Gay High Schools Offer a Haven From Bullies

But the schools in Milwaukee and New York also reawaken the debate over school segregation.

By + More

Tara Motto spent her first few days of high school eating lunches she brought from home in the bathroom alone. She openly identified as a lesbian and feared the cafeteria because of the homophobic epithets her peers slung at her while she waited in line for french fries or a sandwich. Motto even qualified for a free lunch, but free food at the price of harassment wasn't worth the price.

Though Motto, 18, spent only 2½ months at Milwaukee's Riverside High School before transferring to Alliance, one of just two gay-friendly public high schools in the nation, her memories of Riverside are some of her worst. Along with lunch-room taunting, Motto says she endured death threats and the abuse of having "dyke" spray-painted on her locker.

Motto's high school experience before coming to Alliance is not unique. Gay students fend off bullies in schools across the country every day. Research published recently by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network found that 82 percent of students who identify themselves as other than heterosexual were verbally harassed at school in the past year, and other studies show gay students are more likely than their heterosexual peers to develop depression or have thoughts of suicide. Thirty-nine states lack laws that specifically protect gay students from harassment at school. In response to this grim reality, Alliance and New York City's Harvey Milk High School opened their doors to give struggling gay students another option—the chance to attend a public school populated by students like themselves and an environment in which their differences are welcomed. But while these schools provide safer environments for gay students, they also reawaken the debate about school segregation.

Before the school opened 3½ years ago, Alliance's lead teacher, Tina Owen, taught at another Milwaukee public high school and heard stories like Motto's from members of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, a club she advised. With no resources to effectively quell the bullying, Owen watched with distress as students who felt unsafe around their classmates simply dropped out. Five years ago when she got wind of an initiative to create new, smaller schools in Milwaukee, Owen—who identifies herself as a lesbian—proposed a charter school where gay students and other victims of bullying could learn in a safe environment.

"At first I was torn about the idea of separating the [victims from the bullies]," Owen says. "A lot of people see schools like Alliance as segregation and say, 'You're taking away the kids and leaving the problem behind.' But I felt like we were not addressing the problem as it was, and we were losing kids in the process."

Alliance teacher Paul Moore says he shared Owen's initial concern when she approached him asking for help to create the school. Moore says he worried about what they could accomplish, since students who graduated would return to environments that might not fully accept gay individuals. But he concluded that the bullying would not dissipate anytime soon and that if gay students felt safer in school, they could better learn the skills that could help them succeed as adults. "Trying to fix a problem like bullying by forcing students to go through a bad experience is a bad approach," Moore says.

Psychiatrist Herbert Schreier of Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland in California specializes in helping adolescents define their gender and says many of his patients are victims of bullying. While all teens struggle to make sense of their sexuality as they go through puberty, Schreier says teens who identify as homosexual or as transgender and endure bullying are at greater risk for suicide. Research published in 2008 in a leading psychology journal looked at the nearly 14,000 high school students enrolled in a midwestern public school district and found that youths who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning were more likely to report high levels of depression, suicidal feelings, and alcohol or marijuana use. Students who were questioning their sexuality reported the highest levels of teasing, depression, thoughts of suicide, and drug use. But the study also found that a positive school climate and parental support made them less likely to feel depressed or use alcohol.

Corrected on 1/7/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the year that Alliance school opened. The school opened its doors in 2005.