Tarrell Hogle was one of the few openly gay students at his high school. The bullying and harassment became so intolerable that Tarrell’s only escape was to cut class. “It’s hard to pay attention when other people are taking your things and trying to provoke you,” he says in a recent issue of Teaching Tolerance.
Tarrell’s unexplained absences earned him many suspensions. His schoolwork began to suffer, and his grades plummeted.
But Tarrell’s life changed dramatically midway through ninth grade when he transferred to The Alliance School in Milwaukee.
Alliance is one of only a handful of LGBT-friendly public high schools in the United States. It’s a haven for students like Tarrell who feel unwelcome and out of place in traditional schools. Commonly referred to as “Milwaukee’s gay school,” Alliance actually boasts a diverse student body and is open to all students, regardless of sexual orientation.
Since the transfer, Tarrell hasn’t skipped a day of school. He frequently earns extra credit, and excels at math and science. “I used to leave my house early and steal my report card from the mailbox. I never brought home a test paper. Now, I run home, because I can’t wait to show my dad,” he says proudly.
Not surprisingly, LGBT-oriented schools like Alliance and Harvey Milk High School in New York have attracted their share of critics.
Take Fred Phelps, a minister at Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. According to CNN, when Phelps attended the opening of Harvey Milk High, he repeatedly screamed at the crowd outside to repent for their "sodomite behavior."
But anti-gay hate groups and social conservatives aren’t the only ones who think that LGBT-oriented schools are a bad idea. Even within the gay community, there's disagreement about whether gay students should attend specially designated schools.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?
Rick Garcia is the political director for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Illinois. In 2008, when public school officials submitted a proposal to open the School for Social Justice Pride Campus in Chicago, Garcia publicly denounced the plan.
According to Teaching Tolerance, he and other gay rights advocates argued that opening gay-oriented schools does more than just protect LGBT students—it segregates them.
Further, by creating separate institutions for gay and lesbian students, other schools no longer feel pressure to end the discrimination within their own walls. In Garcia’s words:
"If we create ‘Homo High,’ we don’t have to prohibit this behavior in other schools. 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."
But proponents of LGBT-oriented schools claim that separate schools are necessary, arguing that too many traditional public schools continue to be hostile—even dangerous—places for LGBT youth.
One of the most comprehensive reports on the experiences of LGBT students in American pubic schools is the National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
The study found that almost nine out of 10 LGBT students had experienced verbal harassment during the previous year. Forty-four percent reported being physically harassed because of their sexual orientation. In all, 61 percent of LGBT students said they felt unsafe at school.
This ongoing failure to protect gay and lesbian students is why Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of GLSEN, supports gay-friendly schools.
Citing the case of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old student shot by a classmate in Oxnard, California, Jennings tells CNN:
"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. 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 BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Cindy Crane is the executive director of the Wisconsin-based GSAs for Safe Schools, a group that supports gay-straight alliances in middle and high schools. She suggests that taking an either/or approach to the issue is the wrong way to go.
Not every gay student wants to attend a LGBT-oriented school, Crane says. Being gay is only one part of a person’s identity, and it may not be the most important factor when it comes to school selection.
In her opinion, LGBT-oriented schools should coexist with traditional public schools that have programs to ensure the safety of all students regardless of sexual orientation. “It doesn’t have to be 'either/or'”, she argues. “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.”
So the debate rages on, while students at Alliance and Harvey Milk continue to thrive, boasting lower suspension rates and higher graduation rates than their counterparts at surrounding district schools.
“You can be yourself here,” says Nona, a ninth-grader at Alliance. “And the teachers help you learn to work together.”
(jglsongs/Creative Commons photo via flickr)