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For some queer teens, school clubs were their only safe space. Covid upended that.

Many LGBTQ teens find community through Gender-Sexuality Alliance clubs, or GSA clubs. But the pandemic has made them largely inaccessible.
Image: Illustration shows photos of GSA clubs meeting and Covid spores, on a rainbow background.
Many LGBTQ teens have been separated from their support systems during the pandemic. Ang Bennett of GLSEN Omaha said the organization sent 75 care packages to help students cope and feel motivated.NBC News; GLSEN Omaha

Kole Hutson said his high school in Omaha, Nebraska, went completely virtual at the start of the pandemic, and that it was difficult for him, as a young LGBTQ person, because he felt “shunned from the world.”

“It was not easy, especially since I don't come from a very supportive family when it comes to my identity and all that,” said Hutson, 17, a senior. “I felt alone. It was definitely dark times, especially just with everything going on, you're already losing so much.”

He said that school is a safe space for some LGBTQ people, and “when the pandemic hit, we kind of lost that.”

Hutson said GLSEN Omaha tried to start a virtual Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender-Sexuality Alliance, which are community- or school-based clubs led by students and often supported by adults. These can be a refuge for LGBTQ young people, but he said the virtual GSA didn’t work, in part because youth don’t use Facebook as much anymore, and many have also been burnt out from being online so much for virtual schooling.

Kole Hutson.Courtesy of Kole Hutson

Hutson’s experience is part of a nationwide trend: Young LGBTQ people who have relied on GSAs or school diversity clubs for connection have struggled to access those resources since the pandemic began. Many don’t have access to the community they built at school, with some of them being forced to hide who they really are while at home. Other LGBTQ young people have stepped up, advocates say, and are finding creative ways to support each other despite the challenges brought by the pandemic.

Advocates across the country said that the numbers of and engagement with GSAs have dropped dramatically in the last year. Adrian Parra, executive director of Youth OUTright Western North Carolina, said the group has seen a significant drop in GSAs: 20 percent of groups that register each year didn’t do so in 2020.

Cathy Chu, director of youth organizing at GSA Network, a nonprofit that supports the clubs in California, said that last year, 343 of them were registered with it in the state. So far in 2021, 194 have registered, though Chu noted that drop could be due in part to changes the network made to its registration process.

“We’re probably looking at an overall drop in the number of GSAs that have been reaching out to get connected to the network,” Chu said. “And then some clubs have seen their membership drop. So, I think it continues to be a struggle.”

Importance of GSAs

Many LGBTQ youth rely on GSAs because they help them build a community — some for the first time.

“It's a space for youth to be their most authentic selves,” said Ang Bennett, co-chair at GLSEN Omaha, a Nebraska-based chapter of the national LGBTQ youth advocacy nonprofit.

For some LGBTQ young people, schools provide safety, Bennett said. “To have GSAs and diversity and equality clubs is just that extra icing for them, and to be around their peers who hold some of those same identities and then be able to talk about those — maybe not even having the language and working through what that language looks like — is so important,” Bennett said.

Research shows GSAs have a positive mental health impact on all students. One study published in 2014 found that the odds of homophobic discrimination, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts were reduced by more than half for lesbian, gay and bisexual boys and girls in schools with GSAs that were at least three years old. The study also found that heterosexual boys in schools with GSAs established for at least three years were about half as likely as those in schools without such clubs to attempt suicide, though the finding didn’t extend to heterosexual girls.

Some people need GSAs more than ever during the pandemic, Parra said, noting that Youth OUTright WNC fielded more crisis calls from young people over the last year. “When young people don't have support for their identities, or an affirming environment and are running into bigotry at home, then conflict arises, and we see more violence at home,” they said. “We see kids who are considering running away or actually running away, we see kids who get kicked out because of their identities, or we see young people who feel like they have to sort of hide who they are in order to get financial support from their parents in order to survive the pandemic.”

Parra said “you see some bright and shining lights,” and young LGBTQ people who have shown resilience through everything, but that what some of them are experiencing “can be really damaging.”

Barriers to connection

Eli Bundy, 16, a junior in Charleston, South Carolina, said 10 to 20 people attended GSA weekly meetings prior to the pandemic. Over the last year, meetings have moved online, become inconsistent and fewer than six people usually attend. The GSA also can’t get new walk-in attendees like it would if it met in a classroom, Bundy said. As a result, the GSA doesn’t provide as much support to new people.

Eli Bundy.Chris Cavanaugh/Chrisfoto Studios

“In general, it's just become like a much less available resource for people,” Bundy said. “I think that's probably the biggest thing that's for the worse is that, for the people that are already in it, we still can hang out and chat, but we're not really reaching anyone new.”

Some teachers have also hesitated to schedule online GSA meetings because they’re unsure of how to do so safely if students aren’t out at home, said Shawn Reilly, student engagement and leadership chair for GLSEN Tennessee, which supports GSAs across the state. Even if students are out at home, many don’t have access to the internet or computers, and public libraries in many areas are closed or have limited hours.

And, in addition to being “Zoomed out,” young LGBTQ people are feeling more anxious, Reilly said. “They don't want to get on a Zoom call, because they're feeling increased social anxiety after not being social for a year now,” they said.

Silver linings and creative solutions

Though not having access to LGBTQ clubs at school has been incredibly difficult for many young people, Chu, of GSA Network, said moving organizations online has had some benefits.

Since creating an online GSA, the network has had attendees from not only California, but also from other states and U.S. territories, and from other countries, including Canada, India and Colombia.

“I noticed that some students had never been in a space with so many trans and queer young people,” Chu said. “I remember students would be like, ‘I've never been in a room where so many people share their pronouns or use the same pronouns that I do.’ That was kind of cool to hear.”

Many young people have also come up with creative ways to socialize online. Parra, Chu and Reilly all said LGBTQ youth they support have turned to Discord, a messaging app that allows users to create their own groups, to communicate.

Bundy, who attends an art school, said their GSA’s members use Discord to share their art or poetry. They said GSAs they support have also held Zoom video game nights, and a number of other creative events. “We've done the show-and-tell,” Reilly said. “We've done scavenger hunts. I've seen young people really have fun with the digital space in a way I haven’t seen with other spaces.”

Young people in Western North Carolina also created a digital flipbook titled “Getting Through,” which is available on Youth OUTright’s website, Parra said. “They worked with some social workers and counselors to put together some coping mechanisms, whether they were breathing exercises, or different types of grounding through the senses,” Parra said. “Then young people created art to go along with those activities to sort of explain them.”

Youth OUTright also sent out care packages that included pronoun pins, snacks, safer sex supplies, masks, hand sanitizer and glitter, among other items. “We're just trying to make people feel connected and like we're sharing something together,” Parra said.

GLSEN Omaha also sent out 75 care packages to young people that included an affirmation kit and cards, “so that they can have something to look at every day and kind of motivate them, kind of jump-start their day with something positive,” Bennett said.

Many young people are still struggling, Parra said, but their peers have stepped in to support them. “The young people who were already struggling are struggling more,” Parra said. “And then, I'm also seeing these young folks who have been engaged in the struggle sort step up and take care of their peers a little bit now.”

Hutson said the last year has been a “roller coaster of nonstop adjustment,” especially for LGBTQ young people. “I think it's important that if people are a safe space, or if they do have the capacity to support people,” he said, “that they reach out to those folks in their lives that they know, and let them know that they're there for them.”

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