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So, what exactly is a Gay Straight Alliance?

WATCH ABOVE: Alberta's NDP government is making it clear that schools can't out gay children to their parents. Tom Vernon reports on new legislation introduced on Thursday.

As the Alberta government moves to strengthen rules surrounding the creation of Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs in publicly funded schools and the protect the privacy of the students who join them, there’s a question as to whether the public truly understands what happens when students meet.

“I think there is a big misunderstanding of what GSAs are like and how they work,” said Ace Peace, a transgender 12th grader who came out while he attended Valley Creek Middle School in Calgary. “The GSAs I have been a part of, it’s just a place you can go where you can be yourself, where you can not be afraid, to share things you couldn’t share in other places.

“It’s just a space that is provided if you need it.”

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In its fourth year of operation, Valley Creek’s GSA gives as many as 20 students a place where they spend one lunch hour a week feeling safe regardless of how they identify.

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“We have no sense and nor do we care,” said teacher advisor Christee Rattee when asked about the split between students who identify as LGBTQ and those who are allies.

“It’s just about safety for whoever’s there for whatever reason they’ve chosen to be there.”

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The group is student-directed. There is no official membership list, there is no roll call and members can come and go as they please throughout the year.

“It’s for anyone, just to create that environment that [has] that dynamic of ‘hey, I’m here, I’m welcomed, and that’s great,'” said Ryan Garon, another of the teacher advisors at Valley Creek.

READ MORE: Eggen introduces legislation to ensure Alberta students who join GSAs aren’t outed

Garon said while GSAs do provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics that might sometimes be difficult to talk about, it’s not the sole purpose of the group.

“What people think is ‘oh, it’s a GSA, all we’re talking about is gay and lesbian rights,'” said Garon. “Most often conversations are ‘hey, what did you eat for dinner, what was that cool movie you saw?'”

“It’s just completely [normal] conversation that occurs in any cafeteria, on any playground. It just happens to be a place for these kids to be more comfortable to be themselves if anything perhaps does come up, but that’s not in any way, shape or form the focus.”

Students also identify that a message of inclusivity and support is the reason for the group’s existence.

“It’s a safe environment where everyone can come together as a community,” said Cleo Smith, a ninth grader who attends the GSA as an ally.
“I just like being there for others and supporting them.”

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The group provides those students on the verge of their high school years an opportunity to build confidence in an environment where they can feel comfortable.

“There’s a lot of changes that happen in high school,” said teacher Sarah Milliard. “They have [this] experience to take forward with them into high school that maybe just gives them that little more confidence push going forward.”

READ MORE: Edmonton-area schools ordered to allow gay-straight alliances for LGBTQ students

For Rattee, the affirmation from former students of the club’s impact underscores the need for the group.

“I had a note from a student a couple of years ago at the end of the year — a thank you note for being this child’s teacher. They wrapped it up by thanking me for ensuring the GSA kept going, and it was the one place every week where they felt they could just be themselves and where they felt really safe.

“They know they have a place in the building where they have allies, both students and teachers, and that’s exceptionally important for them.”