Wednesday, February 06, 2013

GSAs and the Catholic High School Setting

A coalition of youth advocacy organizations, including the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), has designated today, February 6, as National Gay-Straight Alliance Day.

To mark this special and important day I share two excerpts from my book, Creating Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective (Harrington Park, 2007), a resource that has its roots in the Minnesota-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities' Safe Schools Initiative of the mid-late 1990s. (For more about this initiative, click here.)

Creating Environments for LGBT Students is basically a 'safe staff/school' training manual and, as far as I know, the only one available specifically geared to the Catholic high school setting. I'm sure most of my readers are already aware of the need for creating safe spaces in our schools for LGBT students and those questioning their orientation and/or gender identity. But in case you're reading this and are unaware of the unique challenges posed to LGBT students, here are some helpful stats from GLSEN.

• More than 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed;

• Nearly 20 percent of LGBT students were physically assaulted by their peers at school;

• Almost 40 percent of LGBT students reported that faculty and staff never intervene when homophobic language is used in their presence;

• Nearly 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day because they felt unsafe.”

GLSEN and other youth advocacy organizations believe that the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) at schools will go a long way in addressing the types of negative experiences listed above and thus making schools safer environments for LGBT and questioning youth.

Following is how I describe GSAs and their history in Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective.

Gay-Straight Alliances were formed to promote support and advocacy for LGBT students in schools. These school clubs are run by and for students, with a faculty/staff moderator as required by the school's cocurrucular guidelines. To date [2007] there are over 2,000 Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs registered in the United States, with the vast majority of them being in public schools.

The first Gay-Straight Alliance was actually formed in an independent school in Massachusetts. In 1988 Kevin Jennings [left], a history teacher at Concord Academy, came out to the student body during a chapel reflection. It was then that he created the first GSA in the country.

Beginning with developing support and advocacy for gay students, Jennings expanded his initiate to create a cohesive network of teachers, parents, and other members of the community. The original teacher organization was called "School's Out." By 1993 the network was renamed the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and its influence was recognized nationally. Massachusetts became the first stte to prohibit discrimination against public school students based on sexual orientation. It was anti-discrimination legislation, however, which did not extend to private school students. In 1995 Jennings was named GLSEN's first executive director, and today there are over ninety chapters of the organization across the United States.

With the tremendous resources available to gay-straight alliances through GLSEN it is important to ask whether or not these resources can be adapted to the private school -- specifically, the Catholic school. It is important to recognize that the name "gay-straight alliance" is uniquely linked to the national organization of GLSEN. While GLSEN's primary goal is the development of safe schools for LGBT students, it also seeks to influence national educational policies. While Catholic schools can benefit from the many resources available through GLSEN, it may do so at the cost of becoming affiliated with a national organization that does not align with official church teaching.

Even though tools and resources are plentiful from GLSEN, this organization does not comply with the guidelines provided by Church teaching. Specifically, while there is agreement concerning the obligation to respect all people, there is no adherence to the Church's teaching regarding abstinence for the homosexual. Therefore, any Catholic school that seeks to form a GSA must be willing and prepared to explain its connection, if any, to the GLSEN organization. This association, if in name only, can be problematic. It could well be that the association is too strong and it is much more important to provide support for LGBT students and their allies than to use a title that draws unnecessary concern. It may be better that a supportive organization be developed and that the students themselves provide the group name. In one Catholic high school, the students kept the acronym GSA but had it represent "Growing Seeds of Alliance."

In that part of Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective in which the above is shared, other important issues are explored, including establishing classrooms of respect, safety, and support; ways of empowering school policy; utilizing the school's 'foundational stories' to support the establishment of safe environments; effectively communicating with parents about such environments; and how to go about establishing LGBT/Ally student groups. The later is explored through the following guidelines written by Catholic high school teacher Genevieve Goodsil-Todd. These guidelines are based on Goodsil-Todd's first-hand experience of establishing an LGBT/Ally group in her Catholic high school.

1. When organizing a student group it is important that the initiative be as student-generated and student-led as possible.

2. It is also important to remember that a group can be three people!

3. Getting started might be as simple as creating a discussion group on topics of diversity and setting the atmosphere for respect and inclusion for all students,

4. A student group/club that focuses on discussion of homophobia and respect for all students of any sexual orientation must begin with student interest. Yet generating student interest will likely come from a broader discussion and/or treatment of the school environment and diversity in general rather than from a direct reference to a "group of gay kids."

5. Depending on the school's culture, a very direct call for a sexual orientation group will not get a huge response. In fact, it may be less threatening to develop a group for students who wish to be allies for those who are LGBT. In this context, student members may know, love, and respect people who are LGBT (e.g., family members, friends, neighbors, etc.) and wish to consider ways to make the world a better place in their regard.

6. It is important to make the distinction between a student group/club and a group that may be offered and led by a therapist/counselor within the school's counseling department. Although there certainly are times when a student who is LGBT/ally may need counseling/group support, that is not the purpose of the student group/club.

7. One student group currently operating in a Catholic high school is known as Growing Seeds of Alliance. Meeting once a week during lunch, Growing Seeds of Alliance is not about discussing or promoting the "gay lifestyle," but about educating the school community in an effort to encourage respect for, and eliminate both overt and covert acts of discrimination against, people who might be, or might be perceived to be, homosexual.

8. The only requirement for being a member of Growing Seeds of Alliance is a concern and respect for people who are LGBT, and a willingness to be an agent of respect both in and outside of the school community.

9. Fulfilling this purpose, the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality is not compromised or left unclear. This teaching is upheld with needed emphasis on the teaching's encouragement to address unjust discrimination and fear (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2359).

10. The Growing Seeds of Alliance student group exists, in large part, to address a specific problem. This problem is likely in every school and workplace, and maybe in every home. The problem is not homosexual activity among teenagers or an eroding compromise of the teaching of Roman Catholic Church on homosexuality. Rather, the problem is fear. And fear is a consuming emotion – a sibling in the family of emotions that wants every portion and place at the table. Fear drives out both gratitude and appreciation. When someone fears someone or something, she or he cannot be grateful for or appreciate what the other brings. For example, equity is nearly impossible when a man fears a woman's increased access to decision-making and power. Nothing did more to the campaign of demonizing the black man than the fear produced against him by the white male. Therefore, as long as both homosexual and heterosexual persons fear homosexuality, there is a need for a group like Growing Seeds of Alliance.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Goodsil-Todd's position of supporting LGBT students without challenging church teachings on homosexuality. See, for example, Lakehead University professor Gerald Walton's July 2008 review of Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective.

For more reviews, click here and here.

Related Off-site Links:
Today is National Gay-Straight Alliance Day – Zack Ford (, February 6, 2013).
Formation of Gay-Straight Alliances Should Be Top Priority at Catholic Schools – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, February 6, 2013).
On National Gay-Straight Alliance Day, Florida County School Board Plans to Ban All Student Clubs to Stop GSA – Andy Marra (GLSEN, February 6, 2013).
Nuns, LGBT Youth and the Power of a Single Song – Mark Canavera (The Huffington Post, January 31, 2013).
A Conversation with Kevin Jennings – Will Simmons (The Harvard Independent, April 27, 2012).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
For the Record
My Response to Archbishop Flynn
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 1)
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 2)
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 3)
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 4)
The Two Editorials that Benilde-St. Margaret's Catholic High School Doesn't Want You to Read
Dave Navarro to LGBT Youth: "We Need Your Voice"
President Obama's Message to Bullied LGBT Youth: "It Gets Better"
Confronting Classroom Homophobia
Quote of the Day – October 4, 2010
Quote of the Day – October 19, 2010
A Girl Named Sara: "A Person of the Resurrection"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing another interesting article. How are things going for gay students in Minnesota Catholic Schools these days? I was wondering if things are getting better in any of them in view of the current climate in your state.