Central Florida, Tampa Bay GSAs receive support as students head back to school

As a teenager growing up in Tampa Bay in the early 2000s, Sara Grossman had to fight for recognition and inclusion as an LGBTQ youth – under a cloak of caution.

Grossman, who would later go on to become communications director for the LGBTQ advocacy organization The Dru Project as an adult, wanted to start a Gay Straight Alliance at Berkeley Preparatory School. However, her ambition was not met with support from the school administration.

“The headmaster said, ‘There are no gay kids here. Why would we need something like that?’” Grossman says.

Unprepared to out herself at school, Grossman and her peers settled on establishing a less controversial diversity awareness club instead.

Nearly two decades later in 2021, the classroom is still a place of uncertainty for some LGBTQ youth.

Aside from navigating the harrowing realities of a global pandemic, including contentious mask mandates and potential exposure to COVID-19, LGBTQ students may also face hostility and exclusion, as illustrated by the results of GLSEN’s most recent school climate survey.

According to the 2019 National School Climate Survey, 60% of “LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation,” while 40% “reported feeling unsafe at school because of how they expressed their gender.”

These feelings match up with the grim reality for many LGBTQ students: “more than 8 in 10 LGBTQ students experienced harassment or assault at school,” the survey notes, most commonly for their sexuality and/or gender expression.

Mediation from school faculty and staff is rare, as most LGBTQ students refrain from reporting incidents of harassment or assault to school staff, according to the survey. Students who do report often receive little to no assistance from staff with some even being discouraged from embracing their queerness, “to not act ‘so gay’ or dress in a certain way.”

A considerable portion of LGBTQ students also lack the opportunity to receive interpersonal support from their classmates.

“Just over 6 in 10 LGBTQ students attended a school that had a Gay Straight Alliance or Gender and Sexuality Alliance [both types of clubs use the initialism GSA] or similar student club that addressed LGBTQ issues in education,” the survey states.

The overall impact of this marginalization can be destabilizing for LGBTQ youth, both personally and academically.

In addition to becoming more susceptible to “lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression,” the consequences of school victimization for LGBTQ youth can include lower GPAs, decreased class attendance and slimmer prospects for a post-secondary education, the survey reports.

Ian Siljestrom, who serves as the safe schools associate director for the LGBTQ-centric civil rights organization Equality Florida, says the efforts of schools to counter this hostility can make a world of difference in the experiences of LGBTQ students.

“The more that our schools can remove that rejection, the more our schools can remove that negative language and remove that discrimination, the more our students are going to feel safe and comfortable at school,” Siljestrom says.

We looked at what support there is for GSAs across various Central Florida and Tampa Bay school districts, as well as some of the organizations that help these student organizations flourish.
Hillsborough County


The Hillsborough County school district is home to schools such as Freedom High School, Riverview High School, Benito Middle School and Turkey Creek Middle School.

In Hillsborough County, student groups are given full authorization by their school pending factors such as approval by the school administration and sponsorship by a teacher or staff member, the school board policy manual reads. The school board’s Equal Access policy provides a safeguard to GSAs, as it prevents a nondistrict-sponsored student group from being denied the use of school facilities outside class hours on the basis of the group’s activities, according to the school board policy manual.

Moreover, the board’s nondiscrimination policy bars discrimination and harassment in Hillsborough school programs and activities, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Lynn Gray, chair of the Hillsborough County School Board, says acknowledging the LGBTQ community at the policy level is important as a gesture of inclusivity, which is why Gray specifically included LGBTQ students in the board’s diversity policy, as well.

“There’s several groups that have minority status,” Gray says. “And what we don’t want to do is not put into writing the LGBTQ group, so I had it inserted into the policy.”

Apart from these policy protections, Gray said the school board has further solidified its commitment to LGBTQ students by hiring Monica Verra-Tirado as the board’s chief of equity and diversity. Gray said Verra-Tirado “absolutely engages diverse groups and is always including the LGBTQ population in her diversity work.”

Watermark contacted Verra-Tirado to further discuss her work with LGBTQ students in Hillsborough County, but she could not be reached for comment.

The climate surrounding GSAs in Hillsborough County has certainly changed in recent years. In February 2006, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union, the school board tasked an extracurricular clubs task force with “evaluating the school district’s policies on extracurricular clubs” after parents with the Southern Baptist Convention – a Christian denomination – protested “the existence of GSAs in the [county’s] schools.”

Gray says periodic changes in the school board’s makeup – “new board members who have new thoughts” – help shift the dialogue on topical issues. Additionally, she says she hasn’t witnessed “any dissidence toward … inclusion and support,” with regard to the acceptance of LGBTQ school clubs, during her time with the board.

Gray said outreach with LGBTQ students is “very important” to the board, especially when the “social and emotional effects” of the isolation brought on by the pandemic are factored into students’ well-being. “Times are a lot different now,” she says.

However, Gray said the oversight of school principals is critical in shaping the degree of LGBTQ inclusiveness found in individual schools.

“It does very much stand from the principal’s leadership and the autonomy we’ve given them,” Gray says. “So, you might have one principal doing one type of emphasis and another one not.”


Oviedo High School, Lake Mary High School, Sanford Middle School and Jackson Heights Middle School are some of the many educational institutions residing within the Seminole County school district.

Similar to Hillsborough County, the Seminole County School Board’s Student Groups and Equal Access policies ensure county GSAs the ability to mobilize and access the necessary resources, regardless of their point of view.

Michelle Walsh, assistant superintendent of student support services, says creating this type of supportive environment is a top priority for the board.

“We do want to be inclusive,” Walsh says. “We want students to feel that they belong to the community.”

On the other hand, Walsh also says school policy can only go so far in facilitating the establishment of GSAs and that student initiative is an important factor.

“I don’t know that any policy makes something successful or not,” she says. “I think a policy provides a venue for things to be able to take place – that’s allowable on a school campus. I think it is really the students themselves that make a club active and successful or not.”

In addition to these policy protections, Walsh says the LGBTQ+ Working Group, a district committee headed by Intervention Services Director Amy Elwood, seeks to address overlooked areas for LGBTQ inclusion. Elwood said via email the group’s initial meetings focused on areas such as “current non-discrimination policies, best practices, and student and staff support.” The committee plans on having monthly meetings beginning in September, Elwood added.

Walsh says the school board’s commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity is a work-in-progress and something they approach by creating dialogue with students and getting their honest feedback.

“They think all students are important, and to hear their voices and hear what they have to say is important,” Walsh says. “They’ve been attending open forums at the high school level and have been working with various high schools to find out what are some of the areas that we need to take action.”


Manatee County features Gulf Coast schools such as Bayshore High School, Braden River High School, Lakewood Ranch High School and Palmetto High School.

GSAs have achieved a widespread presence within the county school district, with five out of seven Manatee high schools having an active GSA, Noelle DeLaCruz and Karina Li, co-chairs of the Manatee County School Board’s Student Services LGBTQ+ Committee, wrote in an email to Watermark.

The school board’s nondiscrimination policy provides LGBTQ students protections against discrimination and harassment on the basis of characteristics such as “sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity,” something which DeLaCruz and Li say communicates “a powerful statement regarding fair and equal treatment for those groups.”

When it comes to administrative support for county GSAs, DeLaCruz and Li say the committee has not received any reports to date of pushback against GSAs from school administrators. The co-chairs also said the committee “encourages school staff to notify us when problems arise.”

Every school in Manatee County has an LGBTQ+ Liaison, DeLaCruz and Li stated, which is a staff member who provides support to a school’s LGBTQ population. DeLaCruz and Li say the committee provides GSA information, such as a one-page reference guide for starting a GSA, to liaisons through the online communication portal Schoology, which can then be distributed to staff and students as needed.

“It is our hope that in having district support such as the Student Services LGBTQ+ Committee and an LGBTQ+ liaison in every school, we are creating a safe space for staff to support students who want to start a GSA and helping students feeling empowered to seek out guidance,” say DeLaCruz and Li.

They added that in addition to promoting leadership development and advocacy skills in students, a GSA is an accessible tool for effecting LGBTQ inclusivity in schools.

“It is a free resource that has a substantial impact and only requires the time and dedication of the members and (a) GSA staff advisor,” DeLaCruz and Li say.

One obstacle that’s impacted the functioning of GSAs recently is the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, DeLaCruz and Li stated, which highlights the unique vulnerabilities of LGBTQ students during the pandemic. DeLaCruz and Li say a couple of GSAs “lost momentum” in the last school year due to social distancing measures.

“This was definitely a concern for our committee since quarantine and e-learning created adverse circumstances, particularly for our LGBTQ+ students who potentially face family rejection and were isolated from supportive resources on campus,” they say. “We are hoping that GSAs will have more opportunity to transition back to in-person, consistent meetings this year.”

Overall, DeLaCruz and Li say the committee has seen an improvement in school climate for LGBTQ students in Manatee County, as reflected by an increase in requests for safe space stickers – which are often displayed to indicate LGBTQ allyship – and committee consultation from staff members.

“We see it as a good indication of increased inclusion when staff reach out to us looking for ways to be supportive,” say DeLaCruz and Li.

Moving forward, the co-chairs hope to expand the committee’s professional development training program over the next few years, as a way of making LGBTQ-focused training accessible to more schools and their personnel. The focus of this year’s training includes “preventing bias-based bullying and creating inclusive environments on our campuses.”

“Our committee will continue to advocate for best practices and be a supportive resource for the students and staff of Manatee County, so all members of our community feel valued and affirmed,” DeLaCruz and Li stated.


The Pinellas County school district is home to schools like Clearwater High School, St. Petersburg High School, Largo Middle IB World School and Pinellas Park Middle School.

GSAs in the county have been thriving since 1998, when the first GSA was established at Largo High School, says Lisa M. DePaolo, managing officer of prevention. Other high schools quickly followed suit, DePaolo says, leading to the establishment of a GSA at every high school in the county. DePaolo also says many of Pinellas’ middle schools have supported students in establishing GSAs as well.

“We want our students to know they are not alone,” DePaolo wrote in an email to Watermark. “There are caring adults who surround them every day in the school setting.”

To further aid the development of GSAs, DePaolo says the Pinellas County School Board’s Prevention Office, “a team of school social workers, school psychologists and school counselors,” offers students and school staff “tools and resources … to address LGBTQ topics in a school setting.” Students, families and staff are also given access to “a robust resource library,” DePaolo says, which features a collection of LGBTQ-inclusive texts, including a GSA handbook.

Joshua Bean, who serves as a prevention specialist, conducts a monthly virtual meeting series for GSA sponsors. DePaolo says the purpose of these meetings is to provide sponsors with networking opportunities and a GSA support system.

Additionally, the school board’s Equal Access policy ensures that GSAs are able to access the same school resources as other student organizations.

“Our goal is to create a safer learning environment for all students, including LGBTQ youth and their families,” DePaolo says.

She adds GSAs are vital in creating an LGBTQ-inclusive school climate because they allow LGBTQ students to create a safe place or students, build positive relationships with peers and foster deeper social connections through philanthropy and community involvement. DePaolo says there’s been a significant reduction in bullying and social isolation at Pinellas schools with active GSAs.

“LGBTQ+ students and their allies in the GSAs are empowered to make healthier choices that positively impact personal well-being and academic achievement,” she says.
DePaolo notes the school board is steadfast in its ongoing commitment to uplift LGBTQ students and maintain an inclusive school environment.

“Because of our dedication to the safety and well-being of all students, including LGBTQ+ students, we will continue to work to give a voice to students who have traditionally not always been heard,” she says.

Watermark also contacted school board officials from Brevard, Volusia, Orange and Sarasota counties to discuss their support for their respective GSAs, but these officials could not be reached for comment.


The Dru Project

The Dru Project is dedicated to shaping the LGBTQ+ change makers of tomorrow.

The nonprofit’s inception was inspired by the life and activism of Christopher Andrew Leinonen, who started the first GSA at Seminole High School in 2002 and later became one of the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. Grossman says The Dru Project aims to keep the memory of Leinonen’s humanitarian spirit alive for the next generation of LGBTQ youth, which includes empowering GSAs to reach their fullest potential.

“We know that Gay Straight Alliances are such an important and integral club for queer youth these days,” Grossman says.

One of the ways in which The Dru Project helps GSAs, Grossman says, is by providing them with mini-grants to cover organizational expenses, such as creating T-shirts for GSA members and facilitating LGBTQ-themed field trips and school events. To date, The Dru Project has donated $15,000 in mini-grants to various GSAs, according to its official website. The nonprofit awards up to 10 grants each school year, and GSAs can apply by filling out an online form, which includes writing an essay on how the grant money will be used.

The Dru Project has also published its own GSA guidebook, which GSAs can download for free on its official website. The guidebook includes resources such as an LGBTQ glossary, club event outlines and a coming out handout. Grossman says the guidebook is being revised for the next school year to be more intersectional, offering increased representation to the layered experiences of BIPOC, transgender and nonbinary students.

In addition to the mini-grants and the GSA guidebook, Grossman says the Dru Project hosts talk-backs across various schools: informational events during which a Dru Project officer visits with a school – in-person or virtually – “to talk about our work and why GSAs matter so much.”

“It’s our hope and our goal that through our guide, through our grants and through just helping some of these clubs along that they can move up to the next level and do advocacy work in addition to meeting as a social club,” Grossman says. “So, they are out in their school, they’re out in their communities: they are really just representing themselves and being as authentic as they can be.”

Orlando Youth Alliance

The self-described “community Gay Straight Alliance,” Orlando Youth Alliance has been serving LGBTQ youth, including local GSAs, for the past 31 years.
OYA CEO Michael Slaymaker says the nonprofit’s philanthropic outreach to GSAs is part of its commitment to creating more consistent, inclusive school environments for LGBTQ students.

“We were the first GSA because the schools didn’t have them,” Slaymaker says. “So, it was important for us to make sure that when our school systems got caught up with the LGBTQ community and the need for GSAs and started having more of them in the schools, that we wanted to be there to support them and make sure that they continue.”

Slaymaker says having a GSA gives LGBTQ students more immediate access to resources. “The students can get help and assistance right after fifth period as opposed to having to drive or dial into a meeting in the evening,” he says.

Similar to The Dru Project, OYA provides eligible GSAs with grants to cover “general operating expenses,” according to OYA’s official website. Slaymaker says a Ginger Malcom GSA Grant, named after a former OYA board member, ranges in amounts from $300-500. As part of the application process, which is available online, interested GSAs are required to submit a narrative on how the grant money will be used.

OYA is also a member of a Central Florida coalition, featuring LGBTQ organizations like Zebra Coalition and Equality Florida, that focuses on supporting GSAs. Slaymaker says the group meets monthly to speak with GSA organizers from Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties and help them design educational programming for their respective GSAs. Additionally, Slaymaker says OYA regularly takes part in the Orlando Youth Empowerment Summit, which aims to “train and educate leaders in GSAs,” by sponsoring speakers and participants at the event.

“Not everybody is going to find all of the places that are safe spaces,” Slaymaker says. “So, the more safe spaces that we have, the greater the amount of youth not thinking that they’re alone or that suicide is the answer.”

Equality Florida

Equality Florida has been striving to reduce LGBTQ harassment and discrimination throughout the state since its formation in 1997.

When it comes to GSAs, Siljestrom says the organization’s primary mission is ensuring students are well-informed about their ability to establish a GSA at their own school.

Equality Florida accomplishes this mission through its Safe and Healthy Schools Project, a collection of online resources intended to help “create a culture of inclusion” and counter “the bullying, harassment, social isolation and bigotry that dramatically increase risk factors for LGBTQ+ students,” according to the organization’s official website.

The collection includes resources for students, teachers, parents and LGBTQ allies. Student resources include GSA tools, such as tips for starting a GSA, club activities suggestions and a definition of the Equal Access Act of 1984, a federal law which states that all extracurricular student groups must be provided equal access by their school.

Siljestrom says Equality Florida has already heard from “terrified” parents of LGBTQ youth, who are concerned about potential harassment against their kids, as well as the supportiveness of faculty in affirming students’ identities, such as using the correct names and pronouns for trans and nonbinary students.

“When we think about safety, I would say a couple years ago a lot of people thought about it in the context of school security,” Siljestrom says. “I’d say right now when we talk about safety, a lot of people think about it in the context of health or the pandemic … And for our LGBTQ kids, their version of safety – and their family’s version of safety – is ‘Can my child simply attend school without being afraid of how they’re going to be treated?’”

GSAs can provide an empowering space for LGBTQ students to find their own voice, Siljestrom says.

“For a lot of our LGBTQ+ kids, this is their chance to engage in leadership because they get to run to be the GSA president and they get to control what the programs and the outputs of their club over the course of the school year will be,” he says. “There’s not a lot of other clubs where our LGBTQ+ youth feel like they can be a part and gain those same leadership skills that so many of our kids do gain from clubs.”

Despite the fears and uncertainties, Siljestrom says he’s encouraged by what he sees as an increased attentiveness toward LGBTQ students by Florida schools, as well as the presence of local “champions” who look out for LGBTQ students.

“More and more school districts, more and more communities, more and more individuals are seeing and hearing the experiences of these students, and as a result, there is more happening that is being responsive to the needs of our kids,” he says.

The Dru Project fosters unity and inclusion through LGBTQ+ Student Alliances. To access the organization’s GSA Guide, grant and scholarship information, go to TheDruProject.org/GSAGuide.

The Orlando Youth Alliance, as well as the Lakeland Youth Alliance and Seminole Youth Alliance, are peer-based organizations. For more information visit OrlandoYouthAlliance.org.

Equality Florida’s LGBTQ+ Safe & Healthy Schools Project seek to shift the culture so that each of Florida’s 67 school districts will adopt comprehensive, nationally recognized best practices for meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ students and in doing so build a model that can be replicated nationwide. Its website offers information and resources for educators, students, parents and supporters. Go to EQFL.org/Safe_Schools for more information.

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