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Rethinking the Harvey Milk School
Not-so-fast times at Queermont High

AMID THE CAVALCADE of good news for gay people this summer — the Supreme Court decided that sodomy in private is okay; two Canadian provinces decided that same-sex marriage is downright democratic, and Bravo hit the cultural bull’s-eye with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy — New York City has announced that it will launch the first all-gay, -lesbian, -bisexual, and -transgender high school. At a weekly news briefing on June 28, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the Harvey Milk School, which operated for nearly 20 years as a two-room special program for queer kids, would become a "full" high school.

"I think everybody feels that it’s a good idea because some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools," Bloomberg said. "This lets them get an education without having to worry. It solves a discipline problem."

At first glance, this looks like another triumph for the queer community and especially queer kids: a state-sponsored safe space that will protect kids from queer-bashing. But is this really progress? Can you imagine such a city-sponsored solution flying if it were African-American kids having their heads slammed into lockers and harassed so persistently they were afraid to go to school? Of course not. White-racist violence is punished severely, and homophobic violence should be as well. We don’t need to create "safe" high schools for queer kids, we need to do the equivalent of sending in the National Guard to ensure their safety.

THE HARVEY MILK School (HMS) is, in reality, neither new nor bold. Founded in 1984, the school has been sponsored by the public-school system as a fully accredited program in collaboration with the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), a nonprofit founded in 1979 by the late Dr. Emery Hetrick and Dr. Damien Martin to address the problems of severely disenfranchised gay and lesbian youth. It will remain an "alternative-school project" for at-risk and special-needs kids within the public-school system, but as a full high school, it will no longer function in formal collaboration with HMI. Further, the school, which is housed at Two Astor Place in New York’s East Village, will be expanded and renovated by the city at a cost of $3.2 million, which will allow it to accommodate more students. Indeed, the HMS has always been small, and will continue to be so. It opened with little more than a dozen students and plans to enroll just under 100 this fall — although it may have space for 170 students (less than two percent of New York City's high-school students) by fall of 2004.

The school was created to address the very real everyday problems that GLBT youth face in public schools. According to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), "gay teens in US schools are often subjected to such intense bullying that they’re unable to receive an adequate education. They’re often embarrassed or ashamed of being targeted and may not report the abuse." A recent survey on the NMHA Web site claimed that 22 percent of gay respondents had skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe there. The same survey stated that 28 percent of self-identified gay students will drop out of school; that’s more than three times the national average. In addition, queer students are the targets of near-constant harassment and violence. The NMHA claims that the average gay or lesbian student hears anti-gay slurs such as "homo," "faggot," and "sissy" about 26 times a day, or once every 14 minutes. More alarmingly, the study found that 31 percent of gay youth were threatened or injured at school in 2002.

The HMS’s student body has never been your Will and Grace or Queer As Folk sort of queers; instead, the program comprises predominantly at-risk kids. Some of the students have been kicked out of home for being gay, and many have been placed in foster homes. Racially, the school’s composition is 75 percent African-American and Latino, and nearly all the students have been physically brutalized in their original high schools. That makes its success rate, which is far better than most of the city’s public schools, all the more impressive: 95 percent of HMS seniors graduate, and 60 percent are accepted to colleges. HMS is also nondiscriminatory; created as a "hate-free space" for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students, the school accepts applications for admission from anyone. So what’s the problem?

Sponsoring and accrediting a program basically run by a community organization committed to at-risk youth already walks a fine line. But on a profound level, segregating GLBT kids in their own "full" high school represents an open admission that the public-school system is unable to perform one of its most basic tasks — securing the safety of its students. And underneath that admission lies a deeper problem. It’s true that attacks on queer kids — as well as on kids who are perceived to be queer because of their gender affect, cultural interests, or social attitudes — are epidemic in public schools. But the larger culture hasn’t yet decided how to deal with such assaults, and that plays into the hands of those who are openly hostile to at-risk minorities. The media response ranges from shrugging off homophobic ridicule as standard schoolyard bullying, to sharing an attitude common among school administrators that "someone is always getting picked on," to praising the more modern, if ineffectual, approach of instituting sensitivity training.

This rather phlegmatic response opens up a vacuum eagerly filled by more passionate conservative voices, such as New York State Conservative Party chairman Mike Long, who spoke out strongly against relaunching and expanding the HMS. Long argued that, with this move, the city put itself in the business of "social engineering" and handing special opportunities to GLBT students. "What next?" he asked at a June 29 press conference. "Maybe we should have schools for chubby kids who get picked on. Maybe all kids who wear glasses should have special schools. It’s ridiculous."

Aside from the fact that many GLBT students face actual physical violence daily — quite apart from name-calling, which is harmful enough — the public discourse that harassment of queer kids is no different from picking on non-athletic, geeky, or fat students completely misses the point. Several recent studies show that homophobic attacks on queer kids are less about maintaining the social pecking order, or even expressing "hate" toward outsider groups, and far more about reflecting social and religious prejudice and moral judgment. A growing body of clinical and historical research demonstrates that what is commonly conceived as run-of-the-mill antisocial behavior is understood quite differently by its perpetrators.

Karen Franklin, in a 1998 paper delivered before the American Psychological Association and titled "Psychological Motivations of Hate Crime Perpetrators: Implications for Educational Interventions," discovered that the self-admitted male gay-bashers she interviewed saw themselves not as troublemakers, but as enforcers of moral values. Similar findings, this time about race, were recorded by historian Kathleen M. Blee in her essay "Reading Racism: Women in the Modern Hate Movement," which appeared in her 1998 edited collection No Middle Ground: Women and Radical Protest (NYU Press). These women told Blee that their activities were not about hate, but about upholding traditional values. It is important to understand that the unremitting, often violent attacks on queer kids in and outside of schools are not simply teasing or bullying, but rather a pervasive, and mostly unchecked, manifestation of queer hating that has as its — granted, unarticulated — goal the banishment of visible queerness.

Given this moralistic orientation, it is not surprising that opposition to expanding the HMS and giving it the status of a full high school came quickly and from the usual suspects. The most prominent elected official to speak out against the school is State Senator Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), who is president of the New York Hispanic Clergy Association. Along with the Reverend Lemuel Rodriguez, president of the Promise International Christian Ministry in Corona, he is leading a coalition of 80 city Christian groups who are threatening a lawsuit to close the HMS on the grounds that the program illegally segregates students. (Both the city’s general counsel and the New York ACLU argue that if the HMS accepts applications from all students regardless of sexual orientation, it complies with the law.)

While Diaz’s complaint targets discrimination — "public funding should not be used to segregate kids," New York Newsday reported him as saying on July 29 — it is clear that he has a long history of moral objections to homosexuality. In 1991, Diaz was one of the major opponents who fought to dismantle then-mayor David Dinkins’s implementation of the Children of the Rainbow curriculum in the New York City public-school system. His major complaint was that three of the 500 pages in the Board of Education’s report recommending curriculum changes focused on gay and lesbian families, and suggested that grade-school teachers be familiar with (but not necessarily read to their classes) Lesléa Newman’s children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies. Diaz, working with conservative Christian and Jewish religious groups, finally scuttled the entire curriculum proposal. In 1993, the city council did not reappoint him to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, after he made a series of homophobic and AIDS-phobic remarks. While he himself has refrained from making anti-gay remarks about the HMS, his group of 80 city Christian groups are working closely with Michael Long, who has gone on record saying, "The issue is whether taxpayers’ money should go toward ... promoting the gay lifestyle."

The problem for Diaz and Long — as well as for many other critics of the HMS — is not the specter of segregation, and it’s certainly not violence against GLBT youth. The issue for them is the visibility of queerness and homosexuality in the world. And in a sense, they’re right: giving the HMS full-high-school status normalizes queerness. But segregating these students for their own protection also patronizes them, and that’s why the HMS gambit — as helpful as it may be for a few queer kids at the moment — is not really a solution.

The Harvey Milk School made sense in the 1980s, when the prevailing politics on GLBT youth favored carving out private spaces to protect them. But the gay-rights movement has grown since then, and the politics of privacy has given way to a more forceful politics of public intervention. Just as it was a mistake for many 19th-century feminists to insist that women as a class needed protection from brutish men, we have seen again and again that the "protection model" is always a trap. The bottom line is that this is not a gay or a queer problem — it is a violence problem. And the violence is promoted and justified by social, often-religion-based prejudice and moral opposition.

At this point, the public-school system should mandate a series of measures that will make all schools safe for all students. Anti-gay violence in schools is not new, but until now most efforts to deal with it have not been very successful. It is clearly not enough to send teachers to "sensitivity training" or to hold "diversity days" — which may or may not include queer issues — to sensitize students. Instead, gay people — whether or not they have kids in the local school — should get involved in local school committees and the everyday business of running public schools. Also necessary is implementation of a zero-tolerance, or close-to-zero-tolerance, policy on homophobic violence in schools. Sending in the National Guard? Well, it was the last resort for integrating public schools in the South in 1950s. Let’s hope that we’ve made some progress since then. But the underlying commitment to public principle exemplified in that action remains noble and praiseworthy.

Challenging and substantively altering education and learning culture in the US is obviously an enormous job. It will take patience, empathy, understanding, and lots of money. It will also take a new level of commitment by administrators, parents, and students, as well as by communities whose members often feel that they have little investment in schools their own children do not attend. But, of course, queer-bashing and homophobic violence in schools simply reflect the wider world, a world compelled to enforce its values through violence. As long as Ruben Diaz, Michael Long, and their political allies promote their homophobic agendas, schools will never be safe for queer kids.

What is even more clear is that no matter how well-intentioned, the HMS is not going to make the New York public-school system safe for the 98 percent of New York’s queer kids who don’t attend it. In 1984, the creation of the HMS was a compromise, an effort to protect as many students as it could. But this is not a time for compromise. Critics like Diaz did not want the Children of the Rainbow curriculum, which might have made life more tolerable for some GLBT students. Nor do they want a safe school for queer kids. What they want, quite simply, is no homosexuality, and that’s what they share with those gay-bashing kids they pass off as mere bullies. That’s why the battle for basic safety for gay kids in New York’s schools is not a fight for gay rights or the integrity of queer students. It is a fight for the safety of all students, and for the integrity of the system itself.

Michael Bronski can be reached at mabronski@aol.com

Issue Date: August 8 - August 14, 2003
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