Protecting Trans Students in Seattle Public Schools Part One: The Gay-Straight Alliance

by Gracie Bucklew

Gay Lesbian Or Whatever (GLOW), Sexuality And Gender Alliance (SAGA), Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), or Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) as most commonly known – the advocacy has many monikers. To educate straight and cisgender people, to harbor LGBTQ+ kids, to mobilize LGBTQ+ students to make change in their school community, some combination of the above – it serves many purposes and goals. Despite its numerous nuances, the GSA has become a staple of the modern school community that accepts, or at least pretends to accept, the LGBTQ+ students in their midst.

While we can claim Seattle is a liberal bubble that negates the need for such clubs in our accepting schools, claim all our LGBTQ+ students feel safe being themselves without GSAs, claim homophobia and transphobia are issues of the past, and claim kids have more freedom than ever before when it comes to exploring and expressing gender and sexuality, GSAs are still, in fact, a necessity in all schools, even in our happy welcoming Seattle.

I know because I attend one of the most accepting schools to LGBTQ+ students in Seattle, and I benefit from our SAGA every Tuesday during lunch, and I’m cis! (Please keep that in mind while reading; I am a cis person writing about trans issues. I am not an expert.)

With transphobic hate crimes on the rise, trans students are increasingly vulnerable to harassment and bullying. Even more so are trans students of color, with American Indian and Middle Eastern trans students enduring the highest frequencies of in-school harassment among all races, generally. Similar to racism, misogyny and transphobia intersect to beset discrimination twice as intense upon trans feminine students among all trans, cross-dressing, and non-binary students. Disabled trans students also struggle more than average, with 82% having at least one negative experience in school contrasted to 77% of trans students overall. Clearly, transphobia is not the issue of the past many claim it to be.

GSAs and similar clubs are key in fighting this discrimination and creating a space free of it for healing. They allow trans students to connect with students like them and students who support them. Students who have a GSA at their school are less likely to feel unsafe at school because of their gender expression. They are also less likely to miss school due to harassment. Trans students also report feeling a greater sense of connection to their school community if they have a GSA. The benefits of a GSA are abundant.

Over the last few months, as part of my senior project, I conducted an investigation of Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) so-called “safe, welcoming” environment. After over 20 hours of scouring SPS’ websites (which are all in desperate need of updating), sending emails to GSA leaders and principals, calling front offices, and entering everything into a massive spreadsheet, I confirmed that 26 of Seattle’s 101 public schools have a GSA-type of club (I couldn’t reach seven schools). More specifically, 13 of the 16 high schools, 11 of the 13 middle schools, three of the 11 K-8 schools, and none of the 62 elementary schools have a GSA.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s understandable none of the elementary schools have a GSA. Little kids shouldn’t be thinking about that stuff so young anyway.

You’re not alone if you thought this. An impressive number of office administrators, when asked by me on the phone if their school has a GSA-type club, prefaced their “no” awkwardly with, “We’re an elementary school…”

But why is it so uncalled for to expect or at least hope for a place to talk freely about gender and sexuality in an elementary school? The world already sexualizes children regularly. Their sexualization manifests when we ask a little boy if he has any girlfriends yet and when we tell a little girl that that boy who teases her just likes her. The only difference is that this sexualization is heterosexual. We’re afraid of exposing our youngest members of society to the world of LGBTQ+ because our relationships are thought of as exclusively sexual and we need to shield our children from sex (even though we indulge them with copious amounts of violence).

Also, a lot of kids (like me) have LGBTQ+ parents and guardians. In a GSA space we could at least bond over that commonality if not our own identities. I would have greatly appreciated an LGBTQ+ club in elementary school to simply feel comfortable uttering the words associated with the community. For the longest time, because no one else said it and it was very taboo, I would avoid saying “lesbian,” but I have lesbian moms. I am also a lesbian. Pathetic, right? I am very confident this would not have been the case if there was a safe space at my elementary school dedicated to open LGBTQ+ conversation.

Further, kids are extraordinarily gender fluid creatures. For the most part, they’re constantly breaking gender norms. Sadly, though, this free exploration is too often cut short very early in their childhood because they quickly learn what a girl is supposed to be and what a boy is supposed to be. GSAs could partially combat our gender-binary brainwashing by embracing kids how they are and inviting them to continue their identity searching through elementary school and beyond.

Because they are usually behind the creation and upkeep of clubs and after-school activities, the complete absence of GSAs in Seattle’s public elementary schools is very telling of our parents, guardians, and teachers. In middle and high school, when kids start to run the school clubs and activities, GSAs become much more common. This can only lead me to conclude that it’s the adults who are uncomfortable with LGBTQ+ things, not the students they claim to be protecting.

After asking schools if they have a GSA-type thing and receiving a “yes,” I asked if their club is trans-inclusive. While all of the Seattle schools who have a GSA said they’re inclusive of trans students, not all of them could report having actual trans members in their club. While this doesn’t automatically disprove their previous profession of inclusion, it does leave it up to question. Contrary to popular belief, trans-inclusion is not a given in school GSAs. The very (original) title – Gay-Straight Alliance – is extremely exclusive and binary. It includes straight people before trans, a very backward way of thinking if you ask me. Fortunately, though, many schools have realized this outdated language and have responded with changing the names of their clubs to include gender and other sexualities besides homosexuality.

Our school district has come a long way, but until every out and closeted trans student in Seattle is guaranteed a place of refuge from the torment, a place to mobilize for meaningful school-wide and community-wide change, a place to connect with others like them, a place to further explore their identities, and a place to live as their authentic selves, we still have work to do.

Please comment how, if at all, this article impacted you. I crave your feedback, thoughts, and praise!

Gracie Bucklew is a musician, artist, Unitarian Universalist, intersectional feminist, and activist and contributes a regular local pop-culture column to the Emerald. She is currently a student at The Center School. She lives on Beacon Hill with one of her moms, and is a lifelong resident of Rainier Beach with her other mom. She loves her friends, cats, and ice cream.

Featured image by Carolyn Bick

14 thoughts on “Protecting Trans Students in Seattle Public Schools Part One: The Gay-Straight Alliance”

  1. I agree that elementary school is not to early to create a framework for conversation about trans issues (and other personal issues for that matter) that teaches us to honor and protect each other’s sovereignty. Especially when it comes to these very personal choices we all have to make throughout our lives. You’re never too young to learn this but as the author points out, perhaps you can be too old to learn it. As a lesbian mom and a believer in the need for all of us to express our authenticity in respectful and mutually supportive ways, I welcome the expansion of this conversation. Thank you to all the young people who love freedom and are brave enough to bend this particular arc of human history closer to justice.

  2. this was such a good read!! it was so eloquent and well introduced with stats and sources linked in, and you made amazing points!!! i learned a lot from this!

  3. I sure wish that queer support groups were available in public schools when I was a kid. I never heard of one until college and that group was a haven for me. What a gift this would be to kids of all ages to have support, to learn to be an ally, and to have accurate education.

  4. This is one more arena where it’s so important that allies step up. Those of us who are heterosexual and cisgendered must let our LGBTQ+ friends know that we are there for them, and have their backs.

  5. Very thoughtful approach to your research – you’re so right, it’s the adults who are uncomfortable addressing the reality of a gender spectrum, beyond a strict m/f binary. The world will be a better place when dualities around gender and sexuality are a thing of the past, and everyone is supported in all of our diversity (including children, and their LGBTQ+ parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and other family members). Looking forward to Part 2!

  6. I agree that elementary schools should have their consciousness raised on this issue. I keep reading about 4-year-old boys announcing that they are girls, and 6-year-old girls announcing they are boys. What happens when they go to school? In your piece, you quote the answers of adult responders to your query “We are an elementary school. We don’t need that.” They are sexualizing the issue by assuming that the trans issue is about sex. It is not. It is about gender identity. A child’s self-stated gender needs to be protected, along with the child. Thank you for waking us up. Now let’s wake up the schools!

  7. Some great points raised here! I barely knew about LGBTQ+ rights in elementary school. Discrimination is taught. Let’s teach our kids to love! My favorite paragraph: “Because they are usually behind the creation and upkeep of clubs and after-school activities, the complete absence of GSAs in Seattle’s public elementary schools is very telling of our parents, guardians, and teachers. In middle and high school, when kids start to run the school clubs and activities, GSAs become much more common. This can only lead me to conclude that it’s the adults who are uncomfortable with LGBTQ+ things, not the students they claim to be protecting.”

    Keep it up, Gracie!

  8. Thank you for this very insightful, well-written, and thought-provoking article. You fluidly blend facts, personal experience, and observation to make a powerful case for GSAs in schools at all levels. Your advocacy voice has impact. It helped me realize that our schools need to do more to support LGBTQ kids feel welcome, safe, and free to be and become themselves. Even in liberal Seattle. And I have no doubt that you will help move us forward!

  9. Gracie, thank you. Are you able to share information about how Seattle residents (who don’t have kids in SPS) might be able to volunteer to help support LGBTQ (emphasis on T) student-led efforts?

  10. What’s up with the three high schools and two middle schools that don’t have GSAs? It’s great that so many schools have them, but it does make me wonder what’s happening at those other schools. It’s also interesting to consider the elementary schools. I agree completely that “it’s the adults who are uncomfortable with LGBTQ+ things, not the students they claim to be protecting.” Great perspective and research!