And gay students needed them. Middle- and high-school experiences are formative in part because these years are marked by puberty and, often, one’s earliest romantic relationships; it’s a time when young people might engage in their first sexual encounters too. These experiences are also formative because of how dramatically the brain grows during adolescence, developing a propensity toward risk taking and self-awareness. Without the right guidance and support, such instincts can result in interpersonal conflict and self-hatred. Collectively, these characteristics make adolescence an especially vulnerable and volatile chapter—and, Jennings and others suggest, are why GSAs are so crucial.
The clubs worked; in a way, they worked magic. Research shows that GSAs can have a sizable positive impact on campus climate for gay students, correlating with a reduced prevalence of anti-LGBTQ remarks and reduced harassment of gender nonconforming teens. Catherine Lugg, an education professor at Rutgers who studies LGBTQ issues, has described GSAs as “the most potent forces for institutional change” at schools.
Watch: Bridging the LGBTQ generation gap
The challenge is that access to GSAs has always been uneven. That the GSA movement grew largely out of America’s most prominent, and elite, boarding schools is noteworthy, as is Lane’s observation that the LGBTQ movement owed much of its initial success to “white, largely male, largely affluent communities.” “That foundation of privilege,” Lane suggests, probably helped normalize the LGBTQ cause. There are regional disparities too. While widespread in some parts of the country, they’re rare in large swaths of the Midwest and the South. Today more high schools do not have GSAs than do.
This unevenness is part of why, despite all the change of the past 30 years, GSAs are still working to save lives in America’s high schools. A recent study found that lesbian and bisexual adolescents ages 12 through 14 were four times as likely as their straight, male peers to have previously attempted suicide. LGBTQ youth accounted for one in every four youth suicides from 2013 to 2015, the study found. Most at risk of suicide are trans youth.
Lane, who’s straight, began researching GSAs in the early 2000s as part of his thesis for his master’s degree in education. When I asked him what drew him to the topic in the first place, he recounted something a fellow teacher had told him a few years earlier, when a “Don’t ask, don’t tell”–type culture still prevailed in schools. The colleague, debating whether to come out to her students and colleagues, told Lane that she’d consulted with the head of their teachers’ union, who happened to be an LGBTQ-rights activist.
The union leader’s response clinched the teacher’s decision to come out. “If you do this,” the leader told the educator, “you will be saving kids’ lives.” Embedded in this verdict was the same objective that drove people such as Lipkin, Jennings, and Tentarelli to found the GSA movement, decades ago, and not a moment too soon.