Gay-straight alliances persist at Texas public schools

Some teachers and students have noticed a more hostile environment on campus. These clubs can be a safe haven.

By Sarah AschDecember 21, 2023 12:06 pm, ,

During the 2023 legislative session and the four additional sessions that followed, the state Legislature passed new laws with restrictions seen by many as directly targeting LGBTQ Texans.

One of these laws prohibits minors from receiving gender-affirming care. There’s another that bans transgender athletes from participating in college sports. Some school districts across the state have also passed policies related to transgender students, including a requirement that students use bathrooms that match their sex assigned at birth.

Despite these new laws and policies, gay-straight alliances – student affinity groups that aim to provide a safe haven for students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity – persist at Texas schools.

Joelle DiPaolo, a contributor for Texas Monthly, said the environment around GSA clubs has changed at some schools this year, according to teachers she’s spoken to. One of those teachers was Lena Lee at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Worth, who has been a GSA sponsor for years.

“She was a GSA sponsor at a middle school before coming to Fossil Ridge, and she had said she had never had any students say anything directly to her,” DiPaolo said. “They might have giggled a little bit at like the rainbow decorations in her classroom, as you can expect any ninth grader to do. But this year in particular, she said, students had called her slurs under their breath, which she had never experienced before in the classroom.”

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There have also been efforts to limit or ban GSA clubs at certain schools, DiPaolo said.

“Over time, there have been many lawsuits against these clubs that the ACLU has participated in,” she said. “But in particular, during the board meeting where Katy ISD approved their policy that requires teachers to disclose if a student asks for a teacher to use different pronouns or a name than what was listed in the school system, that policy also originally included something banning clubs that talked about gender identity and sexual orientation. But it didn’t end up being included in the final policy that was passed.”

Some of the policies that have passed, including that one in Katy, have been challenged under Title IX. Title IX is best known for its effect on sports funding, but it has a much more expansive reach, as it prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives funding from the federal government.

“There haven’t been that many updates about the cases. The news first broke that the cases were put in place about a week ago. The complaint was filed by a former student of Katy ISD in November, but so far the school district says they haven’t received word of the complaint,” DiPaolo said. “So right now it’s sitting with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education. So we’ll see where it goes from there.”

For students who are part of these clubs, it can mean finding a safe haven on campus, DiPaolo said.

“GSAs are really, in some cases, especially in places like Keller ISD — where the environment has gotten increasingly hostile, in some cases, for queer students and teachers — these clubs are really their main safe space where they’re able to just have fun or talk about like everything that’s happened to them,” she said. “So it’s really special to have that sort of environment where there’s people like you who will support you no matter what.”

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