Not So Fast Times at Queermont High


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 2-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 a 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? We
don’t need to create “safe” high schools for queer
kids, we need to ensure their safety in existing schools. 

Founded
in 1984, the Harvey Milk School (HMS) 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, to accommodate more students.
The HMS opened with little more than 12 students and plans to enroll
just under 100 this fall—although it may have space for 170
students by  2004. 

The
school was created to address the problems that GLBT youth face
in public schools. According to the National Mental Health Association
(NMHA), “gay teens in U.S. 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
website 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. 

HMS’s
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 segregating
GLBT kids in their own high school represents an open admission
that public schools are unable to perform one of their most basic
tasks—securing the safety of their students. 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.
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 chairperson 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 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 “geeky” or “fat” students misses the point.
Several recent studies show that homophobic attacks on queer kids
are less about maintaining the social pecking order or 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 at the American Psychological
Association 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 (New York University
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— unarticulated—goal the banishment
of visible queerness. 

Given
this moralistic orientation, it is not surprising that opposition
to expanding the HMS came quickly from the usual suspects. The most
prominent elected official to speak out against the school is State
Senator Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), president of the New York Hispanic
Clergy Association. Along with Reverend Lemuel Rodriguez, president
of the Promise International Christian Ministry in Corona, Diaz
is leading a coalition of 80 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, 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 New York City public schools. His major complaint
was that 3 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 has
refrained from making anti-gay remarks about the HMS, his group
is 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 the visibility of queerness and homosexuality
in the world. 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, while helpful for a few queer kids, 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 have given way to a more forceful politics of public
intervention. The bottom line is that this is not a gay or a queer
problem, it is a violence problem. The violence is promoted and
justified by social, often religion-based, prejudice and moral opposition. 

Interestingly,
everyone, from the Harvey Milk school administrators to Ruben Diaz,
agrees that all kids should be safe in public schools. But what
would this mean? How do we actually do this? 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.
Some people have suggested the implementation of a zero tolerance,
or close-to-zero tolerance, policy on homophobic violence in schools.
This is generally called the “kick the bullies out” solution.
But does this really work? How many kids do you have to kick out
of public schools to make them safe for everyone else? Aside from
the fact that zero tolerance has not worked very well for anti-drug
or other anti-violence enforcement programs, there are serious civil
liberties questions involved. Public education for all children
has been a basic right, but who makes decisions about who doesn’t
get to partake in this? 

Queer
activists also talk about enforcing “hate speech” codes
in school—so you can’t call anybody a “fag”—but
will this actually work? Aren’t there also free speech issues
involved here as well. What about religious students who feel it
is their duty to speak about the “abomination” of homosexuality?
Sure, you can’t preach a sermon in class, but there will be
times when the free exercise of religious freedom and speech will
come into conflict with queer kids feeling safe. There have been
many attempts to change primary and secondary curricula to both
reflect the needs of the student body and sensitize students around
issues of sexual orientation and alternative families. This seems
like a great idea except that it has almost always been met with
harsh resistance from political and social conservatives.  

Most
sex education classes in this country now focus on abstinence—zero
tolerance for sex, essentially—and school boards and teachers
are already wary of introducing controversial materials in the classroom.
Many religious parents do not want their children to receive sex
education or HIV prevention classes. They claim that the information
would violate their right to oversee their children’s religious
and moral education so many schools require parental permission
for such curricula. It is not hard to imagine that classroom information
promoting the idea that homosexuality is just another way to live
your life, that gay people are just like everyone else, and that
everyone deserves respect for their lives and consensual sexual
activities is going to run into serious trouble. 

Even
with these problems there are some positive things to be done. Sensitivity
training for teachers is always useful. The fight to make school
curricula more open to teaching tolerance has to continue.  Gay
people and their allies— whether or not they have kids in school—should
get involved in local school committees and the everyday business
of running public schools. The broader, politically active queer
community (most of whom probably do not have children) has positioned
itself outside this debate. It is time to become more involved on
a grass-roots level. Public education is everyone’s concern,
not just students and parents. 

Challenging
and substantively altering education and learning culture in the
U.S. 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 reflects
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. 


Michael Bronski
is the author, most recently, of
Pulp Friction