Magazine Feature

School's Out

Creating a safe environment for gay and lesbian students sometimes means starting from scratch.

Walking into his new school for the first time, Lavar couldn't help but harbor feelings of uncertainty and dread. No student, after all, looks forward to being the "new kid," an often miserable status fraught with social awkwardness and isolation.

Surviving this transition should have been fairly easy for a friendly, outgoing 16-year-old like Lavar. But he knew his acceptance at this enormous public high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., hinged more on how his new classmates and teachers would treat a student who is openly gay.

Out of the closet for two years, Lavar was well aware of how traumatic school could be for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) youth. Still, he had reason to be cautiously optimistic. His previous school, located on Long Island, provided an accepting and supportive environment, attributable in no small part to the presence of a small but significant group of gay students. Lavar weathered the indignities of being whispered about in the hallways -- "That guy's gay" or even "There's the faggot" -- because he never felt he was in any physical danger. Every kid has to put up with something, he told himself.

It didn't take very long, however, for Lavar to realize that the homophobia that was merely an occasional nuisance on Long Island was a much more menacing presence in his new surroundings. By the end of his first week in school, he had become easy prey for a daily onslaught of insults and intimidation. Midway through his second week, harassment escalated to open threats of physical violence.

"The abuse was just unbearable," he says. "Right to my face. This wasn't just name-calling or insensitive comments. Just walking around going from class to class I felt I was in danger. I felt like I was in a prison. I was afraid to walk outside. I was afraid to leave school. I was afraid for my life."

Convinced the treatment was no rite of passage or hazing ritual for a new student, Lavar came home one day and announced to his mother in no uncertain terms that he wasn't going back.

"There was no way I was going to return," he recalls. "I didn't have any other place to go, but at that point I didn't care. I was scared out of my mind."


Hatred in the Hallways

A 1999 report by Cornell University, the average coming-out age for a gay and lesbian young person in the U.S. today is around 14 to 15 years, significantly younger than the average age of 19 to 23 during the late '70s and early '80s. Confidence and openness about their sexual orientation at a younger age, however, almost invariably exposes young people to homophobia and abuse at an early age.

Anti-gay bias has been called the last acceptable form of discrimination in the U.S. Many of the nation's public schools, often a microcosm for society at large, have been complicit in cultivating this intolerance. Although some institutions, by supporting gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and initiating effective responses to harassment, are creating welcoming environments for gay and lesbian teens, the situation has deteriorated according to some experts.

"The U.S. school system gets a failing grade when it comes to providing a safe place for gay students to get an education," says Michael Bochenem of Human Rights Watch (HRW). "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids face a greater risk of bullying than any other students in American high schools."

Unchecked verbal harassment can escalate into intimidation, threats and even violence, taking a devastating toll not only on their academic performance but also their psychological and emotional well-being.

In May 2001, HRW documented the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teenagers in public schools in a controversial report entitled Hatred in the Hallways. The 200-page report, based on interviews with 140 youth and 130 school officials and parents in seven states, describes the time and energy many students spend just trying to get to and from school safely. Walking the hallways was, according to one student in Illinois, being in "survival mode."

Just as disturbing are the inaction and neglect on the part of school staff, who have an obligation to protect all students who have been victims of abuse. As many schools have become more adept over the years at responding to incidents relating to racial and gender bias, the development of strategies to address anti-gay harassment remains largely on the administrative back burner. Given the national frenzy over "zero tolerance," the lax attitude toward identifying and punishing perpetrators of anti-gay harassment seems all the more alarming.

"In many ways, some in the administration appeared homophobic themselves," Lavar says. "I was shocked that the teachers and administrators just didn't seem to care. Then I became even more frightened. They weren't willing to transfer me out of the school and they refused to confront the people who were doing this. So I was stuck. I didn't have anywhere to turn -- at least that's what I thought at the time."


High School Controversial

Emblazoned on the wall in the reception area of the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) in New York City is the maxim "We Will Leave No GLBT Person Behind."

For more than 20 years, HMI has been a relentless advocate and service provider to young people who have been marginalized because of their sexual orientation. Drs. Emery S. Hetrick and A. Damien Martin founded the Institute in 1979 in response to a brutal gang rape of a gay teenager in a New York City bar.

HMI offers a wide array of services, including a drop-in center, counseling for individuals and families, and Project First Step for homeless kids (30 percent of the city's more than 20,000 homeless youth are gay or lesbian). Reaching more than 8,000 young people every year, these programs are designed to provide them with the tools and knowledge necessary not only to survive, but also to prosper in the larger world.

In 1985, HMI, in collaboration with the NYC public school system, launched the Harvey Milk School. One of the Institute's smaller programs, Harvey Milk was also its most famous and controversial. Named after the San Francisco city official and gay activist who was assassinated in 1978, Harvey Milk is the first and, with the Eagles Academy in Los Angeles, is now one of only two public schools in the U.S. that exist to serve gay and lesbian students.

Harvey Milk welcomes students who have been ostracized by the system because of their sexual orientation (or perceived orientation) and provides an opportunity for them to complete high school in a safe environment. The school also offers a full college preparatory program, including administration of the SAT exam on-site. On average one-third of each graduating class is admitted to college programs.

Lavar quickly applied after a friend told him about the school. Three weeks after vowing never to return to his school in Brooklyn, he began classes at Harvey Milk.

"I can't tell you what a relief it was," he says. "I had somewhere to turn after all."

The Harvey Milk School is ensconced on the third floor of a narrow office building located on the fringes of Greenwich Village. Annual enrollment usually doesn't exceed 50 students. On a typical day, approximately 15 to 25 students attend classes in the two designated classrooms, overseen by three or four teachers.

While the space allotment may sound restrictive, the floor is also home to HMI's administrative offices, a laundry room for homeless kids, a kitchen and an art room. The students wander around freely, talking among themselves or to HMI staff. The floor is open and spacious and has the look and feel of a school, college dormitory, office and community center merged into one. Walls are decorated with colorful flyers reminding everyone about the upcoming graduation, prom and Gay Pride festivities. The "Memory Wall" adorning the reception area is a magnificent collage of photos and drawings of friends, family and celebrities who have passed away.

"What we provide is a friendly and stabilizing environment," says Carl Strange, director of communications for HMI. "Once kids walk through our doors, they don't have to worry about homophobia, abuse or relationships. Here they get to be their age, make friends and learn in relative peace and quiet."

Although the school's primary mission is to serve GLBT students, staff members recognize that many young people defy labels and categorization.

Just walking from class to class, I felt I was in danger.

"Confusion can dominate a teenager's mind if he or she is trying to figure out their sexual orientation," explains Strange. "We have to respect this, so the last thing they need is to be stamped with the polarizing labels we adults deem so useful. Some of the kids at Harvey Milk may merely suspect that they're gay or lesbian. Others enroll because they're perceived to be gay by their former classmates and abused because of it. These kids may well be straight but we welcome them here."

The Institute also works to cultivate much-needed reforms in the system so that eventually students can feel secure in returning to their mainstream schools. HMI sends consultants into the schools to help educators eliminate anti-gay harassment -- an ongoing, frustrating and often unproductive task.

"We haven't been particularly successful at sending students back to mainstream schools," says Strange. "For this to happen, a certain level of community transformation has to take place. And so far, it hasn't."


"We Need to Take Care Of These Kids Now"

In Dallas, Texas, 1500 miles and a world away from Greenwich Village, Becky Thompson and Pamela Stone opened the Walt Whitman School in 1997. Like Harvey Milk, Walt Whitman is a haven where gay youth can complete high school in a safe and constructive climate; unlike its New York counterpart, however, Whitman is a private institution.

Formerly colleagues at an alternative school in north Dallas, Thompson and Stone received encouragement and support from leaders in the gay and lesbian community when they started designing the school. Recalls Thompson: "They told us that gay students were dropping out and had no place to go once they had abandoned their regular school. Pamela and I were confident that the necessary support and financial help would be there if we needed it. So we looked at each other and said, 'Let's do it.'"

When Thompson and Stone announced the opening of Walt Whitman, local and national media came calling. The two educators welcomed the opportunity to publicize the school and speak about the issues that inspired them, but were leery of how the conservative citizens of this quintessentially Texan city might respond. To their surprise, the backlash never materialized.

"People's attitude was more or less, 'Hey, it's a private institution and it is education, so let them do what they want,'" recalls Thompson. "I guess no one wants uneducated kids walking the streets."

The Harvey Milk and Walt Whitman schools have on occasion been subject to "friendly fire" from gay and lesbian activists. Some critics argue that these schools are, in the final analysis, segregated environments that do not help these young people to accept themselves in the context of a larger, predominantly straight society. Supporters respond that the segregation occurred long before they entered Harvey Milk or Walt Whitman.

"Remember: These kids were already isolated at their schools, or worse, they weren't going to school at all. That's real segregation," says Jim Anderson of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). "If the public school system knew how to maintain a safe haven for these kids, then these schools wouldn't be needed."

Lavar believes the environment at Harvey Milk is in many ways similar to other public schools.

"Just because we're gay or lesbian doesn't mean we learn side-by-side in constant harmony. At Harvey Milk, we have cliques, rivalries, popular kids, unpopular kids, fights -- just like any other school. People move around in a group throughout life, be it based on gender, color, religion, whatever. It happens all the time. We're gay. So what?"

But does the existence of these schools, by physically segregating gay and lesbian students come at the expense of promoting tolerance towards GLBT youth in the general classroom? Educators at Harvey Milk and Walt Whitman point out that the principal intent of their institutions is to provide essential and immediate services for young people who can't afford to sit by and expose themselves to harm while waiting for change -- change that may come too late.

"I don't see myself as an activist," explains Becky Thompson. "I'm just a teacher trying to get these kids through school. I admire the work GLSEN and PFLAG and others are doing to change attitudes in classrooms. But we need to take care of these kids now."

She looks forward to the day, however, when she has to look for another job.

"I can't wait for Walt Whitman and Harvey Milk to become obsolete. That would mean our public schools have been transformed enough to welcome back gay and lesbian students. I can put a sign up outside saying Out of Business. No Longer Needed. Wouldn't that be great?"

And Justice For All

Like the majority of schools in the country, Zoe Barnum High School has been grappling with an increase in homophobic language and behavior. In 1997, a young man here was attacked for his perceived sexuality. After this incident, several openly gay, lesbian and bisexual students, along with a few supportive straight students, formed Youth Educating Against Homophobia (Y.E.A.H.!).


Since its inception, Y.E.A.H.! has been involved with educating students and staff at Zoe. Over the past four years, the number of homophobia-related threats seems to have dropped. The use of homophobic language in general (such as using the term "That's gay" to mean something is bad) continues, but now is challenged by many of the teachers and staff at Zoe.


After experiencing the initial success of Y.E.A.H.!'s work, the students in the group wanted to continue their training workshops for the staff of our school and also expand their availability to other sites.


Y.E.A.H.!'s workshop evolved from a one-hour talk to a three-hour interactive training. The first session centered on a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT) students coming out to their teachers and staff. Teachers were amazed at how many of their students self-identified as GLBT. The students told stories about their own experiences in school and how the school climate looked from their perspective. This was a courageous act on the part of the students. Many of them had not identified themselves as GLBT to their teachers, and some had even faced demeaning treatment from a non-supportive teacher. With a foundation of the students telling their own stories of harassment and mistreatment in the school, the group began to research more general information for future workshops. Now called Homophobia 101, this new workshop includes statistics describing the high rates of self-destructive behaviors that plague gay youth. It also added ideas that teachers could use to help educate their students about GLBT support and suggestions about how to confront homophobia in their classrooms.


Over the past four years, Y.E.A.H.! has also provided training to the local AmeriCorps cadre, workers at a street-youth advocacy group, a nearby university's teacher credential candidate cohort, several other schools and a teen theater troupe.


At local schools, a number of teachers have created safe havens and taken what they learned in Homophobia 101 and integrated it into their classroom.


The passage of the Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 added sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and perceived gender identity to the list of categories for which California schools must protect their students from harassment and discrimination. Making that law real on a local level is the challenge of activists and school boards throughout the state. With the work of Y.E.A.H.! I am hopeful that schools will truly be places where everyone feels safe and everyone feels respected.

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