Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

132P Understanding the Impact of Gay Straight Alliances On the Social and Academic Experiences of LGBT Students

Saturday, January 14, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Adam McCormick, PhD, Assistant Professor, Saint Ambrose University, Davenport, IA
Purpose: This qualitative study explores the role that Gay Straight Alliance groups have had on the academic, personal, and social experiences of LGBT high school students. LGBT youth are at an increased risk of numerous negative experiences in the academic setting. A recent study on the academic experiences of LGBT youth found that 72.4% consistently hear homophobic remarks, 61.1% feel unsafe at school, and 40.1% experienced physical harassment (GLSEN, 2009). Little is known about the role that GSA have in mediating some of these negative experiences. While there is limited quantitative data on GSA groups, even less qualitative data exits. Previous qualitative studies suggest that GSA groups play a pivotal role in creating a more inclusive and tolerant school climate for LGBT youth (Lee, 2002; Russell, et al., 2009). The current study is the first qualitative analysis to date comparing the experiences of LGBT youth in schools with established GSA groups to those in schools with no such group. Method: High school students (n=36) ages 15-18 were selected to participate in this study through twelve area high schools. 21 participants attended high schools who reported having an established and active GSA and 15 participants attended schools with no active GSA. Participants were recruited by school guidance counselors and social workers. In depth semi-structured interviews (45-60 minutes) were conducted. Interviews were audio recorded and data was analyzed using the qualitative data analysis software NVivo. Thematic analysis was used to identify patterns and themes and to develop interpretations of the data. Analysis was performed by two investigators using an incident-by-incident coding technique, followed by a focused coding process to identify even larger themes (Charmaz, 2006). Results: The analysis provided insight into the specific role that GSA have on the experiences of LGBT students. Prominent reasons for academic improvement included: a) having a group to be accountable to, b) a greater sense of school connectedness, and c) reclaiming a sense of hope. Prominent reasons for improved social support included: a) establishing a greater sense of appreciation for one's own differences, b) having a greater sense of appreciation for the differences of others, c) improved confidence in one's ability to solicit relationships, and d) increased relationships with other LGBT youth who often have shared experiences. Conclusions and Implications: This study provides new insights into the significance of GSA groups in the lives of LGBT students. Findings suggest that LGBT youth in GSA groups find safety in numbers and have a greater sense of connectedness and identity in their schools. In addition, access the GSA group has a significant impact on youth's self identity and self esteem, which is critical for growing their peer and family support systems. Similarly, findings suggest that this increased sense of self identity plays a critical role in the coming out process. Findings from this study have a number of practical implications for educators and practitioners. The current findings compliment previous research to suggest that increased efforts to establish and sustain GSA groups can be very beneficial to LGBT students.