Fostering Safe Spaces: How to Start a GSA in Your High School

Students around the world who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community often seek support and company. Educators can help by hosting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club, sometimes referred to as a Genders and Sexualities Alliance club. GSAs provide a safe, supportive space, remotely or in person, for students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, along with their cisgender allies. Read on to learn how to start a GSA high school that achieves your students' goals. Thinking of starting a GSA in another setting? These steps will work equally well in a middle school, university, or non-school community.

What Is a GSA Club? Some Key Facts

  • Unlike some clubs, the actual activities, events, and conversations in a GSA should come from the students themselves. An educator serves as an advisor and determines a safe place to meet, helps with scheduling, and coordinates with other staff when needed.
  • Sponsoring or spearheading a GSA comes with important expectations of privacy for students. It’s crucial to make sure the school understands that student privacy is expected and necessary. Each student member is entitled to privacy.
  • Many GSAs have mission statements, which advisors can encourage student members to write collectively. Advisors should encourage GSA student leaders to establish and occasionally revisit group expectations.
  • As students craft their mission statement, keep in mind that the three typical functions of a GSA are to provide support, build community, and create change. Some GSAs may opt to focus on one element more than others, such as taking steps to end homophobia and transphobia in the school.

Why Start a GSA at Your High School?

Many educators have witnessed or addressed bullying that was based on perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. More bullying—and an overall lack of acceptance and understanding—often goes on behind the scenes, whether through social media, in classrooms and hallways, or during extracurricular activities.

The stakes couldn't be higher. LGBTQ+ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide as heterosexual youth, with one in six LGBTQ+ high schoolers having “seriously considered suicide in the past year.”

Importantly, individual social-emotional health and the overall school climate—for all students—can benefit from GSAs. A 2014 study states that “heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it’s better for students’ mental health, no matter what their orientation.”

How to Get Started

A little planning can go a long way. Here are the steps to take if you or any of your students are ready to start a GSA.

  • Prepare and turn in any required club-formation paperwork.
  • Notify a school administrator that you’ll be starting a GSA.
  • Pick a meeting place. If school is remote, this means picking an online platform to connect on.
  • Advertise. Support students in figuring out the best way to advertise at your school, whether in person, remotely, or both.
  • Hold the first meeting. Consider starting with a student-led discussion about why a GSA is important. Then, get to know each other with icebreakers, establish group agreements, and determine what type of GSA the students want to be.
  • Determine when and where meetings will be held. And stick to it! Remember every time you meet to keep the focus on the students. The discussions should be about their needs, not the issues important only to you, the facilitator.

Tips for Remote and Hybrid-Environment GSAs

It is not always practical to have in-person GSAs, and this school year, it is not always possible! Fortunately, GSA members can still meet remotely. Here are some strategies to help.

  • Keep it fun! Moving anything online comes with the added challenge of keeping everyone engaged. Consider facilitating online games, asking interesting getting-to-know-you questions like “What celebrity inspires you?” or inviting presenters who have stories to share.
  • Identify the safe spaces. In person, the classroom where everyone meets becomes the safe space. At home, it can be more difficult. Encourage all members to find a place where they feel safe, even it’s a bathroom, a relative’s home, or someplace outdoors.
  • Respect comfort and privacy. For a GSA meeting, it's okay to be off camera. For some students, simply having the connection to the GSA is helpful. Encourage the chat on the remote meeting if students are unable or uncomfortable speaking freely in the remote setting.
  • Anticipate tech issues. Spotty internet connections? Frozen computers? No tech access altogether? Something is bound to go wrong, and you should prepare to make that a part of the meetings. Check in with members before meetings and look for ways for students to help each other solve problems as they come up.

For more tips, along with details on privacy, rights, and platform options, GSA Network has a full GSA Virtual Toolkit. For additional support, check out our Helpful Resources below.

Is It Legal to Start an LGBTQ+ Club at School?

Because of the sensitive nature of LGBTQ+ issues and rights, educators and students are right to be concerned about the legality of starting a GSA and the protection it receives. Fortunately, according to Lambda Legal, the law is on your side!

If you attend a public school that has other non-curricular clubs, the Equal Access Act is a federal law that states that your school cannot deny the formation of a GSA. Secondary schools that receive federal funding and allow meetings of extracurricular student clubs are prohibited from discriminating against any student group based on its viewpoint.

Moreover, it’s your First Amendment right to speak freely and to associate for expressive purposes, as long as you don't “materially and substantially” disrupt your educational environment. Your rights to free speech and association include forming a gay-straight alliance at your school. For extended support, students can register their GSA in a number of places, including through GSAFE and GSA Network.

Helpful Resources for Starting an LGBTQ+ Club at School

We at HMH believe strongly that all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, deserve a safe education in which they can thrive and see themselves. There are organizations around the world devoted to supporting school gay-straight alliances and empowering LGBTQ+ youth:

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HMH is committed to ensuring a connected culture that fosters equity for all students. See our solutions for promoting more equitable learning.

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