Gay-Straight Alliances and Well-Being of Sexual Minority and Majority Youth

What can we do for LGBTQ youth that are too often targets of victimization and discrimination? School-based Gay-straight alliances (GSA) might be instrumental in promoting resilience.

 

By Tara Kuther

Adolescents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) are at risk for experiencing victimization, discrimination, and poor well-being. Gay-straight alliances (GSA) are school-based groups that are associated with resilience in LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. Poteat and colleagues (2014) examined the characteristics of GSAs that relate to three aspects of group members’ resilience: sense of purpose, mastery, and self-esteem.

The sample consisted of 146 9-12th grade students from 13 schools in Massachusetts. The GSAs varied in size from 4 to 35 students. Of the participants, 57 identified as heterosexual, 36 as bisexual, 27 as gay or lesbian, 9 as questioning, and 12 as other.  The sample was dichotomized into two groups: heterosexual and sexual minority. Participants completed measures of mastery (a sense of internal control over one’s life), having a sense of purpose in life, and self-esteem.  Students also reported on their experiences with victimization, perceptions of support from their GSA and the degree to which their GSA advocates for LGBTQ issues in their school. They also shared their perceptions of the GSA advisor, specifically the support they receive from the GSA advisor and the degree of control their advisors have over GSA decision making.  Advisors completed measures of perceived control over GSA decisions and their views of the support the GSA receives from the school and community.
Contrary to expectations, students who identified as LGBTQ did not differ from those who identified as heterosexual on mastery or self-esteem, but scored lower than heterosexual students on sense of purpose. Perhaps this reflects the challenges many LGBTQ youth face in determining their place among peers, family, and the community. Ethnic minority students (n = 53 or 36% of the sample, of which one-half identified as Latino and over one-quarter as biracial, multiracial, or African American) reported higher levels of well-being than did White youth (n = 93) despite attending fewer GSA meetings and feeling less supported by their GSAs.

Perhaps surprisingly, LGBTQ students were not more likely to hold a leadership position in the GSA and did not differ from heterosexual students in their views of their GSA or advisor. Well-being for all students, was positively associated with perceived support from the GSA advisor and viewing advisors as having more decision making control than students. Students in GSAs whose members reported more advocacy tended to report a greater feeling of purpose.  In addition, students whose advisors served longer, felt more control, and perceived higher levels of support for the GSA reported greater sense of purpose, mastery, and self-esteem.

The present findings that sexual minority youth did not differ in well-being from heterosexual youth contrasts with the literature which emphasizes the adjustment challenges of LGBTQ youth.  This study differs from prior work because it examines students who identify and seek membership in GSAs as well as the role of GSAs in promoting resilience. Poteat and colleagues suggest there is a need to examine the experience of racial minority youth who identify as LGBTQ, how GSAs can be more supportive, and what factors contribute to their resilience.

Learn more about this study:
Poteat, V. P., Yoshikawa, H., Calzo, J. P., Gray, M. L., DiGiovanni, C. D., Lipkin, A., Mundy-Shephard, A., Perrotti, J., Scheer, J. R. & Shaw, M. P. (2014).  Contextualizing gay-straight alliances: Student, advisor, and structural factors related to positive youth development among members. Child Development, 86 (1), 176-193. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12289