Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

A Separate Peace?

The taunting started four years ago, when Dylan Huegerich was 10. Back then, he didn't know what being gay meant, and even today the soft-spoken teenager isn't sure where he fits on the spectrum of sexual orientation. He knows he's different. He knows that his sense of style — his chin-length hair, his dabbling with makeup — caught the eyes of school bullies in Saukville, Wis. In seventh grade he was pelted with snowballs and shoved into lockers. Everywhere he went on campus, students shouted anti-gay slurs and pointed and stared. "It hurt so bad," he says. "I hated my life. I hated everything."

His mother Amy tried to intervene. She says she was told it was her son's fault for standing out and that he should cut his hair or try to act "more manly," allegations the principal declined to comment on. Dylan's mother considered volunteering in his classroom or the cafeteria, but that wouldn't protect him the rest of the time. Every morning, she says, "I knew I was driving him back to this place where he was hurting. Oh, they beat you up? Here, go there again. My heart broke every time he got out of the car." When the time came to register Dylan for eighth grade, she decided against re-enrollment. "I felt like if I turned in those forms, I was giving him some kind of a sentence," she says.

So instead of sending Dylan back to a school that was a 10-minute drive from his house, his mother opted for the publicly funded Alliance School, an hour and a half away in downtown Milwaukee. The only overtly gay-friendly charter school in the U.S. to accept students as early as the sixth grade, Alliance has several boys who, with their painted nails and longer hairstyles, look like Dylan. But more important, it has many students who say they know how Dylan feels. While only about half of Alliance's 165-member student body identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), nearly all were bullied or harassed at their previous schools. The hallways are filled with masculine girls, effeminate boys, punks, goths, runts, the overweight and the ultra-nerds. Alliance art teacher Jill Engel affectionately calls the school "the island of misfit toys."

The Alliance School is a radical solution to a much debated problem. Children have long been taunted with homophobic slurs, but a recent string of high-profile suicides has led school and government officials to pay more attention to this subset of bullying victims. Nine out of 10 LGBT students say they have experienced bullying or harassment, according to a nationwide survey of 7,261 middle and high school students conducted in 2009 by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they have felt unsafe in school; 1 in 5 reported having been physically assaulted.

Parents want to protect their kids, but is wrapping them in an Alliance-style cocoon of tolerance the best solution? Some conservatives oppose the idea of a gay-friendly school on moral grounds, others for fiscal reasons: Why should taxpayers help make sexuality a central part of a child's or a school's identity? Developmental experts — and many gay activists — question the wisdom of shielding some students rather than teaching kids coping skills and promoting an atmosphere of respect on all campuses. "Being segregated doesn't help gay kids learn, it doesn't help straight kids learn, it doesn't help bullies learn," says Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor at Cornell University who chairs the human-development department. "All it does is relieve the school and the teachers of responsibility. It's a lose-lose situation all around." And yet to some bullying victims, it's nothing short of a lifeline.

A Place to Walk Tall
It wasn't all that long ago that people didn't contemplate coming out at school until college. In 1974, students at Rutgers University began a tradition called Gay Jeans Day, during which heterosexuals could show their solidarity with gays by wearing jeans to class. This setup meant that homophobes — as well as libertarians and anyone else who didn't like being forced to make a statement — had to choose whether to draw attention to themselves by wearing something else. But as people have started coming out at younger ages, many middle and high schools have become staging grounds for more-involved demonstrations, such as the Day of Silence in April, when participants refuse to speak even in class in order to raise awareness of what many gays say is a forced silence, and National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. That date was chosen to commemorate a gay-rights march in Washington in 1987, but the timing can be tough, particularly for younger students, forcing a high-pressure will-they-or-won't-they moment on them less than two months into the school year.

At Alliance, it's a different story. Founded in 2005, the high school expanded to include middle schoolers in 2009, and its students have somehow managed to create an environment in which everyone's sexuality is on the table and yet at the same time is almost a nonissue. After "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?" often the next getting-to-know-you question is "Are you gay or straight?" For many kids, the answer is "I don't know yet," and that's fine too.

Jayde LaPorte might as well be the school's mascot. A transgender ninth-grader who was born as a boy named Luis, she walks Alliance's halls in three-inch heels, with long, salon-perfect hair (it's a wig) and silver earrings so huge, they almost touch her shoulders. It's hard for her to get anywhere quickly because she pauses every few steps to give someone a hug. As a young boy tromping around the house in heels and a balloon-stuffed bra, Jayde was so confused and upset that she remembers thinking about suicide at age 6 or 7. When she arrived at Alliance in seventh grade, she met Robbie Moore, who is now in 11th grade and whom Jayde calls her "tranny sister." He helped Jayde learn how to do her makeup and hair and walk in heels. "Robbie is filling a space in my heart," Jayde says, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. "He's teaching me everything I need."

That kind of support is the goal at Alliance. Instead of being tormented, Jayde and Robbie can walk tall, in heels or whatever else they feel like wearing. "I always felt these kids could survive in other places, but they could thrive here," says Alliance's founder and lead teacher, Tina Owen. She decided to start the school after she was outed at a large Milwaukee high school where she worked as an English teacher. After word spread, she decided her sexuality may as well be all the way out. She hung rainbow curtains in her classroom and painted the radiators in rainbow colors. "I wanted kids to know they were O.K., that there was a safe space here," she says. But even though she was running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club after school, she heard stories of students being assaulted in the hallways and called gay slurs. She noticed some kids were skipping school more often and then would stop showing up at all. "They were trying to be strong and carry the load, but they were dropping right before my eyes," she says.

Owen decided to try to replicate the GSA atmosphere on a round-the-clock, campuswide basis. Her model was New York City's Harvey Milk High School, which opened in September 2003 and serves about 100 students each year. Harvey Milk is an offshoot of an after-school program started by the Hetrick-Martin Institute that since 1985 has been providing health and counseling services, tutoring, college prep and elective courses to LGBT students. Another charter school, which opened last year on the grounds of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, offers independent study — rather than regular classes — to students in grades 7 through 12. Like Alliance, these schools carefully word their mission statements to avoid even the slightest whiff of bias against nongays. New York was once sued amid demands to revoke funding for the Harvey Milk School on the grounds that it violated the city's antidiscrimination laws. The suit was eventually settled when the school made it clear that it is designed for but not limited to LGBT students.

De Facto Segregation
Each of these schools is forced to walk a fine line in creating a safe space that is welcoming to LGBT students without alienating or excluding others. That was precisely the challenge a group of staff members and students at Chicago's High School for Social Justice encountered in 2008 when they tried to open a gay-friendly school in the Windy City. Though the proposal was welcomed in community forums and given a green light by then superintendent Arne Duncan, who a few months later was named Secretary of Education by President Obama, two distinct opposition groups came forward. The first was a group of ministers who argued that since gay teens are not the only ones being bullied, taxpayer dollars should not be used to provide a special school for them. "It's not fair," the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, an Evangelical minister, told the Chicago Journal.

The other source of opposition was the gay community itself. "We had the most resistance from within the LGBT community," says principal Chad Weiden, who ended up rescinding the proposal. The project's gay critics, some of whom referred to it as Homo High, suggested that such a school would not only create the impression that intolerance would be permitted everywhere else but also leave its sheltered graduates unprepared to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of being a gay person in America. "I believe ultimately the only real answer is integration," says Savin-Williams, the Cornell professor who for more than two decades has studied the experiences of gay youth. "We need to provide normal educational experiences for these kids. They see themselves as a part of mainstream society and really want to be a part of it all."

That's why many school districts, instead of opening separate gay-friendly schools, are trying to build acceptance of LGBT students from within. San Francisco Unified School District, for example, has placed a full-time liaison at each middle and high school to educate everyone about the effects of harassment and help manage clubs designed to promote students' acceptance of one another. "We're sending a message that we respect all students in our schools," says Kevin Gogin, manager of the citywide program, which has been in place since 1991.

Other districts have chosen to use kits from GLSEN that provide "Safe Space" stickers and posters as well as a guide on how to build a support network for LGBT students. Since GLSEN started its awareness campaign last November, 15,000 Safe Space kits have been distributed nationwide; the state of Idaho recently ordered one for each of its high schools. There has also been an uptick in the number of GSAs, from a single club in Massachusetts in 1998 to more than 4,000 clubs nationwide. According to GLSEN's 2009 survey, LGBT students in schools with a GSA club were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation and heard fewer homophobic remarks than their peers at schools without such a club.

Though GSAs and other efforts work to promote a climate of respect, progress is often slow, and advocates for schools like Alliance say there is no reason LGBT students should be forced to endure hardship until society gets to the point where all schools are safe for all students. "Acceptance is not happening fast enough," says Weiden. "We need to help these kids by providing them a better option, a safe space, right now."

Meanwhile, Owen fields calls nearly every day from parents and administrators at Milwaukee-area schools about students who would like to transfer to Alliance, whose charter is likely to be renewed in the spring without much of a fight. She also gets calls from teachers across the country seeking advice on how to decrease bullying. She is happy to dispense some tips but makes clear that not even Alliance has managed to eradicate such behavior. A few weeks ago, one of its ninth-graders created an "I hate so-and-so" Facebook page about another kid at Alliance. But students didn't stand idly by. They alerted Owen within minutes of the page's existence, and she quickly got the boy to take it down. The following week, a group of students met to discuss an appropriate punishment. They decided to have the ninth-grader apologize directly to the student he had targeted and also to the entire student body over the school's intercom system.

Dylan Huegerich followed the fracas on Facebook, but he's no longer attending Alliance; the 90-minute commute was just too long. He didn't feel ready to face the bullies at his local school, so his mother opted to enroll him in an online academy. That doesn't mean, however, that he's holed up alone at home. He recently attended a homecoming dance at his boyfriend's school, and though people said nasty things as the two boys made their way inside, Dylan notes, somewhat optimistically, that the trash talkers were parents rather than students. He adds, "It seems like my generation is getting over it."