For many gay rights activists, 2010 will be the year remembered for ups and downs in the name of advocacy. While the community won many deserved victories in the name of equality, including the beginning steps to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there were a number of reminders that we have a long way to go, particularly for students. Names like Ceara Sturgis, Lawrence King and Constance McMillen became household fixtures, synonymous with the woeful ineptitude of public schools to properly implement anti-bullying measures.
In the interim, there may be some hope. Leaders within several major metropolitan communities have been tossing around the idea of opening an alternative high school that would provide a safe learning environment for students that identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. The push comes just days after multiple studies found record-breaking rates of absenteeism and poor academic achievement among students who feared repercussion for disclosing their sexual orientation.
“If we keep doing nothing, we are going to keep getting these horrifying levels of harassment, greater rates of skipping, not going to college and more tragic violence like the murder of Lawrence King,” Kevin Jennings, the founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), tells CNN. “Those are our choices. We can continue to do nothing, and we know the results, or we can save young people’s lives and offer them an education and a future.”
The concept of gay-inclusive schools isn’t a new one. The Alliance School in Milwaukee and The Harvey Milk School in New York have both been operational for a number of years as qualified educational alternatives for teenagers. Both schools rankled the ire of the socially conservative, who viewed the schools as forcing a liberal agenda into the public education system. The arguments eventually shut down plans for a similar school in Chicago in 2008.
“It’s not to take away my compassion for anybody here. I try to raise my children righteously via the word of God via the Bible because this is my belief,” LaShawn Greer is quoted as saying to National Public Radio two years ago over the proposed Chicago school. “I cannot support with my own tax dollars paying for something that I don’t agree with.”
However, such an argument, according to Melinda Pratty, a college student and law school hopeful in eastern Kansas, obscures the issue.
“When it comes to our education, there’s a separation from religious beliefs there, too,” she says. “If you own property in this state, a portion of your taxes go to fund the public schools. You don’t get to decide which students in public schools are worthy of the money you are obligated to pay the government. These are the same rehashed arguments that tried to prevent integration of public schools with African-American students 50 years ago.”
Not surprisingly, the discussion about creating schools designed to provide safe alternatives for gay and trans students has yielded numerous comparisons to the struggle for racial acceptance and integration decades ago. Looking to the historic Brown v. Board of Education for inspiration, advocates are quick to remind supporters of the implications of “separate but equal.”
“If we create ‘Homo High,’ we don’t have to prohibit this behavior in other schools,” Rick Garcia, the political director for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Illinois, tells The Southern Poverty Law Center. “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.”
Of course, there is something to be said for Garcia’s concerns. Public schools are not typically known for safeguarding the rights of vulnerable students likely to be further victimized. And, in the case of gay and trans teens, schools often appear to be particularly negligent; indifferent and unwilling to change, making the idea of an alternative school particularly attractive in contrast to the outdated system.
Of course, the answer doesn’t have to be either/or. Not every student who identifies as gay or trans will opt to attend a school with this primary demographic. Similar to race or religion, a student’s sexual identity merely represents one facet of their personality, rather than the only determining factor. Likewise, the best approach would be as equally multi-faceted: Support the construction of such schools while simultaneously working to improve the structure with current institutions of education.
“If I were a high school student, and the only person openly gay at my school, I might really consider changing schools,” Pratty says. “But my peer group is important to me, too. The extracurricular activities are important, and so are the teachers I’ve come to know and count on for the last few years. Being gay is just one part of my personality, so how can the assumption be made that alone will decide where I feel comfortable attending school?”
While there are a number of advocates who agree with Pratty, sexual orientation is steadily becoming a major issue in how well students fare in educational settings. A 2008 study by GLSEN found that 86.2 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported varying degrees of harassment and assault during school hours due to their sexual orientation. In all, 61 percent of students that identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered indicated that they felt unsafe at school, a number that correlated with a high drop-out rate.
Far more troubling, however, is that schools may be ultimately powerless to enact wide-sweeping reform within their administrations. Only 11 states have any kind of provisions offering protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, but fail to acknowledge trans status. States seems to be taking their cues from federal legislation, as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act contains no language recognizing transfolk as a protected class, either.
However, America is losing the luxury not to act. Seven months ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation had climbed 11 percent since 2008. This seems to illustrate a clear and present need to act in the interest of providing safe alternatives for students.
WEIGH IN: Could the creation of separate schools to protect gay and trans students give current public school administrations the excuse they need to avoid implementing more serious action against sexual orientation-specific bullying? Are such schools socially progressive or the modern segregation?