs have always fought against homophobia and transphobia, but they’ve also focused on policy issues. When GSAs first started in the 1980s, the national conversations around LGBTQ people focused on subjects like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Now, Devin Browne said, students discuss the treatment of transgender members of the military and non-discrimination policies.
“What’s happening in our society really reflects the kind of issues that our students are talking about in schools,” Browne said.
At Brashear, the GSA organizes the Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, the Day of Silence in April and visibility campaigns, like “ally week.” The Washington County GSA board co-chair Alexandra Lynn said that group hosts drag bingo, performances by the Renaissance City Choir — the LGBT inclusive musical organization based in Pittsburgh — and, of course, monthly potlucks and get-togethers. Lynn also participates in trainings for public safety officials on how to interact with transgender and non-binary people.
“What are some ways to think about it and communicate in a more sensitive matter?” Lynn said. “The training is very well-received.”
For people involved with GSAs, public awareness of LGBTQ issues and equality are important. After all, they’re thinking about their futures. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County LGBTQ residents are protected by non-discrimination ordinances, but people in Washington County are not. According to the youth advocacy group Pennsylvania Youth Congress, 55 of the state’s 2,562 municipalities have LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances.
Local advocates in GSAs are hopeful that this is the year Pennsylvania will pass protections.