A grounded theory study of the context of gay-straight alliance formation and maintenance in the deep south
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth are a population at risk of many negative health and mental health outcomes due to the stigma and oppression they may face at home, in school, and in the community. There is some evidence to suggest that LGBTQ youths’ experiences may vary by region in the United States (U.S.), in part impacted by differing experiences in their social contexts. This variance is evident in the Deep South, where schools are less likely to adopt needed policy protections for this population, and have a lower density of LGBTQ-affirming Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs compared to other regions of the country. In research studies, GSAs have been demonstrated to provide positive impacts for LGBTQ youth (as well as ally youth) in schools, but little is known about their formation and maintenance. This study investigates the perceived contexts surrounding the formation and/or maintenance of GSAs in the Deep South region of the U.S. A grounded theory approach led to the recruitment of 17 participants who were either students, advisors, advocates, or some combination of roles within a GSA. These 17 participants represented the following states, defined as the “Deep South”: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The findings and resulting theory indicate that GSAs experience three distinct stages: pre-formation, formation, and maintenance. The findings also indicate that students, advocates, and advisors work to build strength, minimize threats, and negotiate failure and barriers. These findings have implications for social workers and advocates by suggesting ways to enhance GSA functioning in service of protecting LGBTQ youth.