While most people may primarily associate gay-straight alliances in schools with countering homophobia, a study from the University of British Columbia has found that the presence of these clubs have an unexpected side benefit: they help to reduce risky alcohol use among all students.
The study, published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine, reveals that students at British Columbian high-schools that have had either antihomophobia policies or GSAs for three or more years are less likely to abuse alcohol.
At these schools, heterosexual boys and girls of all sexual orientations were less likely to binge drink. There was also a lower level of problems associated with alcohol or drug use, such as black-outs, car accidents, problems at school, or family arguments about alcohol use.
Previous studies have found that the presence of GSAs help to foster a more inclusive social environment and a stronger sense of belonging and safety in schools: youth at such schools were less likely to experience at-school victimization, depressive symptoms, suicidality, and substance use.
UBC School of Nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc, director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre, told the Georgia Straight by phone that the motivation of the study was to examine an entire population level—rather than just individual intervention cases in schools—to see what effect GSAs and antihomophobia policies have on a social environment.
She also explained why they decided to look at substance use.
"Although most people don't think of antihomophobia policies or gay-straight alliances as specifically being designed to address substance use...we had actually been hypothesizing that since we know that bullying is linked to a lot of negative health outcomes, that if these interventions are effective in creating more connection to school and reduced homophobia in schools, then might that actually reduce some of the use of alcohol and other drugs as coping with the stressors of being bullied and such?"
The study drew data from the 2008 BC Adolescent Health Survey, which involved 21,708 students in 280 secondary schools in 50 British Columbian school districts.
The researchers compared results from schools with GSAs or policies established before 2005, those with GSAs or policies established between 2005 and 2007, and those with neither at all.
Both male and female heterosexual students and queer female students at schools with GSAs or policies more than three years had lower odds of binge drinking.
Negative consequences from substance use by queer girls at schools with longer established policies or GSAs were half of those from schools without policies or GSAs.
Neither GSAs nor policies had any significant effect on marijuana use.
Saewyc pointed out that the study shows that antihomophobia measures help to alleviate stress for all students since anyone, regardless of sexual orientation identity, can be targeted with homophobic harassment.
"I think it's important for us to recognize that everybody is at risk of being bullied on the basis of homophobic comments. And regardless of your orientation, bullying has health consequences. Heterosexual teens who are bullied because people think they're gay experience many of the same health outcomes as gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens who are being bullied. So programs that help reduce homophobia in schools are not just for the small population of lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens. They actually make it better for everyone in school. And as our evidence shows, they actually have a positive effect for the majority of students, and they don't appear to have harms for the majority of students."