GSA or LGBTQ2S+ Affinity Group: What's the Difference?
In my last high school teaching position, working with one of my fellow TT4C cofounders, Lindsay Core, we ran our school’s first GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance / Gender and Sexuality Alliance) as well as an affinity group for LGBTQ2S+ students.
Reflecting on the objectives and dynamics of both groups offers insight into the ways that affinity groups are unique spaces for support, growth, celebration, and activism.
Our GSA and affinity group came into being around the same time. The GSA was a space that offered an opportunity for education, allyship, and activism arrived at through dialogue, guest speakers, watching films, going to conferences, and engaging in other activities focused on learning about LGBTQ2S+ rights, history, and current challenges facing LGBTQ2S+ people in schools and society.
At our school, the GSA was predominantly a straight-identifying space. Most of the students involved identified as straight to other group members, even though several students were questioning or identified as LGBTQ2S+ beyond the GSA. Some students who participated as straight allies in the GSA were also members of the LGBTQ2S+ affinity group where they were simultaneously grappling with the idea of coming out more publicly to their families and peers.
Seeing some students project and claim different identities in these different spaces, points to one of the benefits of affinity spaces for students whose identities are marginalized within the dominant culture of their school and society – the ability to feel safe in a space where marginalized aspects of one’s identity are affirmed, accepted, and normalized.
Yet, there was still an important function of the GSA for these students as well. I came to recognize the GSA as a space where some questioning students could openly engage with queer culture without having to come out. For these students, it was a good place to get more information, to identify potential allies, to explore what LGBTQ2S+ identity might look like and mean for them, and to have open conversations about gender and sexuality without others necessarily making assumptions about one’s orientation. This was especially important for questioning students who were not yet comfortable enough in their identity as an LGBTQ2S+ person to join an affinity group for this community.
However, the fact that some of our LGBTQ2S+ students didn’t feel comfortable in the GSA sharing this aspect of their identity or that they were questioning where they fell on the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation suggests that these students were wary of homophobia and transphobia in the school culture at large. Despite our efforts to create a safe space in the GSA, we could not guarantee students’ safety beyond our gatherings should they disclose their sexual or gender orientation with the group.
I also noticed that having a GSA didn’t meet all the needs of LGBTQ2S+ students at the school. Many students who came to our affinity group didn’t belong to the GSA. For those who were not out beyond our affinity group and possibly their closest friends, being part of the GSA could be unsafe. Though the space was ostensibly meant to support LGBTQ2S+ students and straight allies, for students who are questioning or identify as LGBTQ2S+ and who don’t read as straight or gender-normative, being part of a GSA can increase unwanted attention from peers or family members directed at their sexual or gender orientation, identities that they may not yet or ever want to acknowledge with those people.
Additionally, the GSA ran as a club at the same time as all the other school clubs, and some of our LGBTQ2S+ students who attended our affinity group meetings had other interests they wanted to pursue that conflicted with being part of the GSA. Sexual and gender orientation are not the governing or only facets of our identities, and some LGBTQ2S+ students wanted to use club time to be musicians, debaters, or athletes.
The Affinity Group
Our affinity group was a place for building community, being seen by each other, supporting one another through the experience of homo- and transphobia at the school (graffiti on lockers, the absence of informed LGBTQ2S+ content in Sex Ed classes, sexuality-based and gender-normative bullying, etc.) and in the world beyond, activism, laughter, education, critique about the hetero- and gender-normative aspects of school life (the curriculum, boarding arrangements on school trips, washrooms and changerooms, sports teams, dress codes, etc.), and sharing our challenges and joys of being LGBTQ2S+ people in relationships with family, friends, partners, classmates, and teachers.
Students who participated in our LGBTQ2S+ affinity group did so anonymously to anyone beyond our group. We ran the affinity group at a time when students would be involved in other activities where their absence would likely be unnoticed to reduce the chance of questioning from teachers or peers.
Although anonymity is not required for affinity groups, in the case of this group, it encouraged students who were not yet out amongst their peers to feel more comfortable participating. The culture of the school in which an affinity group operates sometimes makes these choices necessary – a discussion, perhaps, for a different blog post.
One of the years we ran the affinity group, students decided that they wanted to engage in activism at the school. This involved running a school-wide Pride event and successfully advocating to have a rainbow sidewalk painted on school property. The video below shows me celebrating the installation of our Pride sidewalk.
Encouraging activism was not a goal of the affinity group or a necessary outcome. Yet, looking back on this time now, I find it hard to believe that the existence of our affinity group over the years and the LGBTQ2S+ community it created did not contribute to these students having the confidence individually and collectively to engage in activism at their school, which meant that many of them would be publicly outing themselves for the first time for their entire school community.
Regardless of whether an affinity group engages in activism or only exists for the needs of the group itself, the mere existence of an affinity group is an activist gesture:
It makes a statement about the types of conversation that are needed and wanted within a school community.
It speaks to how the concerns and needs of marginalized groups at the school are or are not being addressed.
It demonstrates that there are ways in which the dominant school culture is not operating in other areas to support the needs of all students, calling on the school to recognize (and hopefully address in other areas) this reality.
It shows that people in the school community care about creating safe spaces where identities that are marginalized are respected, affirmed, and celebrated.
Ultimately, clubs like GSAs that focus on social justice issues are great, but they don't respond to all the same needs that are supported by affinity groups. There should be a place for both in schools.
If you are interested in starting an affinity group at your school, check out our previous blog post that offers some advice as you get started.