College GSA Groups: Keeping LGBTQ Students Supported and Safe

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

by Olivia Roman

“Back to school” commercials have once again begun interrupting our radio waves and social media feeds, reminding students that the much-dreaded return to the classroom is drawing closer. However, for incoming college freshmen, the start of the fall semester is an eagerly awaited time of great excitement and new opportunities, in which they can pursue their own interests and create like-minded social circles. This is an especially anticipated day for LGBT+ freshmen across the Mid-South, as the culturally diverse environment of a college campus makes it easier to find the welcoming and affirming community that their former high schools often lacked. This is the primary function of gay-straight alliances (GSAs)—to connect LGBT+ students and provide them with a sense of belonging and the freedom to express themselves, especially if they faced opposition when doing so in the past. Unfortunately, this is often the case for LGBT+ students in our part of the Bible Belt.

I have spent the majority of my undergraduate career working within the University of Memphis’ Stonewall Tigers GSA, in which most of the members are from either remote rural areas or bustling urban communities within the tri-state area. Whether they went to high school here in Memphis, off in the stretches of Dyersburg, Tennessee, or in the busy small towns of southern Mississippi, their reasons for seeking out the GSA are remarkably similar—where they were, questioning conservative views on religion and/or politics was unacceptable, and this culture of intolerance allowed homophobia to flourish and characterize much of their lives within and outside the classroom. The apathy of these communities towards those who deviate from traditional norms encourages bullying, which LGBT+ students suffer at disproportionate rates. For example, according to the 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, 70% of surveyed students have been bullied at school due to their sexual orientation, and only 26% report feeling safe in the classroom. One would think that this disparity would prompt state legislatures to enact laws and policies protecting these students from discrimination in school, however, this is not the case. Out of all the states bordering Tennessee, only Arkansas and North Carolina have adopted anti-bullying laws to protect LGBT+ students, leaving the majority of them attending school in the Mid-South and surrounding areas to figure out how to deal with harassment and ostracization alone. Even then, signing equitable bills into law does not automatically shift the sociopolitical climate of that specific state.

Rather than be discouraged to the point of inaction by the state of LGBT+ youth protections, many ambitious students have taken the initiative to create positive change in their corners of the south. Vaniel Simmons, secretary of Rhodes College GSA, recalls how his background influenced his drive to stay involved in creating safer environments for students like himself. “I came from a very small town in rural Arkansas, and when I attempted to start my own GSA there, I was told by the principal that my ideas were “too progressive” for the town. So it was very important to me that I chose a college that had a great support system for LGBT+ students.” Emily Campbell, current president of the University of Memphis’ Stonewall Tigers GSA, also cites her place of origin as a key factor in her decision to join the GSA, saying “Coming from Madison, Alabama, I didn’t feel like I had many opportunities to interact with others in the LGBT+ community until college, and I thought the University of Memphis GSA would be a great place to do that.” Both happily report that within their GSAs they’ve found strong communal environments in which they’ve been able to cultivate meaningful relationships, with Campbell describing it as “the center of [her] social and extracurricular life.”

It is not uncommon for a GSA member to refer to the organization as their “chosen family,” as it often functions as a social, emotional, and (at times) financial support system, especially for those who come from less accepting areas and/or have been shunned by their relatives due to their sexuality. However, as with families, dysfunction and disagreement occasionally arise during interactions between members of differing ideologies and perspectives, allowing the organization to revisit how they define and live out their commitments to inclusion and tolerance. Anonymous members from more isolated areas, as well as those with families that are more culturally and religiously conservative, have privately expressed that they feel as if their voices and experiences have been ignored if not outright silenced by those who are “in the loop,” with a more mainstream view of LGBT+
politics and a preference for focusing on more secular issues, such as the ever-evolving field of gender identity. Hyperfixating on topics such as this detracts attention from fostering an environment that is truly supportive for LGBT+ people of every race, class, and religious persuasion. This oftentimes is what makes it difficult for students of color to feel comfortable and represented in GSAs. Stonewall Tigers GSA’s former events coordinator, Iasia Peoples, spoke on this, saying “Many students of color who were previously involved in the GSA have told me personally that the reason they left was because they felt like the interests of the GSA’s white students were prioritized over their own. Some even didn’t return after the first meeting because they could tell that their experiences as queer people of color would not be reflected.”

An incorrect assumption sometimes made by those in identity-based organizations is that sharing one identity with the membership enables them to fully understand each members’ unique experience and the adversities they face, even if they are of different races, sexes, and walks of life. The belief that one person should be able to speak for everyone can lead to the group centering only one voice, whether or not that is their intent. Stonewall and other GSAs have found that the best first step to amending this issue and supporting members who feel as if they’re slipping through the cracks is open and honest conversation. Simmons remarks on how that has positively affected Rhodes GSA, saying “The LGBTQ+ experience is not a universal one by any means, but we had a bond and understanding with one another and the time we took to just talk with one another really fostered that sense of community.” When the membership and leadership work together to maintain open lines of communication and to create a space that values each individual, the GSA experience is much more positive and impactful for all involved.

I have yet to meet a single current or former member of a GSA who would not recommend getting involved in the group to LGBT+ students, especially incoming freshmen, myself included. Perhaps I am biased—like Campbell, the GSA became my core social group, and it is through that organization that I’ve had life-changing experiences and made lifelong friends. Former Stonewall Tigers vice-president Andrew Phifer said it best:

“My college GSA was one of the most important aspects of my life, and I’ll be eternally grateful for the people it brought into my life, the memories I made there, the life lessons I gained, the professional experience from running a student organization, and the opportunities it has presented me… I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything else. I think all college students should get involved on campus, but I think something like a GSA is so important for an incoming LGBTQ+ student. Seek out your community. It just might change your life and be the best decision you’ve ever made.”


LGBT+ STUDENTS:
GET INVOLVED WITH YOUR CAMPUS GSA!
THIS LIST WILL HELP YOU GET CONNECTED

UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS
Stonewall Tigers
WEB: memphis.campuslabs.com/engage/organization/Stonewall
TW: stonewallgsa
FB: Stonewalltigersgsa
INSTA: stonewalltigersgsa
EM: StonewallTigersGSA@gmail.com

CHRISTIAN BROTHERS UNIVERSITY
Safe Zones
cbu.instructure.com/courses/5072/pages/safe-zones
EM: kjames2@cbu.edu
Gay Straight Alliance
https://www.cbu.edu/student-life/clubs-and-organizations/
INSTA: cbugsa
EM: jhaggard@cbu.edu

RHODES COLLEGE
Rhodes Pride
Main Site: linktr.ee/RhodesGSA
FB: rhodescollegepride/
sites.rhodes.edu/lgbtq
INSTA: rhodesrainbowroom
EM: rhodescollegepride@gmail.com

SOUTHWEST TN COMM. COLLEGE
Southwest Pride
southwest.tn.edu/clubs/
Contact: Dustin Williams-
dwilliams67@southwest.tn.edu

UNIV. OF TN HEALTH SCIENCE CENTER
UTHSC Unite
FB: facebook.com/groups/UTHSC.Unite/
(closed group for UTHSC staff/faculty/ students and local healthcare providers)
WEB: uthsc.edu/unite/index.php
INSTA: uthscunite (all are welcome)
PH: 901.448.3254
EM: unite@uthsc.edu

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY
MT Lambda
facebook.com/mtlambda
Mtsu.edu/mtlambda/
Linktr.ee/mtlambda
MTSU Student Union Building
CSIL 315

VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer & Intersex Life
INSTA: vulgbtqilife/
TW: vulgbtqilife
WEB: vanderbilt.edu//lgbtqi/
EM: lgbtqi@vanderbilt.edu

UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT GROUPS
Vanderbilt Lambda Association (Lambda)
FB: VULambda
INSTA: vulambda/
TW: VULambda
Contact: vulambda@gmail.com

GRADUATE STUDENT GROUPS
Divinity School: Office of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns (GABLE)
FB: groups/GABLEatVDS/anchorlink.vanderbilt.edu/organization/gable
TW: @vds_gable
Contact: gablevanderbilt@gmail.com

SCHOOL OF NURSING
VUSNPride
WEB: nursing.vanderbilt.edu/advantage/organizations/lgbtq/index.php
Faculty Advisors: Laura Woodwick, Student Leadership, laura.c.woodwick@vanderbilt.edu; Dr. Tom Christenbery, tom.christenbery@vanderbilt.edu

ARKANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY
Arkansas State University Gender & Sexuality Alliance
TW: astate_gsa
INSTA: astategsa/
FB: astateequality/
EM: gsastate@gmail.com

NORTHWEST COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Student-led effort to create a group. Join the closed Facebook group for the latest information.
FB: groups/381786231896726/
EM: Faculty Advisor Glynda Hall, ghall@northwestms.edu

UNIV. OF MISSISSIPPI
The M-Pride and Allies Program
WEB: https://lgbtq.olemiss.edu/university-organizations/
Undergrad: UM Pride Network
FB: https://t.co/uYUeoiMw8a?amp=1
School of Law: OUTLaw
IG: outlawuofm
Faculty Advisor: cadence@olemiss.edu (Cadence Pentheny, Coordinator, LGBTQ+ Programming & Initiatives)

MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY
F.L.A.R.E. – Fostering LGBTQ+ Advocacy, Resources, and Environments
WEB: lgbtqmsu.org/
INSTA: flare_msu/orgsync.com/123582/chapter
TW: flaremsu
FB: groups/lgbtqunion/
EM: flaremsu@gmail.com

Safe Zone Advisory Board
FB: MSstateSafeZone/
EM: safezone@saffairs.msstate.edu
Mississippi State UniversityCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Broad Spectrum
WEB: broadspectrumvsa.blogspot.com/
TW: BroadSpectrumVS
FB:groups/1077157502343598/
EM: BroadSpectrumOutreach@gmail.com