A gay-straight alliance (“GSA”) is a group set up in a school that provides students with an opportunity, whether they are Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight to gather and discuss issues or plan diversity-related events. GSAs have arranged activities and events that support many different diverse topics such as combatting racism, ableism, sexism or homophobia and transphobia. They are sponsored by a teacher who assists the students in setting up the group and arranging events. GSAs are usually student-led, meaning that they are arranged and organized by a group of students, not by the school or the teacher. However, school administrators and teachers are a key element of a successful GSA.

Students in Alberta have a right under the Education Act[1] to establish a group that, “… promote[s] a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging.” Section 35.1 of the Education Act says that the school shall permit such a group to be established and designate a staff member to serve in organizing and operating a group or an activity for this purpose. The group may be called a “gay-straight alliance” or a “queer-straight alliance” (“GSA”) or any other respectful and inclusive name. Section 35.1 outlines the process and structure for setting up such a group. The Education Act has not been proclaimed in force and is currently under review by the NDP Government. It is expected to come into effect by the 2016/2017 school year.

There are many resources within Alberta that address how to establish a GSA. The Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services[2] (“ISMSS”) offers a yearly conference on setting up a GSA. They also have facebook groups in Edmonton and Calgary to connect people for monthly GSA roundtable meetings.  The Alberta Teachers’ Association lists “Ten steps to creating a GSA in your School” written by Dr. Kristopher Wells from ISMSS.[3]

Ten tips to start a GSA are:

  1. Follow all school/district policies and guidelines
  2. Find a GSA advisor
  3. Speak to your school administration
  4. Inform school counselors and other school resource people about your GSA
  5. Develop a mission or vision statement
  6. Find a safe meeting place
  7. Advertise your group
  8. Schedule your first meeting
  9. Establish clear guidelines
  10. Plan for the future

Dr. Wells, Director of Programs and Services at ISMSS, suggests several helpful resources in the above article, to help in setting up a GSA in a school. GSA’s have not been around for that long in North America. Dr. Wells notes that the first GSA that we know of was established in 1989 in Concord, Massachusetts. Alberta had its first GSA in Red Deer at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in the year 2000.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (“GLSEN”) offers a number of resources such as running an effective GSA meeting, and also suggestions for student actions. GLSEN is a network of American LGBT organizations, however some of the resources are useful in a Canadian context.[4]

Some other Alberta resources include:

  • “Gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools: a guide for teachers” – Online: Institute for sexual minority studies and services www.ismss.ualberta.ca/gsinalberta
  • “GSAs and QSAs in Alberta schools: a guide for teachers” - Online: The Alberta teachers’ association www.teachers.ab.ca
  • “Gay-straight or Queer-straight alliances in schools” – Online: Alberta Education: https://education.alberta.ca
  • “Safe and Caring Schools for Lesbian and Gay Youth – A Teacher’s Guide”, “Safe and Caring Schools for Two Spirit Youth” and “Safe and Caring Schools for Transgender Students” – Online: Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities: http://safeandcaring.ca