Primary Sources: How Are the Lives of LGBTQ Youth Improved by Gay-Straight Alliances?

Photograph of smiling young people.

"School Climate, Individual Support, or Both? Gay–Straight Alliances and the Mental Health of Sexual Minority Youth," School Social Work Journal (in press), 2013.

What it’s about: One way that students and educators try to improve the school experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth is by founding and organizing gay-straight alliances. The authors describe a gay-straight alliance as a student-led club “open to youth of all sexual orientations with the purpose of supporting sexual minority students and their heterosexual allies and also reducing prejudice, discrimination and harassment within the school.” Over 4,000 such groups exist in the United States. Studies suggest that gay-straight alliances are associated with positive outcomes for LGBTQ youth. But few studies have asked whether membership is necessary for the organization to be helpful to young people. Researchers compared 284 LGBTQ youth in schools with alliances and without. Within the study group, the researchers compared members of alliances with non-members.

Why read it: We know that LGBTQ youth experience bullying and other trauma in school, which can be damaging to their mental health and academic achievement. We also know that trauma can lead to dangerous behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use or dropping out of school, which can lead to youth homelessness. This study adds to research by examining the role supportive groups like gay-straight alliances may play in preventing these outcomes.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: This data suggest that membership in a gay-straight allinace has some positive effects on LGBTQ young people, particularly regarding youths' expression of their gender identity and sexual orientation. The researchers admit, however, that the study has limitations. The young people surveyed self-identified as LGBTQ, so the study did not include students who had not yet identified as such. Youth were primarily urban, mostly from the Denver area.

Some findings include:

  • LGBTQ youth in schools that had a gay-straight alliance were less likely to attempt suicide than those in schools without an alliance.
  • At schools with alliances, members were less likely to have used marijuana in the past 30 days, with about 40 percent of non-members and 22 percent of members reporting use.
  • Just 14 percent of gay-straight allinace members wished they conformed more to stereotypes of how boys and girls dress, think and act, compared to 37 percent of non-members.

The authors suggest that more research is needed on the impact of gay-straight alliances on LGBTQ youths' social and emotional well-being. Meanwhile, this study suggests that family and youth workers may want to encourage LGBTQ young people who are in school to join an alliance, if they feel comfortable doing so.

Additional references: "Growing Up LGBT in America" (PDF, 443KB) is based on the nonprofit advocacy group Human Rights Campaign’s survey of more than 10,000 LGBT-identified youth ages 13 to 17.

"Gay-Straight Alliances: Creating Safer Schools for LGBT Students and Their Allies" (PDF, 138KB) examines current research on allinaces and highlights major findings regarding school safety, access to education, academic achievement for LGBT students and student access to gay-straight alliances in school.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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