Spring 2018

Gay/Straight Alliances and the Need for Straight Support in Schools

Facilitating Inclusiveness in the School Setting

The existences of Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Canadian schools are often held up as proof that schools are becoming safer and more inclusive for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Trans/Queer+ (LGBTQ+) students. However, to assume that schools are safe for LGBTQ+ students because a GSA exists is misguided. GSAs are important, but they are not a cure-all for homophobia and transphobia in schools. LGBTQ+ students may not have a safe place in their lives (at home or amongst friends), but a GSA cannot be the only measure of a school’s commitment to equity issues. In my career as a high school teacher, school boards often latched onto GSA events (like Day of Pink) as a measure of inclusion and diversity in schools, and they used this to promote their schools as better than other districts that lacked these benchmarks. Such events are a necessary and important first step toward ensuring the safety of LGBTQ+ students in schools. However, donning a pink t-shirt or putting up a poster is insufficient without envisioning ways of making space for multiple, queer identities, and addressing straight privilege. Advocacy and leadership that targets the more covert forms of oppression, namely heterosexism (straight privilege) and heteronormativity (normalized straightness), has the potential to foster longer-lasting, more robust shifts in school culture (Kitchen & Bellini, 2013; Kumashiro, 2002). For example, teacher allies and administrators can use their institutional privilege to advocate for better policies on student records. They might advocate for a policy that would enable students to choose their name on school-based documents like attendance forms and select the pronouns that are used in their report cards.

Despite efforts to eradicate LGBTQ+ related inequities, current literature indicates that the majority of LGBTQ+ students (or those perceived as such) experience homophobic or transphobic harassment on a daily basis (GLSEN, 2011; Taylor et al., 2011; Taylor et al., 2015). And so, despite the efforts of LGBTQ+ teachers and students, along with their allies, homophobic and transphobic harassment continues to exist, business-as-usual, in schools. It is not the fault of GSAs that discrimination persists, but this endurance should indicate a need for further changes to school policies and curriculum. An evaluation of the structure of schools, the policies that shape them, and the available training for leaders is critically important.


Recommendations from my recent research (Potvin, 2016; 2017) for educators, school board officials, and administrators include:

  1. Improve Training: School boards and Faculties of Education should support (in some cases, continue to support) training for teachers/pre-service teachers on LGBTQ+ issues. Often there is very little (sometime no) training for ally teachers. Most often the role is assumed by a person wanting to do some good, with no background in social justice. This, in combination with a deficiency of staff training, means their methods often lack a guiding ideology or tool kit to approach leading a GSA. They are also often without processes for approaching conflict and challenges. Implementation of thoughtful programming is frequently left up to them. One of the challenges with training is that it often occurs amongst groups of like-minded people who are already “on-board” with anti-homophobia initiatives that challenge heterosexism and heteronormativity in schools. Training should be mandatory for all staff working in publicly-funded school settings. Additional Qualification (AQ) courses for teachers and mandatory courses for pre-service teachers that focus on allyship and straight privilege should be offered in teacher education programs in Education faculties. The Principal Qualification Program (PQP) courses should also include curriculum to develop the awareness of newly-trained and qualified Principals in terms of LGBTQ+ allyship. This training will foster the leadership skills of Principals and provide them with the tools to lead more equitable school environments. While making strong connections to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, this training should focus on highlighting straight and cisgender privilege. In the same way that school administrators implicitly expect appropriate and respectful treatment of other marginalized student groups (for example, students with diverse learning needs), respecting gender and sexual diversity should become an expectation that all staff members in a school community meet with appropriate training to make it possible. It is reasonable to expect educators employed in a publicly-funded system to make a concerted effort to resist homophobia, heterosexism, heteronormativity, and transphobia.
  2. Focus on whole-school approaches: Upholding human rights in publicly-funded schools is the professional responsibility of all educators. Unlike other extracurricular commitments, where one or two teachers take responsibility and fulfill the commitment for the rest of the staff, anti-homophobia efforts require a whole-school approach. This is also a safeguard against the movement of teachers from one school to another. In the event a teacher ally is transferred from one school to another, a holistic approach ensures that LGBTQ+ students in the school continue to feel supported and valued.
  3. Cultivate and highlight ally leadership: Teacher leaders should educate their peers and clear the way for youth to undertake the projects that they value. It is noteworthy that allies can be leaders for their colleagues. As I identify above, support and training for allies as leaders in their schools should be provided and/or enhanced in schools where some training already exists.
  4. Make fewer assumptions: Straight ally educators should not assume they understand the experiences of marginalized youth/colleagues. They should speak less and listen more. Straight educators need to listen to oppressed youth/colleagues to help make their experiences safer. I encourage allies to consume scholarship (Killoran & Jimenez, 2007), books, film, blogs, and other media written and created by LGBTQ+ people. Self-education is an important component of developing one’s skills as an ally.
  5. Challenge and contest privilege: Recognizing and rooting out straight privilege is the first step toward being an ally. Those that understand their own privilege as straight (white, cisgender, settler) people can challenge themselves and others to support students and colleagues.

Concluding Thoughts

My research contributes to conversations about homophobia, heterosexism, and heteronormativity in Canadian schools. It uncovers and explores the experiences of the people most often at the helm of Gay/Straight Alliances and other LGBTQ+ groups in schools—straight teachers. I offer this research to institutional leaders and administrators who are wrestling with the notion of allyship and grappling with the challenges related to privileged persons advocating for marginalized ones. I suggest to administration and school board officials that policy implementation which supports and is developed by LGBTQ+ youth should be a top-priority. I want to challenge teacher allies to go further, dig deeper, and reflect critically about their own position in relation to LGBTQ+ issues. In many cases, allies want to do more, but are limited by a paucity (perceived or otherwise) of resources and institutional support. I think that teacher allies have good intentions and, in some cases, good instincts about how to support their students. Nevertheless, many have little training or background in these areas. I present this research as a record of the work that is being done in schools while also applying a critical nudge to allies, including myself. Reflecting on my own experiences and analyzing the data based on the experiences of others helps me to see the need for stronger institutional leadership and more coherent policies to support queer students. I hope that this research can be useful for teacher allies and the administrators who lead them to reflect on their current practices so that they can improve school safety for all students.

Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). (2011). The 2011 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation’s schools.
Killoran, I., & Jimenez, K. P. (Eds.). (2007). “Unleashing the Unpopular”: Talking about Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in Education. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.
Kitchen, J., & Bellini, C. (2013). Making schools safe and inclusive: Gay-Straight Alliances and school climate in Ontario. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 146(1), 1–37. Retrieved from https://www.umanitoba.ca/publications/cjeap/pdf_files/kitchen_bellini.pdf
Kumashiro, K. K. (2002). Troubling education: “Queer” activism and anti-oppressive pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Potvin, L. (2016). Radical heterosexuality: Straight teacher activism in schools: Does ally-led activism work? Confero: Essays on Education, Philosophy and Politics, 4(1), 9–36. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.3384/confero.2001-4562.160614
Taylor, C. & Peter, T., with McMinn, T.L., Elliott, T., Beldom, S., Ferry, A., Gross, Z., Paquin, S., & Schachter, K. (2011). Every class in every school: Final report on the first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools, Full Report. Ottawa, ON: Egale Canada. Retrieved from: http://egale.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/EgaleFinalReport-web.pdf
Taylor, C., Peter, T., Campbell, C., Meyer, E., Ristock, J., & Short, D. (2015). The Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ+-inclusive education in Canada’s K-12 schools: Final report. Winnipeg, MB: Manitoba Teachers’ Society. Retrieved from http://news-centre.uwinnipeg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/EveryTeacher_FinalReport_v12.pdf.

Dr. Leigh Potvin is an Assistant Professor of Community Studies at Cape Breton University in Sydney, NS. A former Ontario secondary school teacher, straight ally and advocate she researches the intersections of gender studies, queer studies, and Indigenous/decolonizing scholarship.

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