The Use of Gay & Straight Alliances in Reducing Illicit Drug Use and Prescription Drug Misuse among LGBT Adolescents

Tim Daty University of New Haven

Gay & Straight Alliances (GSA) are school sanctioned student organizations that incorporate heterosexual students, homosexual students and adult participation. These organizations potentially ease the hardships that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender) youth encounter, change negative perceptions surrounding homosexuality, and support these youths in their pursuit of positive outcomes. Research consistently suggests that social connectedness and positive support are at the root of drug abuse among LGBT youth (Hatzenbuehler, Jun, Corliss, & Austin, 2015; Heck et al., 2014; Kecojevic et al., 2012; Bird, Kuhns, & Garofalo, 2012). In the absence of social support and positive relationships, LGBT youth seek coping mechanisms such as illicit and prescription drugs as a way of alleviating this stress. However, schools with a GSA have reported better personal and health outcomes among their LGBT populations. More specifically, the incidence of illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse among gay adolescents is lower among these schools. Gay & Straight Alliances (GSA) seek to offer positive reinforcement to gay youth, reduce strain and make students less likely to seek coping mechanisms such as illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse. 

The purpose of this paper is to examine critically the effectiveness of school-sponsored Gay & Straight Alliances (GSA) in preventing illicit drug use (marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, crystal methamphetamine, LSD/mushrooms) and prescription drug misuse (opioids, tranquilizers, and stimulants) among LGBT adolescents. Throughout the country, LGBT youth endure added developmental hardships in comparison to heterosexual youth. Gay youths navigate through the normal events of childhood, while they also struggle with family rejection, school harassment, physical and verbal abuse, and mental health challenges (Heck et al., 2014; Padilla, Crisp, & Rew 2010). In many instances, these challenges place immense stress on gay youth, which often manifests into drug abuse. The emergence of Gay & Straight Alliances (GSA) across high schools in the United States has become an effective response to this issue.

History & Design of GSAs

As the name denotes, the composition of the organization includes both heterosexual and homosexual students. Additionally, adult participation, in the form of teachers and parents, is also quite common in these organizations. GSAs have three fundamental objectives that define their organizations: support, social, and activist (GSA Network, 2017). First, GSAs support and offer encouragement to youth who may be struggling with their sexuality. These organizations provide youths with a safe and confidential space where they are free to navigate through these challenges. Second, GSAs offer social networking opportunities to gay youth. Through a GSA, these youths are introduced to adults and peers who offer acceptance for their sexual orientation. In doing so, LGBT youth become less socially isolated and develop new social bonds. Lastly, activism is a prominent goal of a GSA. GSAs actively bring awareness to communities and educate them on topics related to sexual identity. In doing so, they strive to change perceptions and stigmas surrounding the LGBT community.

The rise of GSAs in schools is a relatively recent occurrence within the United States. The first GSA was established in 1998 in the San Francisco Bay area. Over time, the organizations flourished throughout the California area and became more common as time progressed. By 2005, student-led GSAs became present across 40 states (GSA Network, 2017). Although GSAs are localized within high schools, they play an important role within the state and national context. As part of their activism, GSAs often challenge discriminatory policies on the state and national levels. Over the past two decades, GSAs have advocated for greater protections within the LGBT community and protested discriminatory policies (GSA Network, 2017). Most notably, GSAs played an instrumental role in the passage of the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. This act prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, they have also aided in the passage of 11 key laws that advocate for equal treatment among sexual minorities and safer schools for LGBT youth (GSA Network, 2017). While GSAs are present throughout the country, fewer than half of LGBT youth report having this school-sponsored program at their schools (Heck et al., 2011).

The implementation of a GSA is relatively straightforward. Teachers and/or students petition for a GSA at their respective schools and recruit members for the organization. Generally speaking, certain characteristics make a school more likely to enact a GSA. Fetner & Kush (2008) report that liberal communities and suburban areas are more likely to support the establishment of a GSA within their school districts. Liberal communities generally have existing support services for LGBT youth, making it easier to garner support for a GSA within individual schools (Fetner & Kush, 2008). Alternatively, adopting GSAs becomes quite challenging within conservative communities. Supporting sexual equality often conflicts with very religious communities. As such, acceptance of homosexuality and the likelihood of a GSA become scarce in these types of areas.

As a school-sponsored organization, GSAs are eligible for funding via their schools. With larger school districts in particular, there are usually greater financial opportunities, making it easier for a GSA to colonize within a school (Fetner & Kush, 2008). Additional funding for the organization is generally fundraised by the members of the organization. By hosting continuous fundraisers and recruitment, GSAs have a sustainable model for operations.


The Problem & Its Causes

LGBT populations represent an important at-risk group within the criminal justice system. Sexual minorities are common targets for discrimination and victimization, representing 17% of all hate crimes in the United States (Duncan, Hatzenbuehler, & Johnson, 2014). Beyond this elevated victimization, they are also at heightened risk for unlawful drug offenses. Illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse is a prominent crime issue among LGBT youth. According to Duncan, Hatzenbuehler, & Johnson (2014), reported drug usage among sexual minority youth is twice the amount of heterosexual youth. Moreover, 20% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report illicit drug usage within the last 30 days (Padilla, Crisp, & Rew, 2010). LGBT youth also report earlier initiation into prescription drug misuse when compared to heterosexual youth (Kecojevic et al, 2012).

In sum, LGBT youth are uniquely susceptible to drug abuse. While all LGBT individuals struggle with challenges related to their sexuality, Corliss et al. (2009) argue that LGBT youth navigate through more internalized challenges than LGBT adults do. During adolescence, youths still experience cognitive development and are less equipped to handle the complexities of their sexual orientation (Corliss et al., 2009). When gay youths reach adulthood, they develop better coping skills. However, as adolescents, they have yet to develop these skills, leading them to drug abuse as a way of coping.

Agnew’s general strain theory is particularly appropriate in describing illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse among LGBT youth. Since its conception, general strain theory has had a prominent role within criminological research. General strain theory asserts three prime strains that lead individuals to commit crimes: loss of positive stimuli, introduction of negative stimuli and a failure to achieve positively valued goals (Agnew, 2006). While a common criticism to general strain theory is that not all individuals respond to strain with criminal activity, Agnew (1992,2002) argues that contributing factors play a role in describing the relationship between strain and crime.

In particular, empirical evidence suggests that general strain theory is especially relevant when exploring juvenile delinquency and adolescent drug abuse (Agnew, 1992; 2002). Research studies have shown that with youth, low constraint and negative emotionality make them particularly susceptible to delinquency as a form of coping to strain (Agnew, 2002). Research has further suggested that drug use is a common offense that derives from strain (Agnew, 1992: 2002). When analyzing drug abuse among LGBT youth, the strain experienced by this population could derive from each of these three categories. Moreover, when these strains build over time, LGBT youth seek coping mechanisms to handle the stress, often manifesting into illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse.

Loss of Positive Stimuli

First, loss of positive stimuli is a prevalent strain among gay youth. Families and friends commonly reject LGBT youth.  Parents and friends are general sources of positive stimuli for adolescents and they provide a support system for the challenges they encounter. However, revelations of homosexuality often leads to rejection. Negative parental reactions can result in a loss of previously positive stimuli (Rosario, Schrimshaw, & Hunter, 2009). Many homeless LGBT youth leave their homes due to parental abuse while others are forced out by their parents (Heck, Flentje, & Cochran, 2011; Goldbach & Gibbs, 2015). The fear of losing friendships and positive stimuli often makes gay youth reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation (Rosario, Shrimshaw, & Hunter, 2009). In the absence of this positive stimuli, LGBT youth are left socially isolated and left to address their problems alone (Livingston, Christianson, & Cochran, 2016). This strain propagates over time, and drugs are often sought out as a response.  Moreover, Rosario and colleagues (2009) advance that gay youths who encounter repeated losses of positive relationships have the greatest propensities for substance abuse.

Introduction of Negative Stimuli

The introduction of negative stimuli is perhaps the most common strain among LGBT adolescents. Gay youths report greater levels of bullying, harassment, and depression while attending school (Heck et al., 2011). Gay students often are victimized by their peers, creating lasting negative impressions. In many instances, LGBT youth often avoid attending school because of constant harassment and negative stimuli (Goldbach & Gibbs, 2015). However, the common response to this negative stimulus is drug abuse. The consistent negative stimuli endured by gay adolescents makes them highly stressed and more likely to use drugs. Interestingly, the introduction of negative stimuli also extends beyond local communities. National events can produce negative stimuli. Boyle, Labrie, Costine, & Witkovic (2017) discuss the Pulse Nightclub massacre and the immense impact it had on LGBT youth. The Pulse Nightclub shooting was one of the deadliest attacks in American history. LGBT individuals were targeted, leaving 53 injured and 49 dead. Following this incident, LGBT youth were flooded with negative stimuli. In turn, resentment towards their sexuality became heightened (Boyle et al., 2017). Survey results suggest that drug use increased after this event among LGB youth. In addition, these LGB youth perceived that 40% of their LGB peers had turned to drugs in response to this attack (Boyle et al., 2017).  

Failure to achieve positively valued goals

The failure to achieve positively valued goals is the last driver of drug abuse among LGBT adolescents. In a survey of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents, roughly 50% of these youths believed that their sexual orientation would impact them negatively over the course of their life (Padilla, Crisp, & Rew, 2010). In many instances, gay youth report added hardships in goal attainment because of discrimination and homophobia. Making friends or finding a romantic partner are common goals among youth. However, for gay adolescents, negative perceptions towards homosexuality can make this goal unattainable. Additionally, hostile environments also implicate academic achievement and personal goal attainment. When students feel unwelcome within their schools, they become isolated and feel hopeless (Livingston, Christianson, & Cochran, 2016). These feelings of hopelessness directly affect their confidence and their ability to achieve goals. 


The Effectiveness of the Intervention

Overall, the presence of GSAs within schools has proven to be quite effective in reducing illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse among LGBT youth. GSAs accomplish this goal by addressing each of Agnew’s strain categories and providing interventions to counteract these respective strains. As previously mentioned, gay adolescents commonly endure one or all of the following strains: loss of positive stimuli, introduction of negative stimuli, and failure to achieve positively valued goals. However, GSAs develop practices that alleviate these strains and effectively deter drug abuse habits among LGBT youth. 

Introducing positive reinforcement

In response to the loss of positive stimuli, GSAs offer opportunities for socialization and mentorship. Parents and friends often struggle to accept homosexuality among gay youths. As a result, gay youths can lose a positive source of encouragement. However, GSAs recognize the value of positive reinforcement among LGBT youth and often make this a priority within their organizations. According to Bird, Kuhns, & Garofalo (2012), homosexual youth have limited availability to LGBT allies within their daily lives. However, GSAs offer opportunities for these youths to find appropriate role models. Research has demonstrated that juveniles respond well to youth mentorship and that these mentors encourage positive self-identity (Bird et al., 2012). This same principle is applied via a GSA and the introduction of accessible mentors.  Accessible role models adopt an important role within a gay youth’s life; they provide positive reinforcement that would otherwise be absent. Bird and colleagues (2012) assert that positive LGBT role models “expose youth to positive norms, perceptions, and behaviors that support them in viewing their sexuality as a unique and positive characteristic.” This is an important outcome for LGBT youth when describing strain. When these adolescents receive consistent rejection from important people in their lives, their perceived self-worth diminishes and drug abuse results (Rosario, Schrimshaw, & Hunter, 2009). However, GSAs are providing encouragement and newfound opportunities for socialization. While LGBT adolescents may lose positive relationships with parents or friends, GSAs offer a community of support for LGBT youth struggling with their sexuality. The support that LGBT youths receive via a GSA has proven to reduce drug use among this group (Heck et al., 2014; Bird et al., 2012; Heck et al., 2011).  

Reducing negative stimuli

When a GSA is present on a school campus, it often changes peer and teacher perceptions surrounding homosexuality (Heck et al, 2014). LGBT students who attend schools with a GSA report lower rates of physical and verbal abuse from their peers (Heck et al., 2014). As previously stated, social engagement and activism are two primary focuses of a GSA. GSAs change homosexual perceptions within schools. They promote acceptance for sexual minorities, which may deter peers from victimizing LGBT youth. More so, they may also instill fear among bullies who target their gay peers. Adopting a GSA within schools sends a powerful message throughout the student body (Heck et al., 2011). It symbolizes that bullying LGBT youth will not be tolerated and will result in consequences (Heck, Flentje & Cochran, 2011). Additionally, Heck et al (2014) argues that GSAs may actively protect LGBT adolescents from peer bullying. These organizations often are supervised by adults. These adults closely monitor LGBT youth and intervene when bullying arises. Many LGBT youth often skip school in fear of physical and verbal abuse. However, schools with GSAs create protective environments, making gay youths feel safer to attend school regularly. Reducing this negative stimulus eases the stress experienced by gay youth, moderating the likelihood of unlawful drug use (Heck et al, 2014; Heck et al., 2011; Bird et al., 2012).

Achieving positively valued goals  

Discrimination and homophobia are challenges that impede goal attainment among LGBT youth. However, the presence of a GSA has proven to be a positive impact on personal achievements among gay youth (Heck et al, 2014; Heck et al., 2011). Schools that support GSAs often produce an environment where these adolescents can strive. When a GSA is present, gay adolescents often feel safer and more readily supported by the school. These youths become more motivated academically and have easier experiences dealing their sexuality (Heck et al, 2011; Heck, Flentje & Cochran, 2011). Goals such as making friends or finding a romantic partner are eased when schools offer a GSA. GSAs offer gay adolescents an outlet for forming new relationships. These are individuals who are sensitive to their circumstances and provide social connectedness that would otherwise be lacking (Bird, Kuhns & Garofalo, 2011). In addition, gay youths are also introduced to other sexual minorities with whom they could share a romantic relationship. GSAs also produce long-term effects on community inclusivity. According to Hatzenbuehler, Jun, Corliss, & Austin (2015), the number of GSAs within high schools impacts the statewide structural stigma of homosexuality. More specifically, when a state has more GSAs throughout their high schools, the structural stigma is reduced throughout the entire state. When structural stigma is low, LGBT youth are less likely to encounter discrimination that could potentially impede future goal attainment (Hatzenbuehler, Jun, Corliss & Austin, 2015). In achieving positively valued goals, LGBT adolescents become less strained and are less likely to use drugs.


Although research has shown strong support that GSAs can deter illicit drug use among LGBT youths, limitations do exist across the studies. First, generalizability is called into question. Many studies analyzing drug abuse among LGBT adolescents have utilized convenience sampling within their research. By using convenience sampling, the samples were not representative, making it difficult to establish generalizability. In addition, sample sizes across the different studies have been relatively small, averaging a few hundred participants. Also, with experimental research, random assignment is a key component. However, study participants were not divided randomly among GSA and non-GSA schools. Rather, participants were asked to reflect on school experiences such as the presence of a GSA, victimization, and personal drug use. Inferences then were drawn based on the survey responses.



Illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse among LGBT adolescents is an important topic to explore within the criminal justice system. Unlike heterosexual youth, gay youth encounter many added hardships during this developmental period. These challenges produce immense stress among these adolescents, and as this strain grows, susceptibility towards unlawful drug use propagates. Research suggests that this strain often stems from one core component: lack of social connectedness. Socialization has a powerful impact on deterring drug abuse among LGBT youth, and the formation of school-sponsored Gay & Straight Alliances (GSA) play an important role in providing these socialization opportunities. These groups provide LGBT youth with positive reinforcement, reduced negative stimuli, and support for attaining goals. In doing so, coping mechanisms such as drug use becomes less prominent. Moving forward, criminal justice policymakers should advocate for a greater presence of Gay & Straight Alliances within schools. GSAs can be used as a strong preventative measure in reducing illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse among LGBT youth. These programs also promote positive health outcomes and appear to be quite successful in producing long-term benefits among LGBT youth.



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Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30(1), 47-88  

Agnew, R., Brezina, T., Wright, J. P., & Cullen, F. T. (2002). Strain, personality traits, and delinquency: Extending general strain theory. Criminology40(1), 43-72.

Bird, J. D., Kuhns, L., & Garofalo, R. (2012). The impact of role models on health outcomes for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health50(4), 353-357.

Boyle, S. C., LaBrie, J. W., Costine, L. D., & Witkovic, Y. D. (2017). “It's how we deal”: Perceptions of LGB peers' use of alcohol and other drugs to cope and sexual minority   adults' own coping motivated substance use following the Pulse nightclub shooting. Addictive Behaviors65, 51-55.

Corliss, H. L., Rosario, M., Wypij, D., Wylie, S. A., Frazier, A. L., & Austin, S. B. (2010). Sexual orientation and drug use in a longitudinal cohort study of US           adolescents. Addictive Behaviors35(5), 517-521.

Duncan, D. T., Hatzenbuehler, M. L., & Johnson, R. M. (2014). Neighborhood-level LGBT hate crimes and current illicit drug use among sexual minority youth. Drug and Alcohol Dependence135, 65-70.

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Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Jun, H. J., Corliss, H. L., & Austin, S. B. (2015). Structural stigma and sexual orientation disparities in adolescent drug use. Addictive behaviors46, 14-18.

Heck, N. C., Livingston, N. A., Flentje, A., Oost, K., Stewart, B. T., & Cochran, B. N. (2014).     Reducing risk for illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse: High school gay-straight alliances and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Addictive behaviors,39(4), 824-828.

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