Acceptance of same-sex marriage, and of LGBT rights in general, has grown impressively over the past couple of decades. Nowhere is the progress more obvious than in high schools, where students are coming out at younger ages and gay-straight alliances are now commonplace in many states.
It can be hard to remember just how radical any open discussion of LGBT issues was in the years right after the Stonewall riots of 1969. In a 2007 paper for Children, Youth and Environments, Dominique Johnson describes what may have been the first high school group for gay students and their allies. Where some histories of gay-straight alliances begin with organizing by suburban private school students in the 1980s, Johnson writes that students at George Washington High School in the Bronx formed their own organization in 1972.
The George Washington organizers explicitly connected their group with the larger gay liberation struggle and with other civil rights issues. The majority of the 20 group members called themselves “Third World” students—that is, people of color who identified with a global anti-colonial struggle.
In a 1976 pamphlet, the students presented specific demands, including the right to have gay people represented in any course dealing with sexuality and the removal of textbooks that “treat homosexuality as an aberration.” They also asserted the need to have the issue understood as a serious political matter:
“This present imbalance of student civil rights is political! To end this discriminating abuse, political organizing becomes mandatory. … [A]s usual, we hold our future in our own hands….to be respected as any other human being, and walk and live proudly in the communities where we work and play.”
In the 1980s, two organizational models began dominating high school LGBT activism. Gay-straight alliances that started in suburban Massachusetts united LGBT students and allies in efforts to find new language to talk about identity and sexuality.
Meanwhile, groups developed in the Los Angeles Unified School District created a model facilitated by an adult that acted as a support group for LGBT students. This version focused more on helping students stay in school and avoid behavioral problems but less on political demands. Neither combined an explicit focus on civil rights with leadership by urban students of color in the way the group at George Washington did.
To Johnson, the nature of the George Washington organization helps explain why it’s rarely featured in discussions of gay-straight alliances. She writes that it has become nearly invisible due to “racist, classist, and geographic biases of the greater LGBT movement, reflections of society at large.”