Opinion

Bell: Let’s help Arizona's LGBTQ+ students find their own communities

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We all remember trying to find our “group” in school. If we liked to write, there was yearbook. If we liked to perform, there was theater. Clubs on campus help students find the spaces where they feel most comfortable, safe and authentic.

For many LGBTQ+ students, having a place where they can be with fellow students who understand and support them can make a world of difference.

Students have been forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs; sometimes called Gender and Sexuality Alliances) in public schools since the late 1980s. These clubs aim to create a welcoming and accepting school environment for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Studies show that GSAs have many benefits for students — they help reduce the risk of anxiety and depression for LGB students and the risk of suicide for all students. LGBT students in the 68% of Arizona schools that have GSAs and other school-based supports also have better attendance records and higher academic achievement.

Unfortunately, some schools have attempted to discriminate against GSAs. The ACLU has long been involved in protecting students’ rights to form a GSA and the law is very clear — if a school allows any non-curricular clubs (clubs that aren’t directly related to classes taught in the school), then it must allow students to form a GSA and treat it the same as any other club.

While Arizona has taken some steps forward in recent years, like overturning the “no-promo homo” law that was interpreted to prohibit teachers from discussing homosexuality, many Arizona schools can do much more to be a welcoming environments for all students. For example, in 2019, most students who identify as LGBT reported being harassed or bullied because of their sexual orientation.

GSAs can help these students to feel empowered, socialize and receive support. GSAs may also take on issues that benefit all students like how to combat bullying. 

The urge to form a supportive LGBTQ community is far older than GSAs, however, and Arizona has played an important role in LGBTQ history. In fact, the area around the Superstition Mountains was home to several women’s communities that were part of a movement that began in the 1970s to create welcoming and supportive places for lesbians and other women to live and age together.

More recently, young people in Apache Junction started a group for LGBT “gaymers” to get together in a welcoming environment outside the typical bar scene. As time goes on, the communities may change but the need for connection continues. GSAs allow new generations of the LGBTQ community to come together.

Interested in setting up a GSA at your school? Be sure to know your rights and check out these tips from GLSEN. There are also resources for teachers who want to create welcoming schools or parents who want to support their LGBTQ kids.

GSAs are about valuing all people regardless of whether they’re gay, straight, bisexual, transgender or questioning. Let’s support students creating a place where they can be themselves without fear and promote respect for everyone.

K.M. Bell is the campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign and was a proud member of their high school’s GSA. Learn more at aclu.org.

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