Addressing School Bullying and Dropout Rates Through Gay-Straight Alliances

Over the next year the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC), through an initiative funded by the Hyams Foundation, will help at least three Boston schools foster safer environments for LGBQ/T students by helping to establish gay-straight alliances (GSAs). At a time when reports indicate rising levels of bullying and harassment toward students, particularly LGBQ/T students of color, this initiative marks an important step toward creating schools that are more welcoming and inclusive.

According to Shared Differences: The Experiences of LGBT Students of Color in Our Nation's Schools, a 2009 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), sexual orientation and gender expression were the most common reasons that LGBQ/T students of color reported feeling unsafe in school. More than four out of five LGBQ/T students of color reported verbal harassment in school because of sexual orientation, and approximately two thirds because of gender expression. At least a third of LGBQ/T students of color reported physical violence in school because of sexual orientation.

Feeling unsafe because of harassment based on gender expression, sexual orientation and/or race/ethnicity also negatively affects the ability of LGBQ/T students of color to learn and achieve academic goals, putting those students at higher risk of dropping out and lacking the basic education necessary to obtain employment or pursue higher education. About 33 percent of LGBQ/T students of color avoided attending class at least once or missed at least one day of school over a one-month period because of safety concerns. GLSEN also found that these students' overall GPAs dropped as a result of harassment based on sexual orientation and/or race/ethnicity.

Gay-straight alliances enhance academic environments by decreasing bullying, increasing academic achievement and promoting social justice and respect for others. Findings based on a 2011 study entitled "High School Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and Young Adult Well-Being," published by the Family Acceptance Project, indicate that students who participate in high school GSAs are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to enroll in college. GSAs have also been found to contribute to sound mental health and decrease instances of depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts among LGBQ/T students.

Jeremiah E. Burke High School, located in Dorchester's Grove Hall neighborhood, is home to the first GSA that HBGC is helping to launch. Ninety-seven percent of the student population at Burke is black, Hispanic or Latino, making it an ideal environment for HBGC to continue fulfilling its mission to empower the Hispanic, Latino and black LGBQ/T community and begin expanding the organization's vision by working more deeply with LGBQ/T youth of color.

When asked about what she hopes would come out of this initiative, Headmaster McIntyre said, "I'm hoping that will we have a fully culturally competent environment where how we are the same and how we are different is viewed upon as an asset and not a liability."

Quincy Roberts, HGBC's co-founder and Youth Program Coordinator, agrees: "It's very important for our young folk to see 'real models' and know that there is purpose in everyone. This GSA is showing the students that even if we have differences, we can learn and grow together."

At Burke the gay-straight alliance will create an ongoing support network for LGBQ/T individuals of color and their allies. Both students and administrators will have the opportunity to learn about the LGBQ/T experience and challenge systems of homophobia and transphobia. The Burke GSA has already established the Rainbow Lounge, a safe space where students of any identity or orientation can drop in to share and connect with each other and get advice from Roberts and other faculty. Students have also discussed a number of possibilities for events in the future.

"From a super-supportive headmaster to the very progressive teachers and staff, the students at Burke have a strong foundation," said Roberts.

HBGC also hopes that the gay-straight alliance will help administrators make the school more responsive to the needs of LGBQ/T students. McIntyre shares that vision. "We need to develop our performances amongst all members of our school community, particularly the LGBTQ members," she said. "[After all], we cannot fully educate any student unless we fully accept who they are."