The groups have always been about a simple, key objective: Stop all the dying.
The groups are GSAs—Gender-Sexuality Alliances, though they were originally known as Gay-Straight Alliances—and that was their mission when they first rose to prominence in the late 1980s. GSAs were usually small clubs, led by a combination of students and teachers who would meet during lunch or after class and exchange advice on how to navigate problems such as depression and bullying, plan advocacy campaigns, and distribute information on topics such as safe sex and national policy trends. Perhaps, the theory was, just by existing, these groups could make gay kids feel less alone, and that itself could reduce suicide risk, which was common among gay teens at the time.
Arthur Lipkin, a former high-school history teacher, an author, and a prominent LGBTQ-rights advocate, was one of the GSA movement’s earliest pioneers. In 1988, Lipkin, then a 30-something educator who’d come out just a few years prior, founded a GSA-like group called Project 10 East at his public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Lipkin, now in his early 70s, drew inspiration from another queer-advocacy school group, the Los Angeles–based Project 10, the name a reference to Alfred Kinsey’s theory that about 10 percent of men are gay. ) Of course, Lipkin says, not all queer students joined, but for “students who may have wanted to go [to club meetings] but were afraid, just knowing it was there might have been a comfort.”
Before long, similar campus clubs were cropping up—in the Boston area and beyond—“simultaneously” and “spontaneously,” says Sharon Tentarelli, who as a high-school junior in 1989 founded the GSA at the prestigious boarding school Phillips Academy Andover.
GSAs sprang up organically because of the presence of leaders who felt a need for them, not a national leadership structure that swooped in and set them up. Though they varied in size and strategy from group to group, they tended to share the same basic vision, one articulated by Kevin Jennings, now 56, then a young high-school history teacher at a Boston-area boarding school called Concord Academy: Make gay students feel less alone. In 1988 he founded the first club to bear the “GSA” moniker.
Born and raised in the South in a fundamentalist Christian family whose relatives included members of the KKK, Jennings grew up surrounded by racial intolerance and homophobia, he says. At age 16, he attempted suicide. Upon graduating from high school, he immediately moved to New England to attend Harvard. He remained closeted until the same year he founded Concord’s GSA, coming out in front of the entire school at the age of 25. By the time he came out, he was already in his second teaching job; he’d been “forced out” of his first one, Jennings told me, because he was gay. At the second school, he grew close to a student of his who, upon figuring out his teacher was gay, confided that he, too, liked men. The student would visit him in his office and admit he was suicidal. “Why shouldn’t I kill myself?” the student would ask. “My life isn’t worth saving anyways.”
It was a pivotal moment for Jennings, who went on to co-found the LGBTQ-youth advocacy organization today known as GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), write various books on LGBTQ justice in schools, and serve as an assistant secretary in the Department of Education under President Barack Obama. “From that moment,” he told me, “I made a little promise to myself that I would do whatever I could to ensure LGBT youth didn’t grow up feeling that way anymore.”
People like Jennings are “the children of the Stonewall Revolution,” says Stephen Lane, a public high-school teacher and the author of the 2018 book No Sanctuary: Teachers and the School Reform That Brought Gay Rights to the Masses. While queer people before Stonewall tended to accept a life of secrecy or suppression, the subsequent activism showed them that they didn’t have to be “content … with being left alone,” Lane says, that they could be their full selves and “participate fully and freely in society.” As these children became adults, some of them became teachers at the nation’s schools. They were also arriving at this epiphany at the height of the United States’ AIDS epidemic, which by 1990—less than a decade after the U.S.’s first reported case of the untreatable disease—had already taken at least 160,000 lives. All this made their presence, and their rejection of the closet, transformative, Lane says, because they became natural allies for gay students.
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.
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.