What is a GSA?
A Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSA) is a student-initiated and student-run club. GSAs provide a safe, supportive environment for students of diverse genders and sexualities to meet, discuss sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and form community. Participating students may identify as two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual, nonbinary (2SLGBTQ+) and many other identities. This glossary of terms from The 519 has brief explanations of different terms used to describe 2SLGBTQ+ identities, groups and experiences. GSAs also welcome straight, cisgender ally youth. 2SLGBTQ+ people also have a variety of other identities in terms of their race, abilities, class, ethnicity, faith, and more.
Previously referred to as Gay-Straight Alliances, now the acronym “GSA” more frequently stands for “Gender and Sexuality Alliance” to reflect the full spectrum of sexual and romantic orientations, and to explicitly include trans and gender diverse community members. GSAs may also be known as a QSA (Queer-Straight Alliance), Pride Alliance, or by specific community-chosen names in different school communities. While each GSA is unique, there is never an expectation that students disclose their sexual or gender identity.
What do GSAs do?
GSAs help to foster queer community in schools. Many GSAs function as support groups that provide safety and confidentiality for students questioning their identity or struggling with homophobia and/or transphobia. Some also educate themselves and the broader school community about sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression and create awareness about the effects of and how to challenge sexist stereotypes, homophobia and transphobia.
Others are also activist clubs that work to get representation for two-spirit, trans, and queer issues and work for more inclusive policies, bearing in mind the intersectionality of many students’ experiences. These groups may also support students in accessing their rights such as the rights of trans students, on which the TDSB has specific guidelines. [https://www.tdsb.on.ca/About-Us/Innovation/Gender-Based-Violence-Prevention/Accommodation-of-Transgender-Students-and-Staff]
All GSAs provide a social outlet for two-spirit, trans, and queer students and their straight, cisgender allies and are a great way to build community at school and lessen the isolation that 2SLGBTQ+ students might otherwise experience.
What is intersectionality and why is it important?
Intersectionality is the simultaneous experience of more than one kind of oppression. The term was invented by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the experience of Black women. It has since been expanded to refer to any instance of overlapping oppression.
Just because a group of people experience one kind of oppression does not mean that they do not discriminate in other ways. Many spaces in the queer community can continue to be racist, sexist, ableist, or to perpetuate oppression in other ways. For this reason, an intersectional approach is vital to GSAs so that students have a safe space from all of the kinds of discrimination they face.
Can cisgender, straight youth become involved in GSAs?
Yes. Straight, cisgender youth are often members of GSAs because they have 2SLGBTQ+parents, family or friends. Straight, cisgender youth who have been perceived as 2SLGBTQ+ may join to help stop harassment and intolerance in school. Many straight, cisgender youth are involved because they recognize that ending homophobia and transphobia are important civil rights and human rights issues.
Why are GSAs important?
GSAs provide a space for two-spirit, queer, trans, and ally youth to form community and connections with each other and beyond the school. A school’s GSA can be a vital safe space for students of diverse genders and sexualities to express and explore themselves and their identities with supportive peers and adults. Student-run discussions, social events, and political organizing are safe and fulfilling ways to explore identity and community and impact their school. In this way, GSAs help to reduce feelings of isolation, and to increase self-esteem in all members.
For 2SLGBTQ+ youth and youth with 2SLGBTQ+ family, school may be an isolating environment, where they may not see their experiences reflected in school community or curriculum, or face harassment and violence. While some two-spirit, trans, and queer youth find community online, a school GSA is a space for in-person community and affirmation. Students can share and discuss their identities and experiences.
What types of activities do GSAs become involved in?
GSAs create safe spaces for students to meet and socialize. Student clubs are a valuable part of teenagers’ high school experiences. GSAs also often conduct student and teacher sensitivity training, and typically see a decrease in slurs, name-calling, and harassment following their advocacy efforts. GSAs can also be places of advocacy against all forms of oppression that the students in them face. This includes homophobia and transphobia, but can also include racism, sexism, ableism, religious discrimination, and more. By facilitating student-run clubs, students have the opportunity to learn about running groups, planning social, spiritual, political or academic activities, and working with others.
How do GSAs benefit the whole school community?
GSAs model many norms which are beneficial to all students from not making assumptions about a person’s gender or sexuality, to expecting questioning of gender and sexuality as a part of human development, to validating diverse expressions of gender and sexuality.
Homophobic and transphobic harassment and violence are very common in schools and among teenagers. While addressing transphobia and homophobia is the responsibility of all TDSB employees, GSAs that conduct student and teacher sensitivity trainings typically see a decrease in slurs, name-calling, and harassment following their advocacy efforts. GSAs also create safe spaces for students to meet and socialize in a harassment-free environment.
GSAs help combat an atmosphere of verbal/physical harassment and an environment that limits self-expression just by meeting. Even other students (not in the GSA) will be drawn into the school-wide discussion of homophobic and transphobic incidents and attitudes.
How do I start a GSA?
In Ontario, every student has a right to a GSA in their school and school boards are required to support students in establishing GSAs. In the past, homophobic administrators in Ontario have told students they cannot call their group a Gay-Straight Alliance. The Accepting Schools Act protects students’ choice to name their GSA themselves. Students who would like to start a GSA at their elementary, middle, or secondary school should contact their school principal or the TDSB’s Gender-Based Violence Prevention office.
Local Resources and Organizations
SOY (Supporting Our Youth) SOY is a program run by Sherbourne Health for 2SLGBTQ+ youth. They offer arts and recreational activities, employment and housing services, mentoring, and groups for 2SLGBTQ+ youth from specific populations. Examples of the latter include programming for newcomer/immigrant youth, Black queer youth, youth of colour, trans youth, and homeless and street-involved youth. Sherbourne health also has an LGBT2SQ Primary Care team and counselling from LGBT2SQ-positive counsellors.
Rex Pride Queer Media and Arts Programming for 2SLGBTQ+ youth and community in Rexdale.
The 519 - The 519 is a local LGBTQ2S community centre in Toronto. It is a City of Toronto agency and registered charity. The 519 is committed to the health, happiness and full participation of the LGBTQ2S communities. The 519 is a physical space for many community events, as well as producing learning and training resources to organizations and institutions. This glossary of terms from 519 has brief explanations of different terms used to describe 2SLGBTQ+ identities, groups and experiences.
ÉGALE - Egale is Canada’s leading organization for LGBTQI2S people and issues. Founded in 1986, Égale provides training, resources, and advocacy towards supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ people and communities across Canada. Their mission is to improve the lives of 2SLGBTQIA+ people in Canada and to enhance the global response to 2SLGBTQIA+ issues.
CCGSD - The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity seeks to empower gender and sexually diverse communities through education, research, and advocacy. The CCGSD is guided by the goals of the communities they work with.
Other Groups & Resources
GLSEN - GLSEN is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established in 1990, GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community.
GSA Network - GSA Network is an American national youth leadership organization that connects school-based GSAs to each other and community resources through peer support, leadership development, and training.
Pride Education Network - The Pride Education Network of teachers, administrators, support staff, youth and parents strives to make the B.C. school system more welcoming and equitable for LGBTQ students and staff, and queer families.