By Linda Mckay-Panos
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are groups formed in schools and run by students with teacher support or sponsorship. The purpose of a GSA is to create welcoming, caring, respectful and safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Two-Spirit, Intersex, Pansexual, Asexual, Androgynous) students and their allies. GSAs often work on advocacy, human rights and awareness projects to make their communities more inclusive. According to Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality, over 100 schools in Calgary and area have GSAs.
Overview of GSAs
GSAs have sprung up in schools across the United States and Canada over the last thirty years. These groups have been formed mostly in response to some troubling statistics about LGBTQ2S+ youth. A 2011 Canadian survey revealed the following:
one in five Canadian LGBTQ students experience bullying every day;
90% of those are bullied with words;
70% hear transphobic (fear, discrimination or hatred against transgender people) remarks every day;
37% of students are harassed about their parents’ sexual orientation;
44% of LGBTQ youth reported thinking about, considering or planning suicide (compared to 26% of heterosexual youth);
50% of LGBTQ youth reported self-harming (compared to 35% of heterosexual youth);
53% of LGBTQ youth felt unsafe at school (compared to 3% of heterosexual youth); and
30-50% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
According to Ian Macgillivray (see: Gay-Straight Alliances: A Handbook for Students, Educators and Parents, 2007), gay-straight alliances ARE:
student clubs started and run by students, for students;
treated like any other student club in a school;
a safe place for students to get support that they sometimes cannot find at home;
a good way to address the social and emotional isolation endured by some LGBTQ students;
an effective way to educate the school community about human rights, equality and diversity; and
shown to decrease bullying, violence and risky behaviours.
On the other hand, he notes that gay-straight alliances are NOT:
sex or dating clubs;
an official endorsement of sexual orientation;
limited to LGBTQ students; or
anti-faith or anti-religious.
Studies conducted in schools with GSAs indicate that GSAs make schools safer for LGBTQ students by sending a message that verbal and physical harassment will not be tolerated. Further, LGBTQ students are less likely to miss school because of safety issues. GSAs also help LGBTQ students identify supportive school staff, which can have a positive impact on their academic achievement and experiences. (See Gay-Straight Alliances: Creating Safer Schools for LGBT Students and their Allies, GLSEN Research Brief.) In addition, the University of British Columbia concluded that GSAs in schools reduce the risk of suicide for all students.
History of GSAs in Alberta
Alberta Education has stated that students who attend schools with GSAs are far more likely to say that their schools are supportive of LGBTQ people. Students are more willing to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity and see their school climate as becoming less homophobic. Other positive impacts reported by Alberta Education include:
greater school attachment and connectedness which lead to higher academic achievement, greater participation in the school community, and lower levels of depression;
increased student safety and decreased incidents of bullying;
improved mental health and student well-being;
higher self-esteem and positive identity development;
increased development of advocacy and leadership skills;
increased representation of visible LGBTQ identities, which can help to challenge stereotypical gender norms; and
improved climate of gender inclusion and improved respect for differences.
In 2015, the Alberta government amended the School Act. The key amendments provided that:
Alberta schools could not notify parents if their child joined a GSA;
principals could only inform parents that a GSA existed in the school (s. 50.1; s. 16.1(6));
if a student or group of students applied for permission to establish a “student organization” (this included GSAs), permission should be immediately granted by the principal (s. 16.1);
principals could not prohibit or discourage students from calling the club a “gay-straight alliance” or “queer-straight alliance” (s. 16.1(3.1)); and
all schools in Alberta that receive public funding must publish a policy that clearly allows students to form a gay-straight alliance (s. 45.1).
Section 45.1(5) of the School Act set out requirements for these policies:
A code of conduct … must contain the following elements:
(a) a statement of purpose that provides a rationale for the code of conduct, with a focus on welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments;
(b) one or more statements about what is acceptable behaviour and what is unacceptable behaviour, whether or not it occurs within the school building, during the school day or by electronic means;
(c) one or more statements about the consequences of unacceptable behaviour, which must take account of the student’s age, maturity and individual circumstances, and which must ensure that support is provided for students who are impacted by inappropriate behaviour, as well as for students who engage in inappropriate behaviour.
In 2018, a group of parents, private schools and two public interest groups started a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of sections 16.1 and 45.1 of the School Act. They alleged that GSAs are harmful and expose children to inappropriate, sexually explicit information, as well as information about gender and sexuality that was harmful, ideological or harmful to parents’ and schools’ beliefs (at para 10). They also argued that the limitation on notifying parents would violate their Charter s. 7 rights (at para 11). The parties applied for:
an interim injunction to suspend the operation of s. 16.1; and
a second interim injunction to prohibit the Minister of Education from not funding their schools for not complying with s. 45.1 of the School Act, until the court could hear the constitutional issues.
Justice Kubik denied the injunctions on June 27, 2018. A majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld this decision.
Changes to the Law
During the recent Alberta election campaign, the United Conservative Party (UCP) stated it would amend some of the GSA provisions (such as parental notification) and proclaim the previous Education Act (that existed in 2014 under the former government). Bill 8: The Education Amendment Act will come into force on September 1, 2019.
With respect to GSAs, the Alberta Government notes the main changes made by Bill 8 include:
removing the requirement that a principal must immediately form a GSA upon request;
removing the guarantee that students can use “gay” or “queer” in their school club’s name;
while schools are required to create policies dealing with welcoming, safe, caring and respectful schools, the new legislation does not contain the same requirements for the content of the policies; and
while Alberta privacy legislation governs privacy considerations, the provisions in the School Act prohibiting notification have been deleted.
There have been several protests against Bill 8. One concern with the proposed changes is that students will no longer be protected from being “outed” by their teachers to their parents. This can be a safety concern and could also prevent some students from joining GSAs. The new Education Minister, Adriana LaGrange, assured Albertans that existing privacy legislation will protect students.
There are two Alberta laws on privacy of personal information:
the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), which applies to school boards and charter schools; and
the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), which applies to private schools.
Both laws allow disclosure of personal information in the following situations:
where a school receives credible information that someone is threatening to harm GSA members;
if information comes to the attention of a teacher as a result of a student disclosure made in the GSA setting (e.g. possibility of self-harm), disclosure may be justified in order to stop or minimize a risk of harm; or
if disclosure is required for the purposes of law enforcement.
Alberta’s Privacy Commissioner, Jill Clayton, released a “rare” statement outlining the privacy implications of the new GSA laws. The Advisory on Disclosing a Student’s Participation in a School Club (Advisory) states that public or private schools cannot disclose personal information except as allowed under FOIPPA or PIPA. Even where the disclosures are allowed under FOIPPA or PIPA, these disclosures are discretionary (schools are not required but are allowed to use their discretion in releasing the personal information). The Advisory notes that a student’s membership in a GSA is personal information to which FOIPPA and PIPA apply. Further, it sets out the provisions in FOIPPA and PIPA describing when personal information of students may be disclosed.
Of interest is the ability of children (people under 18) to consent (agree) to the release of personal information, including informing others that they are members of a GSA. Only children who are mature minors (children considered mentally capable of consenting) can consent to the release of their personal information, including that they belong to a GSA. For all other children at public schools or charter schools, the individual’s guardian can consent to the release of the information, but only if the exercise of this right would not constitute an unreasonable invasion of the minor’s personal privacy (FOIPPA s. 84(1)(e)). For private schools, PIPA provides that an individual under 18 can consent to the release of their information if they understand their right and the consequences of exercising that right. If the individual does not meet these requirements, their guardian can consent on their behalf.
The Advisory highlights the complex privacy issues surrounding GSAs. Instead of barring absolutely the release to parents of information about their children’s membership in a GSA or attendance at a GSA function, teachers now decide whether they should tell the parents that a child has joined a GSA. This could discourage some youth from joining GSAs out of fear of not being able to decide themselves when to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents. Arguably the students who need the most support from GSAs will not get it.