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‘It’s a lot more than a club:’ How GSAs support and empower LGBTQ2S+ youth in Alberta

As students across Alberta return to school, the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary is working hard to ensure that LGBTQ2S+ youth can access the support and safe spaces that are so vital to their lives.

By Erika Stark 1 September 2020

Pride flag

Parker Henry was the only openly queer trans kid in his high school of 900 students. That put a target on his back.

Henry said he was cyber-bullied and physically bullied—people would write rude things about him on Facebook, and someone once threw a plate of food at him at school.

“Once I realized who I was, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to hide anymore,” he said. “But it was hard.

Henry knew he likely wasn’t the only student in his school who was feeling isolated and alone as a result of their gender and sexual identity. With the support of one of his teachers, he started his school’s first GSA, or gay-straight alliance.

GSAs, also known as gay-straight alliances or gender and sexuality alliances, are school-based clubs for LGBTQ2S+ youth and allies. Established by the youth but supported or sponsored by teachers, GSAs are designed to create safe spaces for youth to come together and be themselves.

For Henry, establishing a GSA at his B.C. secondary school provided him the opportunity to channel his energy and frustration towards creating real change. His GSA was part of an effort that successfully lobbied the school board to adjust their anti-bullying policy to specifically include homophobia and transphobia.

“It was so empowering,” he recalled, adding that the experience taught him and his peers that they could make a change in their own narratives.

‘It’s the only place I feel safe’

Some GSAs, like the one Parker established, take on advocacy and inclusion work. Other GSAs may be as simple as a group of kids sitting and eating lunch together, said Pam Krause, the president and CEO of the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary.

Krause said she spoke to one young woman in Grade 8 in an inner-city Calgary school who told her that the time she spends with her GSA is the “only hour in her life where she feels safe.”

“So once a week she goes and has lunch with other [LGBTQ2S+] people and allies, and it makes her feel safe because she doesn’t know if her parents are ever going to be inclusive of her identity,” Krause said.

The Centre for Sexuality, whose vision is to teach, train and advocate to support healthy bodies, healthy relationships and healthy communities, has been working hard to support GSAs in Calgary as well as in surrounding rural communities. The Centre has established a GSA network that helps connect schools and community organizations who are working to establish and grow their GSAs. It also offers community-based GSA programming (currently virtual), project funding, as well as an annual GSA Conference that brings together K-12 students and teachers across Alberta.

The presence of GSAs in schools benefits everyone, Henry said.

“Straight and cisgender youth benefit from having a GSA as well, as they can become the targets of homophobia and transphobia due to gender stereotypes and pressures of hyper-masculinity,” he explained. “A lot of non-LGBTQ2S+ youth can become the victims of homophobic and transphobic language or beliefs even if they do not identify as a part of this group.”

Parker added that the whole environment of his school changed once the GSA had been established.

“As one person, I was an easy target,” he said. “But after we had a GSA...everyone knew that we were all together and that we were a community, and they weren’t just bullying one person. The school approved our club and that meant that they supported us, so that meant there were consequences if you bullied us.”

‘They’ve taught me so much’

Henry spoke at the GSA conference in 2019, and now works as a practicum student with the Centre. He’s currently enrolled in Mount Royal University’s social work program, and plans to work towards a career in LGBTQ2S+ community engagement.

Having experienced firsthand the impact GSAs can have on queer and trans youth, Henry said it’s been a privilege to now work directly with students themselves.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” he said of being able to work with the Centre and the youth the organization serves. “[The youth] are all just so articulate and intelligent and educated and they’ve taught me so much.”

Even so, Henry acknowledges there are areas where GSAs can fall short.

“GSAs are predominantly white and we know that there are queer and trans people of colour,” Henry said. “It’s just finding out how to make [GSAs] more inclusive or welcoming to other people of colour. That’s still something we could definitely work on.”

Support essential for youth during COVID-19

As students around the province prepare to return to school, Krause said she worries that if school clubs are cancelled due to COVID-19 safety measures, LGBTQ2S+ kids won’t have access to the safe space that a GSA creates for them at school.

The Centre is currently working to find ways to bring their GSA network online and help keep LGBTQ2S+ students, allies and their teachers connected amidst the uncertainty of the coming school year.

“COVID-19 has impacted the available number of positive social interactions for queer youth, particularly those youth who live in less accepting home environments or greater isolation,” said Shone Thistle, Calgary Pride’s board president.

“When we consider the significant health impacts of loneliness, particularly for young people, finding safe avenues for positive social interactions are critical for the health, wellbeing and development of our children and young people.”

A GSA is “a lot more than a club,” echoed Krause. “If a youth doesn’t have support at home, sometimes school is really important and the GSA becomes essential. So if that’s not there, we’ve got to figure out a way to provide that support.”

Some things have changed this year. Our support for the LGBTQ2S+ community hasn’t.

On Friday, Sept. 4th, we’re partnering with Monogram Coffee in support of the Centre for Sexuality’s ongoing efforts to help create safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ youth and allies to come together, build relationships and most importantly, be themselves.

For every drink purchased at any of Monogram’s three Calgary locations that day, ATB will donate $2 towards the Centre for Sexuality’s GSA programming.

Share a public photo of your drink on Twitter or Instagram using #ATBPride and we’ll donate another $20!

To learn more about the Centre for Sexuality's work with LGBTQ2S+ youth, visit their website.

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