Gay/Straight Alliances in public schools teach tolerance and acceptance

Lane Levine, a coordinator in the Student Organizing Department of the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) in New York City, works primarily with GSA’s (Gay / Straight Alliances) in high schools and middle schools nationwide. 

GLSEN has been an advocate for upper level GLBT youth in public schools since 1988 and has supported the initiation of Gay / Straight Alliances in over 3,000 schools across the country.   GSA’s are organizations within public schools that are initiated and run by students, often with a little inspiration and guidance from the GSLEN. 

GSA’s provide a forum for GLBT, GLBT-exploring youth and students with GLBT family members to be able to come together with straight allies and friends. Depending on the motivation level of the school’s student-leaders, GSA’s can act as just a support group, can be a source for public education among the whole community, or can even be a way to organize social events, like “Pride Prom.” 

Levine recently spoke with O&AN about his experiences and challenges with this unique program. The idea behind the Gay / Straight Alliance is to create support for students of all sexual orientations. Levine spoke with us in great length about the support (and lack of) that has taken place since the programs’ infancy.

Despite some negative reactions from conservative school districts’ parents and administrations, GSA’s are proud to be protected by the “Equal Access Act,” which was passed in the ’80s, requiring inclusion of any non-curricular club if any are allowed. Interestingly enough, the Equal Access Act was adopted years ago in order for Bible Clubs to be allowed and is now the platform upon which GSA’s defend themselves. However, according to Levine, GSA’s are still often misperceived as “sex-clubs,” sometimes creating unnecessary hostility that the program is trying to avoid. GLSEN strives to show the GSA students how to take these obstacles and to not be discouraged, but to instead see them as an opportunity for education among their peers. 

Levine pointed out that there is not much that can be done about negativity among a small group who will backlash. But he notes, “From an anecdotal standpoint, we try to give these students the tools that they need to take action, and I’m amazed daily at what an amazing job they do when given that opportunity.”

One of the activities that the Gay / Straight Alliance is most well known for is the annual “Day of Silence,’ in which gay-friendly students vow to not speak for a whole day at school. The backlash that comes with this day sometimes includes students’ use of anti-gay tee shirts or taunting of students who are observing the vow of silence, in order to try to get them to speak. Levine said, “It is always interesting, because it puts these students in a very vulnerable position. It shows students (who might have never explored these thoughts before) how debilitating it can be to be in that position… to be singled out or discounted because of sexual orientation (or perceived sexual orientation.) This is sometimes an eye-opener for students who have never felt before that they can’t speak out how wrong the harassment is.” 

The 2007 “Day of Silence” had over 10,500 students register to participate across the country, with hundreds of thousands actually joining in on the day of. Levine is excited about these staggering numbers and at the rate of growth year after year.

In Nashville, the Day of Silence program is practiced in only a handful of high schools. One of them is Independence High School in Franklin. Michele Adams, a junior at Independence and friend of O&AN, spoke with us about her experience with the event. 

Michele said, “As a student living with Muscular Dystrophy, I know all about being outside of the ‘norm.’ Every day I struggle with acceptance, and I know several homosexual students that have a similar battle. This ‘Day of Silence’ was cool because it let closed-minded students know that you don’t have to speak out about something to be supportive of it. You just have to accept people for who they are, ya’ know?” Michele was not on the Gay/Straight Alliance board at her school for 2007, but she looks forward to it in 2008, now that she knows more about the program.

In addition to large-scale acts of inclusion like the Day of Silence, Levine also talked about programs all over the country that are started and run by single students. 

For example, a male GSA leader in Alaska started something called “Ally Week,” in which students could sign up to be “Straight Allies,” and receive rainbow-colored bracelets with the phrase “Find Another Word” on them. His school also allowed him to have an assembly, in which he explored offensive language, and what it means to be an ally. 

Levine said that these successes are invaluable to the GSA community nationwide, and he is more and more proud daily to be involved.

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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