This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, we interviewed Dr. Paul Poteat, professor at Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, about his IES-funded research on Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)—his motivation, what he’s learned so far, and future work that needs to be done.
What led you to focus on GSAs as a school resource for LGBTQ+ students?
Many LGBTQ+ students continue to experience discrimination at school, but schools are also a place where they can access support and resources from trusted adults and their peers. Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) have formed as clubs in an estimated 37% of U.S. secondary schools. GSAs aspire to be youth led with advisor support and meet for up to an hour during or after school on a weekly or biweekly basis. They provide a space for LGBTQ+ students and their heterosexual and cisgender peer allies to socialize, support one another, discuss and learn about LGBTQ+ topics, and engage in advocacy and awareness raising to promote more welcoming schools. In these ways, GSAs are in a promising position to reach and support LGBTQ+ students at a large scale.
What do we know about GSAs and student wellbeing? What do we still need to know?
Most GSA research has considered student wellbeing in relation to GSA presence at their school. Students in schools with GSAs report greater perceptions of safety and less victimization than students in schools without GSAs. Among students who are GSA members, many report feeling a sense of empowerment from their involvement.
Although these findings have been encouraging, there are some important limitations to what we know about student experiences in GSAs and how GSAs may promote wellbeing. For instance, GSAs vary to some extent in what they do—they are not standardized programs—and even members in the same GSA can report different experiences. We have less of an understanding of what specific GSA experiences are associated with any beneficial outcomes, especially because most GSA research has relied on cross-sectional data. We still need to identify specific mechanisms by which GSAs may promote wellbeing. It is also unclear whether some members benefit more from their GSA involvement than others.
How is your project adding to our understanding of GSAs?
Our project aims to identify specific practices and experiences in GSAs that predict social-emotional outcomes and academic performance for GSA members over time. We plan to—
- Focus on perceived support from peers and advisors, leadership roles, involvement in advocacy and awareness-raising efforts, and perceived climate of the GSA. We are looking at these processes in two ways: on a week-to-week basis over an intensive 8-week period of the school year and more broadly at three time points spanning the school year.
- Identify whether GSA experiences—from meeting to meeting or over the school year—go on to predict greater school belonging, hope, positive affect, and self-worth, which in turn could predict better academic outcomes, such as greater class engagement and lower absenteeism.
- Consider whether GSA experiences buffer the negative effects of victimization on these outcomes. We have been working with a diverse group of GSAs across the state of Massachusetts, in New York City, and in San Diego.
How could the data from your project be useful for GSAs and inform ongoing research?
As an Exploration grant, the data from our project could provide a foundation to develop and evaluate programs tailored for GSAs. To do this, we first need a deeper understanding of GSAs and any naturally occurring processes within them that may predict various social-emotional and academic outcomes among members. We can then develop programs GSAs would be interested in adopting that target and enhance these processes with greater precision. On a practical level, our findings could be useful to GSA advisors and student leaders by identifying the types of conversations, activities, and structures to their meetings that could benefit their members. Ultimately, more research in this area could support GSAs as they seek to identify and meet the range of needs and interests of their members, capitalize on the strengths that members bring, and promote their thriving and academic success.
Paul Poteat is a professor in the Counseling, Developmental & Education Psychology Department at Boston College. He conducts research on the school-based experiences of sexual and gender minority youth.
Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and training program officer for the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and Emily Doolittle (Emily.Doolittle@ed.gov), NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research.