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

Owen and Moore point to Alliance's growing student body and the academic achievements of its students as proof of the school's value. During the 2003-2004 school year (the school opened in August 2005), Alliance enrolled 100 students, and the graduating class's valedictorian had a grade-point average of just 1.8 on a 4-point scale. This academic year, the school's population has grown to 125 students, and seniors with GPAs as high as 3.8 are competing for the school's top academic honor. Owen says students who planned to drop out of high school before enrolling at Alliance now have her swimming in requests for college recommendation letters.

Erica Simon, 22, graduated from New York City's Harvey Milk High School in 2006, but she still calls one former teacher there her second father and thinks of the Harvey Milk community as her extended family. English teacher Orville Bell made an effort to get to know Simon and to counsel her when she arrived at Harvey Milk in 2003. At her old high school, Simon says she felt alone and betrayed by teachers who didn't care to know her or understand the struggles she faced as a lesbian teenager. Though she is now a student at Bronx College, Simon still treks to Harvey Milk's location on Manhattan's Lower East Side to visit mentors like Bell and school social worker Tanya Koifman.

Koifman counsels nearly all of Harvey Milk's 99 students, whom she describes as some of New York City's most at-risk adolescents. They are free to leave class at any time to seek her advice, or they can turn to one of many other adults available at the school. "Students know they can't walk into Harvey Milk hoping their problems will go unnoticed," Koifman says.

Harvey Milk cites a graduation rate of about 90 percent, a figure much higher than New York's citywide rate of about 50 percent, as proof of its ability to help students succeed. The school can serve a maximum of 100 students per school year, but Koifman says she thinks there are many more victims of bullying in New York City's 1.1 million student public school district.

It's unlikely, however, that many more gay-friendly high schools will open soon or without controversy.

Harvey Milk's first day of school in September 2003 incited protests, and the Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas's Westboro Baptist Church was one among the dozen protesters. (Phelps famously displayed a "God Hates Fags" sign at gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard's funeral and used the same sign to demonstrate against Harvey Milk's students, staff, and faculty, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.) Though Harvey Milk's parent organization, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, had been educating New York City's gay youth through after-school programs since 1985 without incident, New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Democrat from the Bronx, filed suit in New York Supreme Court in the fall of 2003 to block the expansion of these programs into a fully accredited New York City public high school. The suit failed, but Diaz argued, as many gay-friendly high school detractors do, that the school promoted segregation and siphoned funding away from the thousands of children suffering in other failing schools across the city.

The Chicago public school district recently considered plans to create a gay-friendly high school, but opposition voiced by religious community leaders over the school's mission specifically to serve gay students and their allies caused the plans to stall last October. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Mayor Richard Daley also expressed concern that a gay-friendly high school would segregate gay students.

Chad Weiden, assistant principal at Chicago's Social Justice High School, led efforts to create the new school and says he is confident the city's board of education will support plans to do so when the school's design team submits a revised proposal this spring. "I'm not pleased with this year's outcome, but I'm so pleased with the dialogue we've started on how to create safe school environments for all students," Weiden says, adding that Chicago is not unique in its debate on the merit of using schools to separate gay students and other victims of harassment from their tormenters. Just as Owen and Moore had initial concerns before creating Alliance, many supporters of gay-friendly high schools agree that the schools are a temporary fix, not a permanent solution to keep students safe from bullies.

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.