Out at School

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In July, The New York Post broke the news about New York City’s decision to open Harvey Milk High School, the first accredited school in the country for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youth. The city’s Department of Education has run a small alternative program for such youth for two decades, but the $3.2 million renovation budget to create a stand-alone school marks a new level of visibility and commitment.

The announcement was greeted with predictable skepticism by conservatives like state Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, who said, “Is there a different way to teach homosexuals? What next? … Schools for chubby kids who get picked on?”

But the announcement was cause for serious debate among more sympathetic audiences as well. I was copied on a long e-mail discussion among three college sophomores – two gay, one straight. The first two e-mails between my son, Timothy, who is gay, and his high school friend, Elizabeth, who is not, echoed Long’s arguments (to the chagrin of the writers themselves).

“If we’re not in favor of racial segregation, why be in favor of sexuality segregation?” one wrote. “It will force people to come out too early, leave fewer gays in the regular schools,” the second wrote. David, the third friend – a homosexual whose high school experience was not positive – changed the tone of the discussion. His points:

• Ideally, all public high schools would be open, tolerant places, but they aren’t. Separate schools aren’t a solution to that problem, but they acknowledge the reality that most high schools are not comfortable places to be openly gay.

• The racial segregation argument is invalid. Straights aren’t forcing gays to go to separate schools, and the vast majority of GLBT kids will remain in regular schools.

• High school is exactly the time to do this. More GLBT youth are choosing high school as the time to come out. School may be the place where they get to be themselves for part of the day because they can shed the “gay” label.

• The main question should be, “Will the school benefit the kids who attend?” Historically black colleges and women’s colleges and schools are not for everyone, but they benefit those who choose to attend.

Another round of e-mails flowed. The two young men reflected on their very different high school experiences and the extent to which they believe their personalities and world views are defined by their sexuality. They agreed that the new school will fill a short-term need, but worry that creating this safety valve may deflect efforts to address the situation that most GLBT students face, and decrease the Milk School students’ interest or confidence in having straight friends. This would be a real loss for both groups.

Elizabeth noted: “It is Tim’s friendship, I’m sure, that makes me able to treat all gay people I encounter without an ounce of discomfort.”

The friends didn’t reach a conclusion. Neither did I. I argued that the Harvey Milk School is just one of many small schools that will cater to specific groups of youth as the small schools movement takes hold. Then I remembered another argument I had once made.

I entered Oberlin College in 1969, a year after Afro House was opened. It was a small dorm following in the tradition of other special-interest dorms for students who wanted to immerse themselves in a language or culture. By the second year, however, it was clear that Afro House was not for those interested in African studies, but only for those of African descent.

Set at the end of the campus, it became an island that even I and other blacks who chose not to live there found fewer and fewer reasons to visit. I wrote a paper my junior year questioning the wisdom of the dorm’s existence. All students, especially those in Afro House, were being effectively robbed of an opportunity to create a diverse community.

Separation, even by choice, is a slippery slope. Both David’s question, “Will the school benefit those who choose to attend?” and Tim and Elizabeth’s question, “Will it hurt those, gay and straight, who don’t attend?” must be taken seriously.

Counselors and families should make sure youths are making an informed choice to attend the new school and can make a smooth transition if they want to leave. Adults should encourage discussions in civics and social studies classes, Gay-Straight Alliances and school newspapers.

The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2001 National School Climate Survey found that four out of five GLBT students reported verbal, sexual or physical harassment at school, and 30 percent reported missing at least a day of school in the past month out of fear for their personal safety.

The problem is real. The solution is to make the problem visible and unacceptable.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings, including the e-mail conversation described here, are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.