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Gay-Straight Alliances  
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A gay-straight alliance (GSA) can be defined as a youth-led, school- or community-based group that provides a safe, welcoming, and affirming physical and emotional space for glbtq students, as well as those who are perceived as glbtq, those who are questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, children from glbtq families, and heterosexual students who want to be allies of their glbtq peers.

The inclusion of straight youth in the group mission and sponsored activities of GSAs is an important distinguishing factor from early support groups for glbtq teens, and recognizes the need for a comprehensive approach to youth safety. This strategy assists glbtq youth in building a diverse network of support, teaches heterosexual youth how to be effective allies to their glbtq peers, and teaches all youth about the effects of discrimination and prejudice. GSA participation also seems to shield youth from the negative influence of verbal and physical violence, alienation, and other forms of oppression based in and .

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The History of the GSA Movement in Schools

Perhaps the most important precursor of the GSA movement is Los Angeles's Project 10, which is widely recognized as the first organized effort to provide systematic support and education for glbtq youth in American public schools. Originating in 1984 at Fairfax High School of the Los Angeles Unified school district, Project 10 was named after the estimate frequently (though mistakenly) attributed to sexologist Alfred Kinsey that 10% of the general population is exclusively homosexual. In the words of its founder, Virginia Uribe, the focus of Project 10 has been "education, reduction of verbal and physical abuse, suicide prevention, and dissemination of accurate AIDS information."

While most early Project 10 facilitators were straight, Project 10 was originally targeted at gay, lesbian, bisexual, , and questioning youth with no explicit effort to include heterosexual youth in activities. Support groups, the primary activity of the Project 10 model, focus on preventing or reducing at-risk behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse and high-risk sexual activities, among glbtq youth. Since its inception, Project 10 has been influential as an important model for the development of support groups for glbtq youth.

The first school-based groups to call themselves Gay-Straight Alliances were formed in 1989 at two private schools in Massachusetts, the Phillips Academy in Andover and the Concord Academy in Concord. The faculty advisor for the Phillips Academy group conducted workshops about the gay-straight model throughout Massachusetts, which led to the formation of many new GSAs and to the eventual adoption of the gay-straight group model by the Governor's Commission for Gay and Lesbian Youth in Massachusetts as the preferred model for their Safe Schools Program.

The adoption of the GSA model by the State of Massachusetts Safe Schools Program in 1993 is one of three key events that spurred the development of the Gay-Straight Alliance movement. The other two were the 1999 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming; and the 1999 Federal Court ruling in Utah--East High Gay/Straight Alliance v. Board of Education of Salt Lake City School District, 81 F. Supp.2d 1166, 1197 (D. Utah 1999)--which found that denying access to a school-based Gay-Straight Alliance was a violation of the federal Equal Access Act.

The Gay-Straight Alliance model has been promoted as an intervention strategy for making school environments safer and more inclusive by a number of national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Human Rights Watch (HRW), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), and many others.

The most important of these organizations in promoting Gay-Straight Alliances is GLSEN, which was established nationally in 1995. It provides educational, public policy, student organizing, and development resources in print and web-based form, as well as on-site training and technical assistance to schools that want to address school safety and inclusiveness issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Although many school districts attempt to impede the organization of GSAs, the movement has nevertheless grown rapidly. GLSEN, which maintains an on-line registry of school-based GSAs, reports that by 1999 there were 600 GSAs, a number that had grown to 1,000 in 2001, and to more than 1,200 by the end of 2002. Despite these impressive figures, the number of school-based support groups for glbtq youth remains small when measured against the need.

Why glbtq Youth Need GSAs

Gay youth, youth believed to be gay, and their allies need "free spaces" to express themselves and to find haven from the prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes, behaviors, and policies that they frequently experience. Recent reports have highlighted the widespread victimization of glbtq people, especially youth, through hate crimes, institutional oppression, social discrimination, and personal prejudice. While the general climate appears to be improving, many glbtq youth face exclusion, discrimination, and verbal and physical violence on a daily basis in schools, in the community, and in their homes.

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