One LGBT School’s Effort to Stop Bullying Starts Young
It was 2007 when Christian Zsilavetz, a math teacher, started volunteering with a parents’ support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. The group was about 40 members strong and met one Sunday each month in the hospital, tucked away behind the lush green foliage of downtown Emerald City. Zsilavetz was already a few years into his own gender transition and, with two decades of teaching experience, decided to help out with the group’s child care. Parents drove hours just to be part of the group. Soon, Zsilavetz could see why.
“You’ve got a lot of gender nonconforming and trans youth on the spectrum, and they don’t fit the mold of most public and private schools,” Zsilavetz, now 45, told TakePart. “There’s still not a lot of room for those pink princess boys.”
In the years since, Zsilavetz, who identifies as a transgender man, started a family of his own. Today, he and his wife have two children: a son, who’s three, and a daughter, who’s six. They consider themselves a transgender family. In 2012, Zsilavetz’s wife got a job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The family moved to Atlanta and quickly became part of the city’s thriving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, and Zsilavetz took the bold step of starting a school catering specifically to families like his own.
That project, called Pride School, is set to open Atlanta in August. It will be open to K–12 students and is looking to enroll 10–15 students for the upcoming school year. Annual tuition is expected to be $12,000. Students and parents will get access to the school’s gender-neutral bathrooms, the ability to choose their own gender pronouns, and a test-free curriculum built entirely around students’ interests.
The idea of an LGBT-specific school isn’t new; New York City’s Harvey Milk High School has been around for two decades. But opening one that so openly challenges gender norms and caters to children as young as four years old is more unconventional. Statistics are scarce, but there’s been a general recognition among researchers that many LGBT youths are coming out at earlier ages. One study found that gay and bisexual boys experience their first same-sex attraction around age eight, and for girls it’s even earlier. Researchers at San Francisco State University released a survey that found many LGBT adults recount being bullied for flouting gender norms throughout their years in school.
But for Zsilavetz, the idea isn’t so much about catering to children who experience bullying because of their own gender or sexual identity. It’s about reaching LGBT parents and teachers who often have to hide behind the rigid gender norms of the schools where they work and send their children.
“We’re not the gay kids’ school,” Zsilavetz said. “Our school is about a community within a community. You’ll have straight parents with queer kids, queer parents with straight kids, along with queer and straight educators.” Teachers are already contacting him about jobs. Some are LGBT people hoping to work in a more open environment.
Still, the school has an uphill climb before it becomes reality. It’s still trying to secure space, and Zsilavetz says students and staff will start crowdsourcing campaigns in about two weeks to raise tuition and salary costs. It also doesn’t have accreditation, which apparently isn’t an issue for younger students. Older students will be able to dually enroll in online programs to meet accreditation standards. But Zsilavetz says the timing is right.
“Why not now?” he asked, noting that as the country grapples with marriage equality, it will inevitably have to deal with questions of how to better support LGBT families and their children. “This school has always been needed.”