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Links to related resources: RI Safe Schools Report | Washington State Safe Schools Report | Resource Guide for School Staff | Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network | PERSON Project | OutProud | Trans Youth Links | South Shore (MA) Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth | Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth | Bill's Story

GAY/STRAIGHT ALLIANCE

Suggestions on how to get one started &

how to keep it going

This booklet was written and designed by Youth Pride Inc. with help from members of the Rhode Island Gay/Straight Alliance Coalition. For information or more copies of this booklet, call us or write us at:

Youth Pride Inc.
134 George M. Cohan Blvd.
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 421-5626
ypi@ma.ultranet.com


Table of Contents

Introduction

Ten Easy Steps to Starting a GSA

Common Problems and Possible Solutions

Feed Them and They Will Come

Appendix With Sample Letters and Proposals

RI Board of Regents Policy Statement Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation

Resources


Introduction: Why a GSA?

Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) are groups that promote education, awareness, support and acceptance of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender students and examine how these issues impact the school and other environments. GSAs foster an inclusive environment so that any student, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can participate and be supported in their school. These groups benefit all students as they can help to increase students' self-esteem, leadership abilities, and conflict resolution skills. They have also been seen to reduce homophobia and increase tolerance in high schools.

Starting a GSA can be a challenging, frustrating, and even scary task. Due to homophobic and heterosexist attitudes throughout our schools and society, the idea of forming a group which focuses on gay issues can be met with great resistance. Be persistent, don't get discouraged, be creative, and have fun!!

You have the legal right to form a GSA in your school. Federal Law is actually on your side if you are a student in a public school. The Equal Access Law bans discrimination on the basis of religious, political or philosophical speech; this law protects groups who want to discuss gay-related issues in schools. Any public school with any nonacademic student groups must allow you to form a GSA and must treat you like any other group.

This booklet will hopefully guide those of you who are starting GSAs by describing the ten basic steps of starting a GSA, providing examples whenever possible, suggesting possible activities, and presenting some common problems and possible solutions. GOOD LUCK.


How to start a Gay/Straight Alliance in 10 easy steps

1. Follow Guidelines. Establish a Gay/Straight Alliance in the same way as you would establish any other group or club at your school. In your student handbook, there should be a section detailing the procedure for forming a club or group. Follow those guidelines. You may need to get written permission from an administrator. Or it may mean that you simply have to put up flyers announcing the first meeting and find a faculty member to act as your group advisor. Schools sometimes have rules about where and when you can post flyers, make announcements or set up information tables. Learn what the policy is at your school.

2. Enlist the support of your administration. It is important to inform the school administration about your plans to establish a Gay/Straight Alliance. Having an administrator on your side can be very useful. They can help you to arrange Days of Awareness, speakers for school assemblies, teacher trainings and other events. They can work as liaisons to the community and school committee.

3. Find a faculty advisor. Some Gay/Straight Alliances have advisors who are teachers, others have faculty advisors who are guidance counselors, nurses or librarians. Just like student members of a group, the faculty advisors don't have to be gay identified to be part of the group. Many existing groups have straight allies as advisors. How do you pick a faculty advisor? Ask a teacher or staff member whom you think would be receptive.

4. Inform Guidance Counselors and School Social Workers about the group. Guidance staff may know students that you don't know who would be interested in attending meetings. They may be able to encourage students who are dealing with these issues to attend the group, whether they are questioning their own sexuality, know someone who is gay or lesbian, or are interested in issues affecting gays and lesbians. It can be useful to invite social workers and guidance counselors to come to meetings to help facilitate discussions about difficult issues like "talking to your parents about homosexuality," "coming out to friends and family" or "supporting a friend or relative who is gay." The meetings may also bring up issues that students will want to discuss in greater detail with a supportive adult.

5. Pick a Meeting Place. If possible, find a classroom spot in your school that is off the beaten track. At first, students may feet a little nervous or uncomfortable about attending a meeting. They may feet worried that others will harass them or make assumptions about their sexual orientation if they join the group. Try to find a meeting spot that gives members a sense of security and privacy.

6. Advertise. Advertising the formation of the group is one of the first important steps you can take to fight discrimination in your school. For some students, seeing Gay or Lesbian on a poster can be the first time they feel that there are other people like them in their world. The posters can also spark discussions. Traditionally, there has been silence around issues of sexual orientation. The posters can be a reason for people bring up their own feelings, questions or thoughts about homosexuality. Of course, not all these feelings will be positive and supportive. However, breaking the silence is an important first step. Don't be discouraged if the posters are torn town or are defaced. Keep putting them back up. Include in the poster: meeting time and place, describe what the group does, highlight that everyone is welcome and keep the posters positive.

7. Get snacks. Providing food at your meeting is a great idea. Food gives people something to do with their hands. It is a good icebreaker and can give people an excuse come to meetings. Finally food also makes meetings fun.

8. Hold your meeting. Now that you have a faculty advisor, food, a meeting spot and posters advertising your group, you're ready to actually hold the meeting. Some groups begin with a discussion about why they feel having such a group is important.

9. Establish ground rules such as ... no one will make any assumptions about members' sexual orientation, confidentiality will be maintained- names and identities should never be revealed, everyone must respect each other- remember everyone is learning about the issue, and faculty advisors participate on an equal basis with the students--they may encourage discussion or participation, but they are not there to teach or lead the group.

10. Plan for the future. You may want to write an outline of goals that you would like to work towards for the future.

Suggestions for starting a Gay/Straight Alliance are from "Gay/Straight Alliances: A Student Guide" by Warren J. Blumenfeld and Laurie Lindop.


Common Problems & Possible Solutions

1. Problem: The administration is stalling about letting us have a club

Solutions: If the administration continues to stall instead of act, sometimes it can be helpful to find one or more active faculty members who are willing to offer their support for the club. If the supportive faculty members are stalling, it helps to remind them that the student body is becoming anxious for action. A petition may be helpful, and often it can help to have both students and faculty sign this petition, to show that there is a lot of support in the school community. Sometimes GSAs are stalled by faculty, because faculty believe that there is not enough interest in the club for it to deserve action. It can help to find an advocate from the student body or faculty who would be willing to offer him or herself as a communicator between those who wish to act soon on the GSA and those who have been stalling.

2. Problem: We don't have anywhere to meet

Solutions: Try to find support among members of the school faculty, and they can perhaps help to find a location for meetings. Find out where other school clubs meet, and look into using those spaces, perhaps at different times during the week. If the school allows other clubs to meet but does not provide a suitable meeting place for the GSA, it can be brought to the attention of the administration that it is the legal responsibility of the school to provide meeting places for the school clubs, and that it is important that all clubs are offered the same opportunities.

3. Problem: They want us to talk to the school committee before we can have a club

Solutions: In many cases, the adminstration might simply be worried that there is not enough support for the club. In these cases, it is helpful to find a faculty or student body representative to communicate to the administration that there is indeed support and interest in the club among faculty and students, particularly among students if faculty support is lacking. If a school committee presentation is necessary, it can help to have supportive faculty members to ensure that the student representatives are safe. It can also help to use the examples of successful GSAs at other schools, and bringing in faculty and students from these schools to speak to the school committee and administration may increase awareness and support for the club. Supportive parents can also help. Remember, the GSA should be treated exactly like other clubs; have any of the other clubs been asked to go to the school committee?

4. Problem: We aren't allowed to put posters up

Solutions: In schools where it is not allowed to put up posters for clubs, it may be helpful to try other methods of club promotion, such as a newsletter or pamphlets. Before distributing such information, be sure to speak with the administration to make sure that this, too, is not prohibited. If newsletters and pamphlets are indeed prohibited, you may think about asking the school newspaper to feature an article seeking support for the GSA. Perhaps it would be helpful to make announcements about the club or make a presentation to the school, explaining the club's purpose and goals. Also, remember that your club should be treated like all the others; if they can put up a poster, then so should you.

5. Problem: They keep tearing down our posters

Solutions: One of the most important things is to be persistent in making the club visible; it is important that the advertising of the club is easily understandable and clear, so that all members of the school community will recognize the influence of the GSA. If a poster is torn down, the club might want to consider using less expensive posters. If the problem persists, it should be brought to the attention of the administration. Remember, you should be treated like any other club with the protection of the administration. Also, you can use the tearing down of posters as a way to educate the school community about how prevalent homophobia is.

6. Problem: The faculty is being unsupportive or resistant

Solutions: If the faculty is unsupportive or resistant to activities of the GSA, it is often helpful to improve communication between the faculty and the student body. Sometimes, if the faculty will not listen to members of the school community, it might help to invite a speaker from outside the school to come in and offer support for the GSA. If some members of the faculty are supportive, they can perhaps serve as communicators between students and faculty. It can also be helpful to organize an informational meeting for faculty members to watch and instructing video about issues faced by GSAs or about GLBTQ youth and education within the school system. Afterwards, a discussion could ensue, which would help to improve communication between faculty and students. If you continue to encounter problems, you may wish to bring it outside the school. Ken Fish at the Department of Education has agreed to be contacted on these matters at 401-222-4600. Youth Pride also has attorneys who can be contacted. You can reach us at 401-421-5626.

7. Problem: Nobody comes to our meetings anymore

Solutions: Offering food, movies, and excitement usually helps this problem; good communication about events sponsored by the GSA is crucial to create enthusiasm and involvement in the club. Give specific responsibilities to different members of the club, so that it is a cooperative group. Try to ensure that all members feel welcome and comfortable at meetings. If the problem is due to a lack of interest in the club, holding meetings with specific themes can help (such as bring-a-friend day, a day to watch a specific video, or a day to discuss GLBTQ celebrities and historical figures). Group projects often improve participation and cooperation among members. Remember that membership in clubs always fluctuates, keep trying, don't get discouraged, things move in cycles.

8. Problem: The parents of students at the school are complaining about the GSA

Solutions: It can help to have a meeting during which parents can pose questions to be answered by members of the GSA and supportive faculty members. It can also help to bring in speakers (both adults and students) from outside of the school community to educate the parents on GLBTQ issues, as well as to show informational videos, such as "It's Elementary." Another option is to contact PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).


Feed Them and They Will Come

Many groups experience difficulty in both finding activities which interest people as well as getting people to meetings. Rule number one in having a successful club is food. After that, people need something to look at, something to think about. Here is a list of possible intellectual and visual stimulation for your group to utilize...

1. Speakers: People like to hear about others' lives. Who they are, where they come from, how they have dealt with situations in their lives. Try to get individuals to whom your group can relate (e.g., graduates of the school, young people in the community, people visible to your community).

2. Focused Discussions: Initiate conversations within your group around various topics (e.g., effects of homophobia, what is heterosexism, discussion of big big events within the community).

3. Movies: Try to find movies which are interesting to the group but which they may not think to get on their own. Try looking in the not-so-mainstream section (e.g. Torch Song Trilogy, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, And the Band Played On, Longtime Companion, All Over Me, The Birdcage, Beautiful Thing, Jeffrey, The Celluloid Closet, Love! Valor! Compassion!).

4. Dances: Find out about GSA/GLBTQ youth dances in the area and organize students in your school to participate.

5. Dinners: As mentioned before, food is the best way to get people to do what you want them to do and go where you want them to go. Organize a dinner at your school, either just for your GSA or as a joint effort with another club.

6. Trips, Theater Nights, Other Excursions: It's school related so parents are likely to be more lenient about curfews, but not at school so students are more likely to be interested. Try things like going to Trinity on pay-what-you-can night and seeing the AIDS Quilt when it is shown in the area.

7. In-School Celebrations: Establish traditions of celebrating days like National Coming Out Day, World AIDS Day, and diversity and general awareness days in your school. It creates more visibility both for the club as well as issues which the club might be dealing with.

8. GSA Bulletin Board: Create a bulletin board which is updated about once a week on which goes general information about the club, activities which are going on, trips you are taking, speakers you have invited, dinners you have planned.

9. Posters, Pamphlets, Other Paraphernalia: Organize your group to make posters to put around the school, pamphlets to hand out, and other informational materials about your club or issues which the club finds interesting.


Appendix

The following contains documents that have been prepared by students starting GSAs in Rhode Island. Specifically, there is the following:

  1. a letter of intent presented to the principal of Classical High School
  2. a proposal presented to the administration at Classical High School stating the purpose, goals and plans for a GSA
  3. a GSA constitution for the Barrington High School GSA

Please feel free to copy whatever is helpful; we hope to help you get started.


Letter to the Principal

June 30, 1997

Thomas Mezzanotte, Principal
Classical High School
770 Westminster St.
Providence, RI 02903

Dear Mr. Mezzanotte:

I am writing in regards to a project that I would like to officially begin in September of 1997. I understand that seeking your approval is the first step in the process of initiating a new club in school. Thus, I am writing to you for approval and support of this plan, as well as guidance in the procedure that follows to implement this plan.

The club I hope to start is a Sexual Orientation and Gender Alliance, with the purpose of promoting awareness, acceptance, understanding and unity among the students at Classical. Enclosed is a brief description of this proposed extracurricular club which includes the following: (1) a discussion regarding the need for such a club; (2) the club's objectives; and (3) the strategies for accomplishing the objectives. I have devoted much time and effort to the development of this idea and have conducted the necessary research to get this project off the ground. In addition, I have discussed this project with some of my peers and thus far have received overwhelming support and encouragement regarding the potential benefits to the Classical student body.

I would appreciate your taking some time to review my proposal. Ideally, I think we should discuss this project before September. I will be leaving on July 6th for a five week drama program at Yale; therefore, further discussion of my proposal will have to be before I leave or after my return. Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Michael Anthony Dyer


GSA: Purpose and Goals

Purpose

The Gay/Straight Alliance at Classical High School would be a group that promotes education, awareness and acceptance among the students at Classical. It would make known to its members and the school the resources available to them. Finally, it would be a group that attempts to create a comfortable environoment for students' concerns about gay or straight issues.

Membership in the Alliance would be open to anyone in the school. It would not be a gay support group; all students would be encouraged to join and participate in any events and meetings organized by the Alliance. Alliance members would especially be encouraged to promote acceptance and awareness throughout the school. The Gay/Straight Alliance would help to increase awareness, acceptance, and comfort throughout the entire Classical population.

Goals

1. To make the Classical High School community aware of gay and straight issues and how the issues impact the school environment.

2. To foster an inclusive environment, so that any student, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, will feel support in regards to orientation issues.


Plan For Accomplishing Goals

Weekly Meetings

Meetings would have a threefold purpose. First of all, they would be a time to plan future meetings, events and speakers. Next, they would be a time to discuss books, articles, politics, or current events that are prevalent to issues of sexual orientation or gender. Finally, these meetings would be a place to discuss personal concerns and issues and a place to offer support to others. The meetings would be held before or after school hours at Classical High School.

Events and Speakers

The Alliance would organize speakers and events for the entire school. A primary way to learn is listening to educated people. Having guest speakers for the Alliance and for all Classical students would prompt education, comfort and acceptance.

Resource Information

There are many resources in Rhode Island available to teenagers struggling or concerned with, or simply curious about, issues of sexual orientation and gender. However, these organizations are unknown to almost all high school students. The Alliance would make these resources known and available to all Classical students. Examples of such organizations are Youth Pride, Inc., Rhode Island Project AIDS, and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Following this plan should prove to be a rewarding experience for all Alliance members, and an educational experience for everyone in the school.


Gay-Straight Alliance Constitution

Article I

The name of this organization shall be the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), of Barrington High School.

Article II

The purpose of the GSA is to provide a place for students concerned about any type of gay or lesbian issues to find a common ground. It will also provide a jumping off point for heightened awareness and visibility of gay and lesbian issues at BHS.

The goals of the GSA are:

1.) To make the BHS community (administration, students, parents, faculty, etc.) aware of gay and lesbian issues and how the issues impact the school environment.

2.) To provide a support group for students who feel the need for this type of support.

3.) To foster an inclusive environment, so that any student, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, will feel support in regards to orientation issues.

4.) To organize activities, so that group members can gain an understanding of sexual orientation, discrimination, isolation, self-esteem, physical and emotional safety, healthy relationships, as well as role models from the past and present.

5.) To organize activities with other clubs and organizations at BHS so that the goals and purpose of the GSA are communicated to others.

Article III

Membership

1.)To be a member of the GSA a student must be committed to the goals and purpose of the club.

2.) Members are asked to attend as many meetings as possible, but because of the nature of the club, students can feel free to attend meetings as often as they wish.

3.) All club members must respect the rules of the club and also respect the other members of the club. This includes other members' right to privacy, as the case may be.

4.) Membership will be automatically terminated upon graduation, upon ceasing to be a student at the high school, or upon termination of the club.

Article IV

Meetings

1.) The club will meet twice a month, or as often as the members and officers see due.

2.) The GSA officers will meet as necessary to discuss the functions and/or concerns of the club.

Article V

Officers

1.) The officers of this club shall be: president, vice president, and two student body representatives.

2.) The election of officers will be held at the end of the school year, at the last meeting. There must be a majority present to hold elections. The term of officers will be one year, unless a shorter term is necessary due to early graduation at the semester, or some other extenuating circumstance. Actions in situations like these will be determined finally by the advisor.

Article VI

Activities and Projects

1.) Within the limits prescribed in section 1 of article III, this club shall be responsible for financing and conducting its own activities and shall itself supply the money and manpower necessary thereto, except in the case of joint projects or activities undertaken in cooperation with other organizations such responsibility shall be shared with such other organization(s).

Article VII

Fees and Dues

1.) Any additional fees, dues, or assessments on the membership of the club shall be nominal and shall only be for the purpose of meeting administrative costs of the club. Funds for activities and projects undertaken by the club shall, in general, be raised apart from such fees, dues, or assessments.

Article VIII

Acceptance of Constitution and By-Laws

All members of this club by their acceptance of membership and the continuation thereof, thereby accept the principles of the GSA as expressed in its purpose and goals and submit themselves to and agree to comply with and be bound by constitution and by-laws of this club. No members shall be absolved from the observance of the constitution and by-laws on the plea that they have not received a copy of them.

Article IX

By-Laws

This club shall adopt the standard GSA by-laws together with such amendments as are not inconsistent with this constitution and which may be deemed necessary or convenient for the governing of the club, provided such amendments are adopted in accordance with the amendment procedure prescribed in the standard GSA by-laws.

Article X

Duration

The GSA shall exist so long as it continues to function in accordance with provisions of this constitution or until it is terminated by this club upon its own determination and action. Upon termination of this club all rights and privileges relating to the GSA name shall be relinquished by the club and by its members individually and collectively.

Gay-Straight Alliance By-Laws

Article I

Elections

1.) Election for the offices of President, Vice President, and both student body representatives shall be held annually prior to the end of school. Those elected shall take the office on the last day of school.

2.) Nominations of officers shall be made either in writing or from the floor. Candidates shall be voted on at the regular meeting, or at the discretion of the current officers and the advisor. Voting shall be by secret ballot, or another secret method. Candidates receiving the majority of votes of the members present in good standing shall be elected.

Article II

Duties of officers

1.) President--The president shall preside at all the regular and the officers' meetings. S/he shall appoint any necessary committees and be responsible for the well-being of the GSA and its members.

2.)Vice President--The vice president will preside over any meetings which the president is not able to attend. S/he wil succeed the president in the event of the removal of the latter for whatever cause.

3.) Student Body Representative--The "SBR" will be in charge of dealing with any social events, community activities, or school-wide activities. S/he will basically deal with any interaction between the GSA and the school or another organization. There will be two students elected to this position.

Article III

Meetings

1.) Meetings of this club shall be held twice a month, or as the officers see due.

2.) A quorum is constituted by a majority of members in good standing. A quorum would be necessary at all elections.

Article IV

Amendments

1.)These by-laws may be amended by a majority vote of the members in good standing at any regular meeting of the club at which a quorum is present, provided notice of intention to call such a vote is given at least 14 days earlier at a meeting of the club at which a quorum is present.

2.)Nothing in these by-laws shall contradict any provision in the club's constitution.


RI Board of Regents Nondiscrimination Policy

State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
Department of Education
Shepard Building
255 Westminster Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02903-3400
Telephone: 401-277-4600
Fax: 401-277-6178
TTY: 800-745-5555
Voice: 800-745-6575

May 30, 1997

TO: Superintendents

FROM: Peter McWalters, Commissioner

RE: Board of Regents Policy Statement on Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation

The Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education recognizes that full access of all people and groups to educational opportunities and full participation in educational experiences should be the policy and practice of educational agencies. All individuals and groups must be afforded the opportunity to participate fully and thereby reach their maximum potential. Barriers to student participation which are based on sexual orientation must be identified and removed.

Certain students, because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, have been subject to discrimination through abuse, harassment, or exclusion from full participation in educational activities. These conditions undermine the goals of Civil Rights activities in education; i.e., to remove barriers, promote nondiscrimination and support the provision of equal educational opportunities. The Board also recognizes that all students, without exception, have the right to come to school and feel safe.

Therefore, it is the Policy of the Board of Regents that no student shall be excluded from, discriminated against, or harassed in any educational program, activity or facility in a public school on account of sexual orientation or perception of same. The policy shall apply to admissions, guidance, recreational and extra-curricular activities as well as all public educational programs and activities.

Each local school district is urged to review programs, services and activities to assure that such offerings are conducted in a manner that is free of inadvertent or intentional bias. Each local school district is also urged to prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation through the development and enforcement of appropriate student and staff behavior and disciplinary policies.

Staff of the Rhode Island Department of Education will be available to assist school districts in the development and implementation of appropriate policies consistent with the Regents' Policy Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation.


Resources

Department of Education, Ken Fish......................................401-222-4600

Gay Help Line (M,W,F, 7-10)............................................401-751-3322

GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders)...................617-426-1350

GLSEN-RI (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network).............401-272-5845

PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)..................401-624-8566

RI Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights...........................401-521-GAYS

RI Task Force on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth..401-421-5626

Youth Pride, Inc............................................................401-421-5626


HTML by Tina M. Wood, who otherwise takes no credit for this work. Please direct inquiries to Youth Pride, Inc.