An Alliance for Support

How GSAs help LGBTQ+ students cope with pandemic stress

By Alexandra O’Connor

SEEN AND HEARD: A young person waving the LGBT pride flag at a City Hall demonstration.  (Photos/Sadie Brown)

At school, Abbey and Alyssa are self-assured and true to themselves. 

But at home, without the support of classmates in their New York City school’s gay-straight alliance, the LGBTQ+ teens are less confident—and not out. 

“In general, we don’t talk about it,” said Alyssa, referring to discussing the school group—which aims to provide students of all orientations and gender identities with a welcoming environment—with relatives. “Because then that will eventually make you gay in a way.” 

Abbey and Alyssa—pseudonyms to protect their identity—came out to close friends in the seventh grade in their New York City school. But as a first-year high-school student, Abbey didn’t join her school’s GSA. Her mother always asked about school clubs–and she didn’t want to lie.

When COVID-19 arrived during Abbey’s sophomore year, the school’s transition to virtual learning provided her the cover Abbey needed to join the GSA.

“I don’t know, because it’s just like Zoom,” she said of joining while attending school remotely. “I just say, it was, like, ‘Oh, it was a Zoom for school.’ And my mom wouldn’t ask about it then.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, high school students across the country have experienced unprecedented levels of depression and poor mental health during the pandemic. LGBTQ+ students are at a higher risk: one in four have attempted suicide compared to one in 10 overall. Almost half of LGBTQ+ students had suicidal thoughts, compared to 20 percent overall. 

Students who felt a sense of being cared for and belonging at school gained some protection from the pandemic’s troubling effects on their mental health, the agency found.

GSAs—also called gender and sexuality alliances—exist to encourage this sense of support at school. A 2021 study found that LGBTQ+ students who participate in their schools’ GSA felt a greater sense of school belonging. 

Although Zoom worked for some students, like in Abbey’s case, it didn’t for everyone. When their high school shifted to remote learning, attending GSA meetings via Zoom came with a risk to some.

Alyssa said at school, students could attend a GSA without relatives knowing, and “say it’s for something else.”

“But on Zoom, people are around you all the time, like your family, and so it prevents you from joining,” she said.

Still, not all queer or questioning youth have access to a GSA. According to city Department of Education data from the 2020-21 year, almost half of the 921 schools surveyed don’t have a GSA.

VISIBLE SUPPORT:  Chi Ossé, 24, of Brooklyn, a queer activist elected to the City Council last year, speaks at a Feb. 24 City Hall protest against Mayor Eric Adams’ appointment of officials with histories of anti-LGBT views. Mental-health experts say it’s vital for teens to see people like themselves represented in public life. 

Making GSAs inclusive

Even when a school has a GSA, it may not meet the needs of all students seeking help.

For cis-identifying gay Black youth, this is especially consequential, said Antoine Craigwell, president of Depressed Black Gay Men (DBGM), a nonprofit he started to support mental health for the community in New York City.

Craigwell said many people of color don’t feel welcome in GSAs.

“Because they are predominantly white,” said Craigwell. “And even if they were to try to form a GSA that is race appropriate, they may not get the support or the backing from the administration.”

A 2021 report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found GSAs skew white and cisgender female. According to the report, 70% of students surveyed in the national sample were white. Yet only 51% of U.S. adolescents identify as white.

Craigwell said the problem is made worse because of the overall underrepresentation of teachers of color, which leads to overrepresentation of white LGBTQ+ teachers. The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that most GSA advisors are white (87.7%) and advisors say they feel least competent working with LGBTQ+ students of color.

That report also found that GSAs were most successful at providing students a space to meet new people and socialize.

The social bonds formed within a GSA are critically important for Black gay youth to experience, Craigwell said: “When they might think that it’s not worth it, what they’re missing out on is the opportunity to bond and to have an experience of protection and unity in numbers.”

In 2016, the City Council—spurred by student activism—passed a nonbinding resolution urging that every public school have a GSA and train staff on LGBTQ+ issues.

“A lot of the discussions are discussions that a lot of kids may have trouble finding a place to have them outside of the GSA,” said the GSA advisor at Abbey’s and Alyssa’s school, where he has worked for 10 years. He did not want to be identified for publication.

People who are not well-versed in LGBTQ+ issues might consider the topics of conversation at the GSA meetings to be trivial, but the advisor learned they can be quite important for LGBTQ+ youth: “So maybe they’re not that deep. Maybe they’re just like, ‘Oh, I saw this really cool show that had good LGBTQ+ representation.’”

Abbey agreed, saying GSAs help give LGBTQ+ students a place to be authentic.

“People are more open to coming out and not being afraid to say that they’re gay or queer or whatever.”