In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of creating inclusive and safe spaces for all students in schools. One key aspect of this effort is the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and a visible Pride presence. These initiatives play a crucial role in supporting queer youth and fostering a more accepting and inclusive school environment.
Queer and trans children do not need to be taught who they are or who to love. They need to be heard, loved, and protected.
GSAs are student-led organizations that provide a supportive network for 2SLGBTQIA+ students and their allies. These groups offer a safe space where students can freely express themselves, discuss their experiences, and support one another. The presence of GSAs helps combat feelings of isolation, discrimination, and social exclusion that many queer youth face.
First and foremost, GSAs provide an essential support system for queer students. Coming out can be an incredibly challenging experience for young people, often accompanied by fear and uncertainty. They create a refuge for these students, offering an understanding community where they can explore their identity and find acceptance without judgment. In such an environment, queer youth can develop a sense of belonging, leading to improved mental health and overall satisfaction in school.
GSAs are instrumental in promoting inclusive, accessible schools and positive representation for queer youth. By hosting regular meetings and organizing school Pride celebrations, GSAs provide a safe and welcoming space for queer students to be themselves authentically and for student allies to develop empathy and understanding. They allow students to find community and a sense of belonging, which are protective factors for youth mental health, and provide queer youth a voice to advocate for issues that are important to them within their school. The presence of a GSA in a school is not only beneficial for queer students, but for the entire student body, as they contribute to feelings of safety and acceptance for all members of the school community. As a club that recognizes and celebrates diverse lived experiences, GSAs help to break down harmful stereotypes and stigmas faced by the 2SLGBTQ+ community, which in turn reduces ignorance and prejudice. GSAs encourage all students to practice allyship and embrace diversity, fostering a more inclusive school atmosphere.
The visibility of a Pride presence in schools plays a vital role in supporting queer youth. The display of rainbow flags, signs, and other symbols not only signals a welcoming environment for queer students but also serves as a reminder to the entire community of the importance of diversity and inclusion. A Pride presence showcases the school’s commitment to creating a safe space for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and it provides queer youth with positive role models. When queer individuals are seen in leadership positions within the school or invited as guest speakers, it sends a powerful message that their experiences and contributions are valued. Students can see successful queer adults pursuing their dreams and leading fulfilling lives, offering hope and inspiration for their own future. The visibility of Pride in schools plays a vital role in supporting queer youth and welcoming 2SLGBTQ+ families.
Every student deserves the right to learn in an environment free from violence, harassment, and bullying. However, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia remain rampant in Canadian schools and queer youth reported hearing homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic language at least weekly. They are also subjected to more incidents of verbal, physical, and sexual harassment as well as other forms of targeted bullying (e.g., cyberbullying) than their cisgender heterosexual peers.
Many queer youth live in fear of being rejected by their family and peers and are afraid of homophobic and transphobic bullying. They become isolated and believe that they have to hide their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression from the world. A large proportion of queer students reported that they were unlikely to report the harassment they experienced to adults in their lives, and those who did report bullying and harassment to school staff indicated that school staff were not effective in addressing it. Failure to provide a safe and inclusive environment for queer students has dire consequences:
- 44% reported having thoughts about suicide
- 50% reported self-harming
- 53% of queer youth felt unsafe at school, compared with 3% of heterosexual youth
- 64% heard homophobic comments daily or weekly at school
- 30% had been the victims of cyberbullying, compared to 8% of cisgender heterosexual youth
- 57% of trans youth had been targets of mean rumours or lies.
(Statistics from Peter, T., Campbell, C.P., & Taylor, C. (2021) and Government of Alberta)
Although queer youth are 14 times more at risk of suicide than heterosexual cisgender youth, studies show that queer youth with at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year and the risk of suicide decreased by 93% with strong family support (The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 2019).
All students deserve to be represented within their schools, to explicitly know they are accepted and valued. This is especially true for students with marginalized identities who face judgment and discrimination for these inherent parts of who they are. GSAs and Pride visibility build community, connection, and a sense of safety that are essential pillars in supporting queer and trans youth to thrive in school. They represent a commitment to celebrate and respect diversity so that all students can see their authentic selves and their families as valued, vital members of their community.