Soon after the Center on Halsted opened in 2007, Rick Garcia, whose office overlooks Halsted Street, began to notice something troubling.
The Center, near downtown Chicago, is perhaps the Midwest’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center. “All of sudden,” says Garcia, political director for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Illinois, “the street was inundated with kids — kids who’d been abandoned by their families, who had nowhere else to go. All I could think was, ‘Why aren’t these babies in school?’”
Chicago’s public school system had a problem. LGBT students were three times more likely than straight peers to miss school because of threats to their safety, according to a 2003 districtwide survey; and students who faced regular harassment were more likely to drop out. For these kids, schools were failing.
In fall 2008, Chicago officials took a drastic step. They proposed a “gay-friendly” high school where students of all sexual orientations could learn in bully-free classrooms where a safe and welcoming environment was the norm.
Some gay-rights advocates — including Garcia — publicly questioned whether the district’s plan to protect LGBT students only worked, in reality, to segregate them.
“If we create ‘Homo High,’ we don’t have to prohibit this behavior in other schools,” Garcia said recently, recounting his opposition. “The reality is, we have to live as neighbors. We have to learn to tolerate one another, if not accept one another. All our kids should be safe in all our schools; segregation is not the answer.”
Officials eventually withdrew the proposal. If it had passed, the new campus would have opened this September, becoming one of only a handful of LGBT-friendly public high schools in the United States.
Anti-gay backlash played a large role in the opposition to Chicago’s proposed Pride Campus. Two other LGBT-friendly schools — New York City’s Harvey Milk High School and The Alliance School in Milwaukee — have also sparked ire from social conservatives.
But these schools can also be troublesome for those who want LGBT kids to learn and live free from harm. For some gay-rights advocates, LGBT-oriented schools smack of “separate but equal.”
Others believe LGBT-friendly schools offer a refuge and a blueprint — a chance to reach kids whose lives, sometimes literally, are at risk.
“Across the country, folks who support gay rights are starting to think about these issues,” says David Stovall, an associate professor of educational policy studies and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“In popular culture we’ve seen a shift toward more widespread acceptance of LGBTQ spaces,” Stovall says. “Now we’re at the point where people are asking, should the focus be on taking care of our own concerns, or should we be pushing for a more integrated model?”
The Alliance School
Ninety miles north of Chicago, in a commercial section of central Milwaukee, The Alliance School sits at the back of a parking lot, an older, boxy-looking building the color of gray chalk.
Alliance opened its high school five years ago as part of the small-schools movement. In September, it moved into a bigger building and added a middle school after frequent requests from parents and other educators to expand. The school operates on the Summerhill model — democratic governance, student-led curricula, peer mediation, high academic expectations, no official principal and teachers called by their first names.
Though it’s commonly called Milwaukee’s “gay school,” Tina Owen, Alliance’s lead teacher and founder, is quick to clarify that the school is not about sexual orientation. “We’re about creating a safe space free from bullying,” she says.
Owen prefers the term “open and affirming,” a phrase she borrowed from her church. “We’re open to everyone,” she says, “and everyone is valuable for who they are.”
Owen started Alliance after teaching in another Milwaukee school where administrators did little to address the bullying and harassment of LGBT students. When she proposed Alliance — whose name comes from gay-straight alliance — “some people were skeptical, but we received mostly support. Everyone could remember a time when they didn’t want to go to school because of a bully.”
Alliance is tiny for an urban school, with 20 staff and 166 students. Almost 80 percent of students here qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 40 percent are students of color. While teachers legally cannot survey students’ sexual orientation, they know anecdotally their students represent a diverse mix of orientations and identities.
“You can be yourself here,” says Nona, a ninth-grader, “and the teachers help you learn to work together.”
The weekly class representatives’ meeting proves Nona’s point. Six students, a mix of straight, gay and transgender, gather around a table in the empty Spanish classroom, debating themes for the upcoming Homecoming dance. The group includes a teen mom with a nose ring, a pony-tailed girl with tattoos around her neck, and a freshman who frequently pauses to check his hair in a mirrored compact plucked from the bottom of his purse.
They might easily be considered misfits in other schools. They’re the ones who might watch their backs, avoid locker rooms, and feel unwelcome at school dances. These are kids who, judged solely by the superficial, might get written off.
“Many of our students were unhappy in school,” Owen says. “Here, they can focus on getting their education, and they have people who support them.”
Local data suggest it’s working. The suspension rate at Alliance is 18 percent lower than the district average. In its first year, 90 percent of Alliance seniors graduated, compared to the district’s 69 percent average. And, notable for a school accused by some of segregation, Alliance is one of the most racially integrated campuses in one of the nation’s most segregated cities.
Demetris Green, a tall, studious-looking 12th-grader, transferred to Alliance at the start of his senior year, in search of teachers who would expect more of him. “For 11 years,” Demetris says, “I didn’t believe in myself, because my school didn’t believe in me.”
‘The Problem is the Bullies’
These are the concerns: By creating a separate school for LGBT kids and straight allies, districts give other schools a free pass, do little to help students get along and respect each other’s differences, and leave a lot of LGBT kids behind.
“We can’t fit every gay kid in a gay school,” says Equality Illinois’ Rick Garcia. “The problem isn’t gay kids; the problem is the bullies. If we’re going to create a special school, let’s create it for them.”
Ten years ago, while serving on the governor’s hate crimes commission, Garcia traveled to high schools across Illinois, asking kids about racism, sexism and other forms of intolerance. Almost everywhere, anti-gay slurs were the No. 1 complaint.
“Kids can’t wait for our system to be perfect,” Garcia says. “Something has to be done quickly, but someone needs to raise these questions so that one school doesn’t become a dumping ground for ‘problem’ kids, and so we don’t absolve other schools from having to create safe spaces.”
Ryan Roemerman, executive director of Iowa Pride Network, which worked to make Iowa one of the few states with an anti-bullying law that includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, supports the mission of schools like Alliance. He understands the criticism, too.
“Can we make sure training is being provided to teachers and counselors on mainstream campuses, so they’re educated on these issues?” he says. “What about the students who can’t go to that high school? What happens to them?”
On the other hand, Cindy Crane, executive director of the Wisconsin-based GSAs for Safe Schools, which supports gay-straight alliances in middle and high schools, finds the segregation argument “almost offensive.”
“Students in minority groups can experience a particular kind of long-term stress that creates barriers to thriving academically and socially,” Crane says. “If there is a way to help students avoid that stress so they can thrive, we should do it.”
Besides, she argues, “the thought that all gay kids would want to flock to a gay school is silly — and mistaken. A gay school might be the answer for some students, but it certainly wouldn’t be the answer for all. Being gay is only one part of our identity. Kids who are gay are also a lot of other things, and there may be other parts of their identity that guide school satisfaction.”
Yet in the beginning, even Owen questioned whether a separate school was wise: “Are we just taking students away from the problem, and leaving the problem there? But I was finding that the victims of bullying in any one school didn’t have the tools to change the powers-that-be.”
LGBT students were seven times more likely than straight kids to skip school to avoid bullying. In all, 61 percent felt unsafe at school.
Examining the Risk
Bullying for any reason can be harmful. For LGBT kids, the stakes are arguably highest.
According to the National School Climate Survey, released last October by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, almost nine out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment during the previous year. LGBT students were seven times more likely than straight kids to skip school to avoid bullying. In all, 61 percent felt unsafe at school.
From these statistics emerge horror stories: the Minnesota student who was repeatedly harassed by teachers who assumed the student was gay; the 15-year-old Oxnard, Calif., boy who was shot in the head by a classmate after coming out as gay; the Massachusetts 11-year-old who hanged himself after enduring anti-gay bullying at school.
Attempts to tackle anti-gay harassment can elicit strong, often coordinated, opposition from social conservatives. In this context, safe schools advocates argue, “gay-friendly” schools become a crucial stopgap.
Harvey Milk High School, for example, opened 25 years ago — the first explicitly gay-friendly school in the country — to address the alarming number of LGBT kids for whom school was a dangerous place. The school continues to serve LGBT students at risk of dropping out. Most students report “negative experiences in other schools,” says Harvey Milk principal Alan Nolan. “They’re seeking a safer, more accepting environment.”
Adds GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard: “Given the inequalities in the existing system, these schools are essential resources of last resort for students who may otherwise not graduate. They fill a pressing need.”
‘I Always Got Picked On’
After school on a recent Monday, the basketball club practices in the gym. The musical club watches Rent on a classroom TV. And Alliance sophomore Tarrell Hogle pores over his science presentation in the computer room.
It’s hard to call anyone “typical” here, though in many ways, Tarrell comes close. At his old school, with few openly gay classmates, Tarrell was hounded by bullies. He skipped so often he faced regular suspension. His grades plummeted. “It’s hard to pay attention when other people are taking your things and trying to provoke you,” Tarrell says.
He transferred to Alliance midway through ninth grade, and the harassment stopped. “Growing up, I thought all straight kids were bullies,” Tarrell says. “But I have straight friends here. I never thought in a million years that could happen.”
Here, Tarrell hasn’t missed a day. He seeks out extra credit, loves math and recites the periodic table like most people rattle off their birthdates. “I used to hate math,” he says. Now, he wants to be a forensic scientist.
“I used to leave my house early and steal my report card from the mailbox,” Tarrell says. “I never brought home a test paper. Now, I run home, because I can’t wait to show my dad.”
Classmates share similar stories. “I always got picked on,” says Emiliano Luna, a pink-haired freshman wearing lime green pants. “It made me feel so angry, inside and outside. Here, the way I look isn’t a big deal.”
Not everyone comes to Alliance to escape harassment; some come because the smaller class sizes and supportive learning environment offer them a chance to succeed that can elude them in larger, traditional schools. And while potential students are told of the school’s LGBT-friendly mission, some come with homophobic views.
Jahqur Ammons, now a junior, failed seventh grade. “I spent more time chasing girls than chasing grades,” he says. Jahqur’s brother, already at Alliance, told him about the open campus, the small classes, the helpful teachers. Jahqur enrolled at start of his freshman year.
“When I came here,” he says, “I thought all gay people were nasty. I used to say snide things. But I got to know them instead of judging them. Now I realize they’re just like me.”
Last year, when a conservative Christian group picketed the campus, it was Jaqhur who led the response. “The protesters were saying this school was teaching us to be gay and that we were all going to hell,” Jahqur recalls. “I didn’t think that was very a Christian thing to say. So we got all the students to go outside and show them: Gay, straight, trans, goth, emo — we’re all one.”
Who is right? Proponents like Tina Owen, or skeptics like Rick Garcia? At the end of the day, they aren’t that far apart.
“It doesn’t have to be ‘either/or,’” says Cindy Crane, from GSAs for Safe Schools. “If these schools help students thrive, let’s do it — but we should work on the existing structure, too, so all schools can be safe places for all students.”
At their best, what Alliance and Harvey Milk offer the rest of us isn’t the suggestion they be replicated from scratch in other communities, but that existing schools learn from their success.
“This is an environment we want to create in all of our schools — inclusive, safe, welcoming,” says Nolan, from Harvey Milk. “I believe that should be every administrator’s goal.”
In Milwaukee, officials are paying close attention to Alliance, turning the school into something of an incubator. Already, several campuses have adopted Alliance’s restorative justice model, to which Owen credits the school’s low suspension rate. And Alliance students and staff regularly travel to other schools to help educators learn how to improve the climate there. “All we’re doing is offering best practices that haven’t become institutionalized in most places,” Owen says. “These are practices all students benefit from, not just gay students.”
Back in Chicago, proponents haven’t given up. A new proposal is in the works, though Stovall says they’ve learned some important lessons.
“I don’t think we were explicit enough the first time around that we wanted to create a training ground for other schools,” Stovall says. “There are schools that have no clue how to address LGBT students’ issues and concerns. We can use this campus to help them learn how to address those issues within the walls of their own schools. Therein lies the power.”