“I remember police protection,” the Cochrane, Alta. mother of three told HuffPost Canada, describing a less-than-jubilant atmosphere. “I remember a lot of masks, and very dark clothes.”
But last year, Moore beamed as she marched next to her 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, and her middle school Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The 2018 parade was marshalled by dozens of GSAs. Olivia joined Manachaban Middle School’s GSA in Grade 6 to support her mom.
“To see the celebration [Pride has] grown into and the beautiful glow on Olivia’s face as the whole group and their GSAs led the parade — it’s just one of my proudest moments,” Moore said.
“I think everyone should be able to make their own decisions and live by what makes them happy,” Olivia added.
WATCH: How this queer, single parent is reclaiming the word “mom.” Story continues below.
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs), also called queer-straight alliances or gender-sexuality alliances, come up often in the media, but many parents find it hard to sort through the hype to learn what they actually do — and why they’re so important.
Not that different from drama or chess club
“GSAs provide a safe space in schools where it’s okay to be different, regardless of what that difference is,” Dr. Kristopher Wells, associate professor and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University in Edmonton, told HuffPost Canada.
He notes that they’re primarily places where kids can talk about LGBTQ2-related issues, and staff are always present to keep the conversations age-appropriate and school-relevant.
“There’s been a lot of myths and misinformation that circulate around GSAs,” Wells said. “But they’re really no different than the drama club, chess club, or geography club.”
That said, they certainly have more impact than the average club.
“They change school culture,” said Wells, “and they save lives.”
GSAs do save lives
More than four per cent of teens in Canada identify as LGBTQ; and according to a Canadian research survey, 64 per cent of them reported feeling unsafe at school, while 20 per cent reported being physically harassed.
One in five non-LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed for their their perceived gender or sexual orientation. Some estimates say 33 per cent of LGB youth and 47 per cent of trans youth have attempted suicide, whereas the national youth average is seven per cent.
Research out of the University of British Columbia, however, found that schools that had GSAs for three years or more experienced reductions of both homophobic discrimination and suicidality by more than half; heterosexual boys’ suicide risk was also halved.
While it’s not clear exactly how many GSAs there are across North America, their popularity appears to be growing. The first GSA launched in Concord, Mass. in 1988, where the now-Canadian publisher and educator S. Bear Bergman was a founding member. The first GSA in Canada was formed 10 years later, at Pinetree Secondary School in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Now, Wells says, “if the school doesn’t have a GSA, I know some parents and students who wonder about whether that school is even safe.”
Why kids join GSAs
The kids who join GSAs may want to be good allies, build an accepting community, learn about themselves, or just have a safe and fun place to eat lunch.
Tobyn Neame, now a 22-year-old university student, started Calgary’s Westmount Charter School’s GSA in 2011 as one of three out gay or queer students. When Neame was in Grade 6, she knew she liked girls, not boys, and overheard peers say that lesbians should have separate change rooms; she learned school could be an unsafe place. Three years later, her GSA ensured that at least once a week, she could be herself, talk about role models like k.d. Lang, or just dish about music and TV.
“To have a space that wasn’t telling me that I need to be somewhere else, just for existing, was super-important,” Neame told HuffPost Canada.
Westmount Charter’s GSA is still going strong, but was initially met with disdain from families, Neame said.
“Some thought it was a sex club,” she said. “Like, that we were going to teach your kids to have gay sex, or were going to make your kid gay by going, or if your kid goes they’re obviously gay.”
Not only are these ideas false, she said, but they detract from a GSA’s important role in school culture and student life.
WATCH: How parents can help foster mental health in kids. Story continues below.
Olivia thought her GSA might just be LGBTQ2-related learning, but “actually, we just kind of have fun,” she said.
They banter over brown-bag lunches, read books about diversity, tie-dye T-shirts, and make new friends. The teacher-advisors create a relaxed, flexible, kid-friendly atmosphere. But the group also gets things done; through student-led initiatives like bake sales they’ve raised money to buy a button-maker, put mobile libraries around the school, and pink shirts for for each student to wear on anti-bullying day. Before Olivia’s time, the GSA also funded all-gender washrooms.
GSAs are anonymous, but not secretive
Wells says another misconception is the idea that GSAs are hiding things from people because they emphasize anonymity.
Neame’s moms were very supportive of her GSA involvement, but she emphasized it’s important that kids don’t have to tell their parents if they’re in a GSA, because parents are not always accepting.
“Mine were. But there were a lot of kids whose parents didn’t know. Half the time, those weren’t even the queer kids,” Neame said.
Between 20 to 40 per cent of homeless youth are LGBTQ2, often because of family rejection, so anonymity is pivotal. That said, even kids with accepting parents might be still putting their involvement into words, or are LGBTQ2 and aren’t ready to come out.
Last year, Olivia’s GSA won the school’s Principal’s Award. Members were told they could either stand on the stage or wait until later to accept their medals with special rainbow lanyards. Olivia went on stage.
“I don’t care if others think I’m weird for going to a GSA,” Olivia said.
“I support people and everyone who knows me knows that. And I thought it would be cool to stand in front of the school and get a medal.”
But she honours all the other reasons students had their own, private ceremonies instead. When asked why she thought her group got the award, Olivia smiled.
“Because we’re proactive, and we’re trying to make the school a better place.”