Inside, it was just like any other back-to-school day: new outfits, new bulletin boards, new faces. But outside the Harvey Milk School on Monday, along the sidewalk and spilling out onto Astor Place, a well-publicized battle waged. On one side stood Fred Phelps, the anti-gay minister who picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral, and about nine of his minions waving Bibles and chanting their infamous “God hates fags” mantra. On the other side, several hundred supporters formed a human shield to protect students entering the nation’s first public high school for queer youth.
Ever since the city gave the Milk School $3.2 million to expand last June, protesters have fumed over the use of city funds. It is hard to imagine a similar protest over special funding for developmentally challenged students; yet the torment many queer students experience creates its own learning disability. LGBT kids “face a greater risk of bullying than any other students in American high schools,” concludes a 2001 Human Rights Watch report. “School systems and teachers are really failing these kids,” notes Widney Brown, who co-authored the report, “and the consequence is that they are not getting an education.”
Arthur Larsen is entering his freshman year at SUNY Purchase. It’s a long way from his situation three years ago, when he was kicked out of his house at the age of 15 for being gay. At his old high school in Manhattan, Larsen was constantly taunted—and worse. He was banned from changing clothes in the boy’s locker room. “They told the teachers, ‘If you let that faggot in here, we’ll kill him,’ ” Larsen says. He was forced to change clothes in the vice principal’s bathroom. “It was easier for them to let me change there than to stop those boys from beating me up.”
This is the path of least resistance often taken by teachers and administrators when dealing with the sticky issue of homosexuality and other people’s children. It is often easier to remove the victim than to educate the antagonist, especially since most of the taunting goes on when the teacher isn’t around. And even a scrupulous administration has few weapons to combat such mistreatment. New York is one of 42 states that does not offer legal protection to students based on their sexuality. A bill to do just that failed to pass the state legislature in the last session due to conflicts between the senate and assembly versions.
Larsen reacted to the harassment directed against him as all too many gay and lesbian students do: He tried to kill himself. Forty percent of queer students have attempted suicide, according to the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Staying alive is the reason Larsen applied to the Milk School. Last June, he was the class valedictorian.
Though born male, Angel Santiago has felt destined to be a woman since elementary school. Now 17, Santiago says that at his East Side junior high school, “I was teased basically every single day. Faggot, homo, queer, you name it.” Santiago also tried to commit suicide, and this time a doctor at the hospital suggested the Milk School. By the time Santiago graduated, she was living as a female, and her grades had gone from barely passing to between 80 and 90. Could it be that psychologist Abraham Maslow was onto something with his “hierarchy of needs” theory emphasizing that the first step in cognitive growth is the ability to feel safe and secure? Learning is impaired, Maslow wrote, until that need is met.
One indicator that Maslow was correct is the unusually high dropout rate among gay students, which is three times the national average, according to the SIECUS. One former Bushwick High School student, who gave his name as Rigo, dropped out after someone pulled a gun on him outside his school when it became known that he was gay. Another student, Dino Portalatin, says he missed 85 days in one semester. “My mom saw the 85 and thought it was a grade,” he says. Last June he became a Milk School graduate, along with 95 percent of his entering class.
It’s not easy to get into the Milk School, which currently has only 75 students. Each application is evaluated by a committee of administrators from the school and the city’s Department of Education. It is a highly selective process in which academic prowess is less important than need. The question of sexuality is never asked during interviews. That means straight children of gay parents, and straight kids who are perceived to be gay, can—and have—enrolled.
Most of the students accepted by the Milk School have been brutalized, not an unusual situation in New York City public schools. The Anti-Violence Project, which tracks homophobic crimes, cites a 64 percent increase in reported cases of violence involving queer teens over the past year. The situation may be growing worse because more young people are coming out earlier and in greater numbers, leaving an already beleaguered system to face a new and growing population it can no longer ignore.
“There was a time when LGBTQ students stayed quiet, waited to get to college, and dropped the bomb when they came home for Thanksgiving dinner,” says Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. “That’s all changed.”
GLSEN maintains that most homophobic incidents in schools go unreported. What’s more, schools are not required to keep records on gay-baiting. Teachers are taught to detect evidence of sexual and physical abuse among their students, and how to deal with learning disabilities, but no city policy mandates sensitivity training on matters of sexuality. The result is a piecemeal system in which some teachers deal with homophobia while others overlook it. Teachers who introduce lesson plans on anti-gay bias may risk losing their jobs for promoting homosexuality. “There’s a rising fear among teachers about discussing sexuality,” says SIECUS president Tamara Kreinin.
That would change if the City Council passes the Dignity for All Students Act, which prohibits biased-based bullying and mandates that teachers be trained to deal with homophobic harassment. The bill, currently in committee, had 37 sponsors at press time. “The good news is, there’s a political desire to get a measure passed that protects students from bullies,” says Ross Levi, legislative counsel for the Empire State Pride Agenda. “The bad news is, because of the disagreement all New York students are returning to school without a statewide law to protect them from bias.”
Meanwhile, the Milk School estimates that it serves only 2 percent of queer students in the city system. “I’m only serving a small group of kids who are so abused and harassed that they really do need a place to study,” says David Mensah, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which has run the Milk School since 1985. “We’re trying to make a safe environment for these kids without being harassed. But the painful reality is that the press coverage has created the very situation we’re trying to avoid.”
The author is a former eighth-grade teacher.