by Sarah Rutledge Fischer
I’m a sophomore in high school, and I’m gay. I’m out, and it’s not too bad. My friends are great. There are plenty of jerks. I think that’s pretty normal. But I have a friend at a different school that has a Gay-Straight Alliance, and they get to do so much interesting stuff. I want to start one at my school, but the administration seems pretty conservative. I’m not sure it’s even allowed. Where do I start? Do I have the right to a GSA?
Ready to Build a Rainbow Bridge
Dear Bridge Builder,
Great idea! There are more than 4,000 GSAs in our nation’s schools, and for a good reason. Having a Gay-Straight Alliance (“GSA”) in a school can build community, cultivate leadership skills, and reduce discrimination among the student body. Whether you have a right to form a GSA, however, depends on whether you attend a public or private high school.
Under the Equal Access Act (“EAA,” 20 U.S.C. § 4071), schools that receive federal money and allow other student-led clubs not directly related to academics may not discriminate against any student group based on its viewpoint. That means, as long as you follow all guidelines, if your public school allows other non-academic clubs, they cannot discriminate against your request to form a GSA.
Unfortunately, if you attend a private school, your rights are much less protected. Unless your private school accepts federal funds (which is not typical), the EAA does not apply. In most private schools, your right to form a club is limited to what is provided in the contract between your parents and the school—likely not much. But don’t despair. This could be a great opportunity to hone your skills of persuasion.
Once you know your rights, the next step is to investigate your school’s policies on forming a student organization. If you can’t find the answer in your school handbook, ask your principal, administrative office, or school librarian. You will probably be required to find an advisor. If there is an out-LGBT teacher on staff or a teacher you know to be supportive of LGBT students, start there. If not, start with a teacher or administrator you like and trust. If you are in a particularly hostile community, be mindful of the risk your advisor is taking and be prepared that they may want to stay behind the scenes a bit.
Before you take any official steps, take some time to work with your advisor to write a mission statement for your proposed GSA. This will give you practice articulating the reasons a GSA is important and needed at your school, which will come in handy in
the next step.
Next, schedule a preliminary appointment with the principal or assistant principal. Approach the meeting as information gathering session, not a debate. Tell the administrator that you plan to start a GSA and explain why it would be good for the student body. If your administrator is supportive, that’s great. But if the administrator indicates that your application will be refused, stay calm and ask for reasons. If you are in a public school, respectfully remind him or her that preventing a GSA from forming is against the law under the EAA. Be polite. Take detailed notes so that you can address all concerns or objections in your application.
After the meeting, work diligently to prepare and turn in any required paperwork. Be sure to follow the rules exactly. Keep dated copies of all forms, paperwork, and emails, as well as dated notes on each conversation and meeting. If your application requires a mission statement, use it to address any concerns or objections addressed in your initial meeting.
If your GSA is approved, congratulations! It is time to get to work! And if your GSA is turned down or if the administration imposes restrictions that aren’t imposed on other clubs, stay calm, but don’t give up. It may be time to take further action. Advocacy groups like Lambda Legal (lambdalegal. org/help) and the ACLU (aclu.org/get-help-anti-lgbt- discrimination-your-school) handle situations like yours all the time and have divisions set up to provide support.
Good luck building those rainbow bridges. That should get you started.
To submit your own question, email Allie at Allie@ focusmidsouth.com. Focus Mid-South reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.
GSAs, the Equal Access Act, and Discrimination
Outright refusal to allow a GSA is not the only way a hostile administration can violate your rights under the Equal Access Act. Your school administration may be violating the Equal Access Act (EAA) if they:
• repeatedly fail to respond to your requests to start a GSA;
• refuse to provide access to the school website, public address system, or bulletin board (while providing access to other non-curricular clubs);
• require parental permission for participation in your GSA (but not for other non-curricular clubs);
• forbid you to use the term “gay” or “LGBTQ” in your name or require you to call your group a “Diversity” or “Tolerance” club;
• forbid you to use the school’s name in association with your GSA;
• prevent access to books or websites with LGBTQ information; or
• forbid you to have outside speakers (while allowing outside speakers for other non-curricular clubs).
If any of these are happening at your school, don’t get discouraged. Seek education and assistance from LGBT advocacy groups like Lambda Legal (lambdalegal. org/help) or the ACLU (aclu.org/get-help-anti-lgbt- discrimination-your-school).
Hooray! You Formed a GSA! Now What?
Congratulations! Your GSA was approved and now it is time to get started. But where do you start?
An essential first step to ensuring your GSA will best serve you and your fellow students is taking the time to discuss and decide on your GSA’s primary purpose. A GSA can serve many different purposes—a refuge from a hostile environment, a social hub, or an advocacy platform, among others. And the primary purpose of a single GSA can change over time. At your first few meetings, holding an open discussion about your GSA’s purpose is a great way to get members involved and make sure you are best serving the needs of your fellow students.
You can find more information on this topic and other resources for starting and maintaining a strong GSA at GLSEN.org. GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”) is a nonprofit devoted to championing LGBT issues in K-12 education.
Their downloadable resource guide for new GSAs (available at glsen.org/jumpstart ) covers everything from creating a mission statement and finding new members to making your organization trans-inclusive and creating youth-adult partnerships.