GSA brings message of acceptance to Barrhead high schools

For the past three years, a small group of students at Barrhead’s high school and outreach school has been working to end the fear of homophobia and transphobia.

Called the Barrhead Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), the students are working to create a safe place where everyone feels accepted whatever their gender or sexual identity, says Barrhead Outreach teacher Joanne Wallace, who works with the student-led group. “Their hope is to extend this safe place to our classrooms and hallways.”

The GSA meets weekly at a location central to both high schools.“We welcome anyone who is  interested. This is a safe place to ask questions;  if you want someone to eat lunch with; or if you are just bored; we’re here,” said Wallace.

GSA seeks to promote welcoming culture in schools
As well as offering support and information to students, the GSA works to raise its profile in the school and the community. This fall, GSA members drew chalk rainbows (the universal symbol of LGBTQ identity and solidarity) on sidewalks around the school listing the date and time of GSA meetings. GSA meetings are also advertised through the school’s weekly announcements and via posters.

As part of its efforts to create a more welcoming environment at school, this November the GSA surveyed students to find out how they felt in the school’s washrooms and change rooms. “No one within the GSA had a positive experience in the change rooms,” said Wallace. “The GSA wondered if this applied only to them or if it applied to the broader school community.”

At the same time, Barrhead Composite High School staff was responding to a government recommendation that schools create gender neutral bathrooms and change rooms, said principal Steven Kaplan.  

“It was natural that we would ask our GSA for advice on this issue,” said Kaplan. “The GSA offered to bring forward some evidence about what students were feeling about bathrooms and change rooms. We will consider this input from students as we decide how to respond to the requirements.”

In other outreach efforts, GSA members talk to Career and Life Management classes about sexual and gender identity. This March the GSA will present a session on gender to the COOL camp for Grade 8 students. Led by high school students, COOL camp focuses on health and sexual education exploring issues like safe sex and consent.  

GSA contributes to Pembina Hills Public Schools policy
In March 2016, the GSA worked with the Pembina Hills Public Schools Board of Trustees to have the term “gender minorities” incorporated in division policy documents. 

After writing the school board with the suggestion, the students met with the school board’s policy committee. “By having a face-to-face meeting we learned more about each other and we heard firsthand how the wording in a policy can make people feel either included or excluded,” said board chair Jennifer Tuininga.

The students feel they are making a difference noting that more students are attending GSA events and asking questions.  “Understanding and accepting sexual orientation and gender diversity is definitely an issue that people are more aware of,” said Wallace. “Things are changing. People see sexual and gender diversity; it’s not an invisible thing. Students will say that while their families have a perspective; that’s their view; here’s what I want to know.  People are formulating their own opinions.”

As well as contributing to their school community, GSA members say participating in the GSA helps them as individuals. “The students tell us they can come here when they have difficulty; they can spend a little time and be social,” said Wallace. “Other students say the GSA is a place where they can talk about stuff people don’t talk about. Others tell us they are proud to belong to the GSA because maybe they are making history as they do this work.”

Asked what they would like others to know about the Barrhead GSA and its work the students respond: “The GSA is not just for gay people. We welcome allies; those people who may not be on the spectrum but who want to support others.”

Published Jan 30, 2017