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Monday, January 2, 2006
Student Organizing: What you need to know
The holidays are just about over and New Year's has come and past. As I look forward to moving back into my dorm at UNCG this week and I realize that many of you are also returning to school, whether that be high school or college, I am reminded yet again of LGBT youth and their place within our educational institutions.
One of our blog readers sent a message to me, asking if I had any tips or advice as to how he might be able to go about organizing a group for LGBT youth in his community. He said that although there were a few groups for LGBT adults there was not one in existence serving youth.
My first piece of advice would be to look into starting a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at your high schools or an LGBT group at your colleges. I started a gay-straight alliance myself when I was in high school. GSA's serve as a way to bring gay and straight students together in order to work for diversity and acceptance, as well as breakdown stereotypes and decrease discrimination, prejudice and bias within your school community.
The Gay-Straight Alliance Network of the Bay Area, California has some great tips on how to start a GSA:
- 1. Follow Guidelines: Establish a GSA the same way you would establish any other group or club. Look in your Student Handbook for the rules at your school. This may include getting permission from an administrator, finding an advisor, and/or writing a constitution.
- 2. Find a Faculty Advisor: Find a teacher or staff member whom you think would be supportive or who has already shown themselves to be an ally around sexual orientation issues. It could be a teacher, counselor, nurse, or librarian.
- 3. Inform Administration of Your Plans: Tell administrators what you are doing right away. It can be very helpful to have an administrator on your side. They can work as liaisons on your behalf with other teachers, parent groups, community members, and the school board. If an administrator is resistant to the GSA, let them know that forming a GSA club is protected under the Federal Equal Access Act.
- 4. Inform Guidance Counselors and Social Workers About The Group: These individuals may know students who would be interested in attending the group.
- 5. Pick a Meeting Place: You may want to find a meeting place which is off the beaten track at school and offers some level of privacy or confidentiality.
- 6. Advertise: Figure out the best way to advertise at your school. It may be a combination of school bulletin announcements, flyers, and word-of-mouth. If your flyers are defaced or torn down, do not be discouraged. Keep putting them back up. Eventually, whoever is tearing them down will give up. Besides, advertising for your group and having words up such as "gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning" or "end homophobia" or "discuss sexual orientation" can be part of educating the school and can actually make other students feel safer -- even if they never attend a single meeting.
- 7. Get Food: This one is kind of obvious. People always come to meetings when you provide food!
- 8. Hold Your Meeting! You may want to start out with a discussion about why people feel having this group is important. You can also brainstorm things your club would like to do this year.
- 9. Establish Ground Rules: Many groups have ground rules in order to insure that group discussions are safe, confidential, and respectful. Many groups have a ground rule that no assumptions or labels are used about a group member's sexual orientation. This can help make straight allies feel comfortable about attending the club.
- 10. Plan For The Future: Develop an action plan. Brainstorm activities. Set goals for what you want to work towards. Contact Gay-Straight Alliance Network (if you live in the California Bay Area) in order to get connected to all of the other GSAs, get supported, and learn about what else is going on in the community.
If your area doesn't have a local GLSEN chapter of GSA networking group you might try looking around on the internet to see if some other type of LGBT group exists which could possibly help you in your student organizing efforts. Visit the state chapter list of the Equality Federation; many states have LGBT lobbying and organizing groups affiliated with them. You can also try visiting the local programs search of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.
As far as basic tips and advice goes, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network's tips are pretty good. They also have a .pdf copy of a question and answer brochure about GSAs from the American Civil Liberties Union (I actually used this brochure myself while organizing my high school GSA).
Another thing you should check out is from Lambda Legal, which provides great resources on the Federal Equal Access Act of 1984 (the law which allows GSAs to exist and makes it illegal, under certain circumstances, for a school to ban such a group).
Now, some of you may be reading this and thinking, "I'm in college; all of this stuff is for the high school folk." Well, I haven't forgotten you. Many of the tips from the Gay-Straight Alliance Network also apply to college organizing, but in that a few things change. The most important thing is that the Federal Equal Access Act does not apply to institutions of higher learning; the only schools subject to the Act are public secondary schools.
In many public universities I doubt students will have problems organizing gay-straight student organizations. If you are in a public university or college and you do experience trouble from the administration, you should contact your local or state LGBT lobbying and organizing group. If that doesn't work (meaning if your public university or college still refuses to recognize your group) you should try contacting your local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Also try reading some material on the national ACLU's LGBT Youth & Schools section of their website.
Another great resource for LGBT student organizing in college is Campus PrideNet, a great community and resource for LGBT college students created by Charlotte, NC, native Shane L. Windmeyer, author of "Out on Fraternity Row" and "Brotherhood".
I know that the few tips and resources I gave you probably aren't anywhere close to all the help you'll need in starting an LGBT group of your own but it is, at least, a start and I hope you'll use them and others you find on your own.
Keep in mind though that LGBT equality will never be won without the help of our straight allies... Always keep our straight allies involved and accepted in your LGBT and gay-straight student groups.
matt 'at' matthillnc 'dot' com