by Shae Crowell (she/her/hers)

Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) are school-based, student-run clubs for LGBTQ+ and Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) youth and their allies. The first documented GSAs appeared in the late 1980s. According to a 2017 article in the Journal of School Health, “GSAs positively influence the physical, social, emotional, and academic well‐being of LGBTQ young people and their allies.”

So, What About Middle Tennessee?

Most high schools in the Nashville-Franklin-Murfreesboro metro area have them. The vast majority of middle and elementary schools don’t, as the Equal Access Act of 1984 only covers secondary schools (high schools), not primary schools (K-6). Although there are a few GSAs in Davidson County middle schools, there’s a real gap in organizations to support LGBTQ+ tweens throughout Tennessee.

GSAs in Rutherford, Williamson, and Davidson Counties are well received. Most public high schools in these counties have long-standing student-run GSAs with supportive faculty, sponsors and administrators that respect the law which allows the formation of these clubs in public high schools. However, high schools outside of these three counties, upon inquiry if they have GSAs, resulted in a mix of support and hostility. GSAs must be student-initiated in all cases and many teens don’t know that they have the right to do so or that in many schools the clubs must be renewed by students every year.

The benefits of having a school culture that’s actively welcoming to any and all students are immense. Students that are marginalized, made invisible, or bullied by peers or teachers have bigger learning gaps; lower achievement scores; less participation in extracurriculars; more school absences; more substance abuse; and more instances of depression, anxiety, and suicide. On the flip side, when minority students find welcoming, supportive environments, those learning; achievement; behavior; and mental health gaps disappear.

Why Youth Join GSAs

In the same 2017 article in the Journal of School Health, “A total of 3 themes describe youth‐perceived attributes of GSAs. First, youth identified GSAs as an opportunity to be members of a community, evidenced by their sense of emotional connection, support and belonging, opportunities for leadership, and fulfillment of needs. Second, GSAs served as a gateway to resources outside of the GSA, such as supportive adults and informal social locations. Third, GSAs represented safety.”

Rural vs. Suburban

In January of 2016, a battle ensued when students from Franklin County High formed a GSA. The school board was called upon by some parents, students, and outside organizations to ban the club. However, once the ACLU-TN became involved, they made it clear that all other clubs would have to disband if the GSA wasn’t allowed due to the Equal Access Act. The school board ultimately decided in favor of the GSA.

This incident shows the stark contrast between counties in Tennessee, at least in 2016. Educators involved with GSAs say things are improving for LGBTQ+ youth across the south, but especially in rural and suburban areas. The increased visibility of successful LGBTQ+ individuals and the increased and sustained accessibility of welcoming, supportive LGBTQ+ communities have changed how the youth see themselves and their futures. Full and equal participation in all aspects of society is now seen as an inalienable right, and teens are challenging barriers and living as though it’s already status quo. 

Backlash still occurs, though, against that visibility and it’s heartbreaking and painful, but it’s not a step back. The community can’t be unseen. Visibility, even with backlash, helps LGBTQ+ youth in those areas feel less isolated and more hopeful about finding a local, supportive community.  Even in areas without visible, local community, most youth still have social media access where they can find supportive and welcoming, authentic community. 

Supporting Our Youth

Teens need what they’ve always needed: structure and to feel understood, respect and trust. You don’t have to work directly with teens to provide it, either.

One of the first things that adults can do is to support and elevate the organizations that create safe space and structure for LGBTQ+ youth. You can do this with advocacy and with money. Find the sponsor of your local high school’s GSA and offer to pay for club supplies or snacks. Support local nonprofits that have programs for LGBTQ+ youth, like GLSEN Tennessee, Oasis Center, Rainbow Rutherford, Nashville in Harmony, or Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid TN. Write to local, state and federal lawmakers to oppose legislation that would hurt LGBTQ+ youth, particularly in public schools.

If you work with LGBTQ+ youth, remember that they’re the experts on themselves and youth culture. Trust and respect them when they tell you who they are, even if you don’t understand. Listen and believe them when they tell you what they’re experiencing and what they need. Give them space, time, and tools to navigate and advocate for what they need.

If you really want to get directly involved with GSA-related work, volunteer with GLSEN. Work with LGBTQ youth as they develop leadership and advocacy skills, help support the work of school faculty advisors and sponsors. GLSEN also publishes state-by-state snapshots of the state of GSAs across the country. Tennessee’s most recent is 2017 and can be found on the GLSEN website.

Covid-19 and GSAs

Most student-run clubs are probably going to operate in a virtual space, although some small clubs may meet in person with masks and social distancing. Virtual meetings do create some oversight issues, as most youth communicate through apps like Instagram and Discord. Educators aren’t allowed to use those apps with students in school settings. Creating and maintaining community through Zoom is a challenge many groups are facing, and GSAs are no exception. Students should contact their GSA facilitator to work out details on how to meet.

About the Author

Shae Crowell is a community leader currently on the board of Nashville in Harmony and Rainbow Rutherford and an activist. She is a former Rutherford Education Association president and has been a public school educator for 20+ years. 

She lives in Murfreesboro with her husband, two kids, two fur babies, and all her inner demons.