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Not So Fast Times at Queermont High
At a weekly news briefing on June 28, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the Harvey Milk School, which operated for nearly 20 years as a 2-room special program for queer kids, would become a full high school.
I think everybody feels that its a good idea because some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools, Bloomberg said. This lets them get an education without having to worry. It solves a discipline problem.
At first glance, this looks like a triumph for the queer community and especially queer kids: a state- sponsored safe space that will protect kids from queer-bashing. But is this really progress? We dont need to create safe high schools for queer kids, we need to ensure their safety in existing schools.
Founded in 1984, the Harvey Milk School (HMS) has been sponsored by the public school system as a fully accredited program in collaboration with the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), a nonprofit founded in 1979 by the late Dr. Emery Hetrick and Dr. Damien Martin to address the problems of severely disenfranchised gay and lesbian youth. It will remain an alternative school project for at-risk and special needs kids within the public school system; but as a full high school, it will no longer function in formal collaboration with HMI. Further, the school, which is housed at Two Astor Place in New Yorks East Village, will be expanded and renovated by the city at a cost of $3.2 million, to accommodate more students. The HMS opened with little more than 12 students and plans to enroll just under 100 this fallalthough it may have space for 170 students by 2004.
The school was created to address the problems that GLBT youth face in public schools. According to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), gay teens in U.S. schools are often subjected to such intense bullying that theyre unable to receive an adequate education. Theyre often embarrassed or ashamed of being targeted and may not report the abuse. A recent survey on the NMHA website claimed that 22 percent of gay respondents had skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe there. The same survey stated that 28 percent of self-identified gay students will drop out of school; thats more than three times the national average. In addition, queer students are the targets of near-constant harassment and violence. The NMHA claims that the average gay or lesbian student hears anti-gay slurs such as homo, faggot, and sissy about 26 times a day or once every 14 minutes. More alarmingly, the study found that 31 percent of gay youth were threatened or injured at school in 2002.
HMSs program comprises predominantly at-risk kids. Some of the students have been kicked out of home for being gay and many have been placed in foster homes. Racially, the schools composition is 75 percent African American and Latino and nearly all the students have been physically brutalized in their original high schools. That makes its success rate, which is far better than most of the citys public schools, all the more impressive: 95 percent of HMS seniors graduate and 60 percent are accepted to colleges. HMS is also nondiscriminatory; created as a hate-free space for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students, the school accepts applications for admission from anyone. So whats the problem?
Sponsoring and accrediting a program basically run by a community organization committed to at-risk youth already walks a fine line. But segregating GLBT kids in their own high school represents an open admission that public schools are unable to perform one of their most basic taskssecuring the safety of their students. Its true that attacks on queer kidsas well as on kids who are perceived to be queer because of their gender affect, cultural interests, or social attitudesare epidemic in public schools. But the larger culture hasnt yet decided how to deal with such assaults. The media response ranges from shrugging off homophobic ridicule as standard schoolyard bullying to sharing an attitude common among school administrators that someone is always getting picked on to praising the more modern, if ineffectual, approach of instituting sensitivity training.
This rather phlegmatic response opens up a vacuum eagerly filled by more passionate conservative voices, such as New York State Conservative Party chairperson Mike Long, who spoke out strongly against relaunching and expanding the HMS. Long argued that, with this move, the city put itself in the business of social engineering and handing special opportunities to GLBT students. What next? he asked at a June 29 press conference. Maybe we should have schools for chubby kids who get picked on. Maybe all kids who wear glasses should have special schools. Its ridiculous.
Aside from the fact that many GLBT students face physical violence dailyquite apart from name-calling, which is harmful enoughthe public discourse that harassment of queer kids is no different from picking on geeky or fat students misses the point. Several recent studies show that homophobic attacks on queer kids are less about maintaining the social pecking order or expressing hate toward outsider groups and far more about reflecting social and religious prejudice and moral judgment. A growing body of clinical and historical research demonstrates that what is commonly conceived as run-of-the-mill antisocial behavior is understood quite differently by its perpetrators.
Karen Franklin, in a 1998 paper delivered at the American Psychological Association titled Psychological Motivations of Hate Crime Perpetrators: Implications for Educational Interventions, discovered that the self-admitted male gay- bashers she interviewed saw themselves not as troublemakers, but as enforcers of moral values. Similar findings, this time about race, were recorded by historian Kathleen M. Blee in her essay Reading Racism: Women in the Modern Hate Movement, which appeared in her 1998 edited collection No Middle Ground: Women and Radical Protest (New York University Press). These women told Blee that their activities were not about hate, but about upholding traditional values. It is important to understand that the unremitting, often violent attacks on queer kids in and outside of schools are not simply teasing or bullying, but rather a pervasive, and mostly unchecked, manifestation of queer hating that has as its unarticulatedgoal the banishment of visible queerness.
Given this moralistic orientation, it is not surprising that opposition to expanding the HMS came quickly from the usual suspects. The most prominent elected official to speak out against the school is State Senator Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), president of the New York Hispanic Clergy Association. Along with Reverend Lemuel Rodriguez, president of the Promise International Christian Ministry in Corona, Diaz is leading a coalition of 80 Christian groups who are threatening a lawsuit to close the HMS on the grounds that the program illegally segregates students. (Both the citys general counsel and the New York ACLU argue that if the HMS accepts applications from all students regardless of sexual orientation, it complies with the law.)
While Diazs complaint targets discrimination, it is clear that he has a long history of moral objections to homosexuality. In 1991, Diaz was one of the major opponents who fought to dismantle then- mayor David Dinkinss implementation of the Children of the Rainbow curriculum in New York City public schools. His major complaint was that 3 of the 500 pages in the Board of Educations report recommending curriculum changes focused on gay and lesbian families and suggested that grade school teachers be familiar with (but not necessarily read to their classes) Lesléa Newmans childrens book Heather Has Two Mommies. Diaz, working with conservative Christian and Jewish religious groups, finally scuttled the entire curriculum proposal. In 1993, the city council did not reappoint him to the citys Civilian Complaint Review Board, after he made a series of homophobic and AIDS-phobic remarks. While he has refrained from making anti-gay remarks about the HMS, his group is working closely with Michael Long, who has gone on record saying, The issue is whether taxpayers money should go toward promoting the gay lifestyle.
The problem for Diaz and Longas well as for many other critics of the HMSis the visibility of queerness and homosexuality in the world. In a sense, theyre right: giving the HMS full high school status normalizes queerness. But segregating these students for their own protection also patronizes them and thats why the HMS gambit, while helpful for a few queer kids, is not really a solution.
The Harvey Milk School made sense in the 1980s when the prevailing politics on GLBT youth favored carving out private spaces to protect them. But the gay rights movement has grown since then and the politics of privacy have given way to a more forceful politics of public intervention. The bottom line is that this is not a gay or a queer problem, it is a violence problem. The violence is promoted and justified by social, often religion-based, prejudice and moral opposition.
Interestingly, everyone, from the Harvey Milk school administrators to Ruben Diaz, agrees that all kids should be safe in public schools. But what would this mean? How do we actually do this? Anti-gay violence in schools is not new, but until now most efforts to deal with it have not been very successful. It is clearly not enough to send teachers to sensitivity training or to hold diversity dayswhich may or may not include queer issuesto sensitize students. Some people have suggested the implementation of a zero tolerance, or close-to-zero tolerance, policy on homophobic violence in schools. This is generally called the kick the bullies out solution. But does this really work? How many kids do you have to kick out of public schools to make them safe for everyone else? Aside from the fact that zero tolerance has not worked very well for anti-drug or other anti-violence enforcement programs, there are serious civil liberties questions involved. Public education for all children has been a basic right, but who makes decisions about who doesnt get to partake in this?
Queer activists also talk about enforcing hate speech codes in schoolso you cant call anybody a fagbut will this actually work? Arent there also free speech issues involved here as well. What about religious students who feel it is their duty to speak about the abomination of homosexuality? Sure, you cant preach a sermon in class, but there will be times when the free exercise of religious freedom and speech will come into conflict with queer kids feeling safe. There have been many attempts to change primary and secondary curricula to both reflect the needs of the student body and sensitize students around issues of sexual orientation and alternative families. This seems like a great idea except that it has almost always been met with harsh resistance from political and social conservatives.
Most sex education classes in this country now focus on abstinencezero tolerance for sex, essentiallyand school boards and teachers are already wary of introducing controversial materials in the classroom. Many religious parents do not want their children to receive sex education or HIV prevention classes. They claim that the information would violate their right to oversee their childrens religious and moral education so many schools require parental permission for such curricula. It is not hard to imagine that classroom information promoting the idea that homosexuality is just another way to live your life, that gay people are just like everyone else, and that everyone deserves respect for their lives and consensual sexual activities is going to run into serious trouble.
Even with these problems there are some positive things to be done. Sensitivity training for teachers is always useful. The fight to make school curricula more open to teaching tolerance has to continue. Gay people and their allies whether or not they have kids in schoolshould get involved in local school committees and the everyday business of running public schools. The broader, politically active queer community (most of whom probably do not have children) has positioned itself outside this debate. It is time to become more involved on a grass-roots level. Public education is everyones concern, not just students and parents.
Challenging and substantively altering education and learning culture in the U.S. is obviously an enormous job. It will take patience, empathy, understanding, and lots of money. It will also take a new level of commitment by administrators, parents, and students, as well as by communities whose members often feel that they have little investment in schools their own children do not attend. But, of course, queer-bashing and homophobic violence in schools reflects the wider world, a world compelled to enforce its values through violence. As long as Ruben Diaz, Michael Long, and their political allies promote their homophobic agendas, schools will never be safe for queer kids.
Michael Bronski is the author, most recently, of Pulp Friction.
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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