Academic studies have found that LGBTQ youth are at an increased risk of experiencing psychological distress compared to heterosexual youth (Heck et al., 2013). Specifically, studies have shown that LGBT youth have an increased risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobias, suicidality, non-suicidal self-injury, poorer academic performance, lower levels of school belonging, feeling unsafe at school, and problematic substance abuse (Heck, et al. 2013; Walls et al, 2013;Lindquist et al, 2013). To explain this phenomenon, scientists suggest that growing up in a excluding, heteronormative society causes increased stress which augments the risk of problematic behaviours and psychological distress (Heck, et al. 2013). As part of the heterosexist society, LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience physical, verbal, and sexual abuse which are related to negative health outcomes. Studies have shown that LGBTQ youth experience extensive hostility and victimization in hallways and other areas in schools, and that 1/3 to 2/3 of LGBTQ youth experience harassment as a common feature of their school experience (Walls et al, 2013). Other studies suggest that 84.6% of sexual minority participants experienced verbal harassment, while 40.1% reported being physically harassed at school (Lindquist et al, 2013). Further, 18% reported being assaulted, and 29.1% reported skipping class due to feeling unsafe at school (Lindquist et al, 2013). While victimization at school leads to negative health outcomes, social support at school can help LGBTQ youth achieve positive health outcomes; this means that school environment has a significant effect on the mental health of LGBTQ youth in schools (Walls et all, 2013).
GSAs contribute to the school environment in three ways. One, GSAs contribute to a safe space for LGBTQ youth by saying that abuse and disrespect will not be accepted (Heck, et al, 2013). Studies have shown that in schools with GSAs students were less likely to hear homophobic slurs compared to students attending a school without a GSA (Heck, et al, 2013). Second, other studies have shown that GSAs are associated with less in school victimization, and therefore less suicide attempts (Heck et al, 2013). Further studies have found evidence that LGBTQ youth are less likely to miss school if they attend a school with a GSA (Heck et al, 2013). Thirdly, GSAs can help LGBTQ youth find supportive teachers, which is associated with higher academic achievement and greater sense of belonging to their school (Heck et al, 2013). GSA can also help heterosexual youth become informed about LGBT issues (Heck et al, 2013). In sum, GSAs are protective factors in schools, which offsets risks for substance abuse, depression, and psychological distress among LGBTQ youth (Heck et al, 2013). GSAs do this by reducing the amount of victimization in schools and increasing students’ sense of belonging to their school (Heck et al, 2013; Walls et al, 2013). GSAs are protective factors, but they might also be catalysts that strengthen other protective factors such as school engagement (Walls et al, 2013).
While LGBTQ youth benefit from having GSAs in their schools, whether or not they are members of their GSA, such as the reduction of victimization, positive mental health, and better academic performance, there are additional benefits to being a member, such as increased acceptance of one’s gender expression (Lindquist et al, 2013;). GSA members reported significantly higher levels of outness compared to non-members, and reported coming out earlier in life (Lindquist et al, 2013). Members were motivated to join GSA to promote social justice, as well as seeing friends being harassed by bullies (Lindquist et al, 2013). Also, GSA members can provide emotional support to each other, and opportunities for leadership development, which lead to empowerment, a greater sense of control over one’s future, and positive sense of identity, and engagement with social-political issues (Lindquist et al, 2013; Walls et al, 2013).
When LGBT youth were asked about their involvement with GSAs, they reported that they believed their academic performance had improved due to their involvement with the GSA (Lee, 2002. Further, the LGBT youth believed that membership in the GSA contributed positively to their relationships with school administration, teachers, friends, and family and reported being more comfortable with being known as an LGBTQ member (Lee, 2002). Also, the LGBTQ youth reported that, through their membership with the GSA, they were not able to come up with strategies for dealing with heteronormative assumptions, though counsellors remarked that the LGBTQ youth were often using strategies in creative ways (Lee, 2002). Students reported feeling safer, and were harassed less because of the GSA and the LGBTQ youth gained an awareness that they could make a difference to society through their involvement with the GSA (Lee, 2002). Finally, the LGBT youth reported a sense of belonging to the school because of their membership in the GSA (Lee, 2002).
Transgender youth experience even higher levels of harassment and discrimination in schools than their cis-gender peers (Greytak, et al, 2013). There is evidence that GSAs benefit transgender youth more than cis gendered youth, because transgender youth are more harshly effected by the heterosexist school climate, and because transgender students often participate more in their school’s GSA (Greytak, et al, 2013).
While GSAs offer much protection for LGBTQ youth, other factors, such as protective school policies and their enforcement, inclusive curriculum, counselling services, and anti-bullying programs to better serve the LGBT youth. As well, it is suggested in the literature for GSAs to communicate, network, and exchange ideas, helping to bring schools together to better serve LGBT youth by increasing attendance levels, and diversity of the membership.
Greytak, Emily, Joseph Kosciw, and Madelyn Boesen. “Putting the “T” in “Resource”: The Benefits of LGBT-Related School Resources for Transgender Youth”. Journal of LGBT Youth. 10:1-2 (2013) 45-63 Print.
Heck, Nicholas, Annesa Flentje, and Bryan Cochran. “Offsetting Risks: High School Gay Straight Alliances and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth”. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. 1 (2013) 81-90. Print.
Lee, Camille. “The Impact of Belonging to a High School Gay/Straight Alliance”. The High School Journal. 85:3 (2002) 13-26. Print.
Lindquist, Lauri, Nicholas Heck, Brandon Stewart, Christopher Brennan, and Bryan Cochran. “To Join or Not to Join: Gay Straight Alliances and the High School Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youths”. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services. 25:1 (2013) 77-101 Print.
Poteat, Paul, Craig DiGiovanni, Katerina Sinclair, Stephen Russell, and Brian Koenig. “Gay-Straight Alliances Are Associated With Student Health: A Multi-School Comparison of LGBTQ and Heterosexual Youth”. Journal of Research of Adolescence. 23:2 (2012) 319-330. Print.