Yasmin Nair

Do We Need Gay High Schools?

Filed By Yasmin Nair | November 17, 2008 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Chicago, Gay High Schools, Harvey Milk High School, Public Radio

I was recently on Vocalo, an outgrowth of WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio), talking about whether or not Chicago should have a gay high school. I'm against the idea, as you'll hear, but am open to questions and issues raised.

I'm researching this topic for a piece and I'm be curious to know what you think about the idea (or the show itself). I've been having some very interesting conversations with friends and comrades, all of whom have complicated and often differing perspectives. The segment is approximately an hour long.


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The idea seems like a cop out by lazy teachers and administrators who don't want to take a stand on upholding the dignity of gay children. They're afraid to include in the curricula material about gay rights and whatnot, material that would sensitize children concerning the plight of this minority.

Instead, in order to escape the reality of their spineless, apathetic system, they choose to cart off these children to a gay highschool.

Sounds right, eh? This is the ideal opposition. Make the teachers take a stand! Force the administration to face the problems.

It's also far from pragmatic, and it sacrifices the well-being of children for the unlikely situation of a proactive administration. It will never happen. I support the idea because it will make a haven for any child that doesn't feel safe in their home school. Would you deny children the opportunity to grow in an environment where they can finally focus on learning instead of trying to survive the social hurdles they must go through every day?

Lucrece,

Your raise a central conundrum for several people, including myself: what do we do about the issues facing gay and lesbian students in the here and now?

There are a number of responses to that:

I wrote this within what I know about the Chicago Public School system. My concern here is that having a gay school immediately takes the pressure off admins and teachers and it also further stigmatises gay students as a pathological group - evidence of that perception of them is apparent in the radio interview.

The other issue is that, as someone who also cares about the public school system and its students, I don't think we can ignore the larger context of neoliberalism that surrounds the gay high school. We, in Chicago, have already begun funnelling students into, for instance, militarised schools like Senn High School in my neighbourhood. That kind of structure, where public schools are gradually encroached upon by a corporate or military industrial complex, is not beneficial to students or to the larger community.

Christine Harnhardt has an excellent essay in the most recent Radical History Review where she discusses the concept of "safe spaces" in the context of neoliberalism. Essentially, she argues that the notion of a sexual "safe space" has historically functioned to prioritise sexual identity (often coded as white, urban, and usually privileged gay males) over the issues raised by gentrification (including the erasure of the economically disenfranchised from the areas around the "safe space").

You could argue that a gay high school is not like a militarised high school, but I think we have to ask what it means for society at large to mark off a section of its students as conspicuously gay/lesbian/queer. What does it mean for us to privilege a student's sexuality over all other parts of his or her identity (class, race, gender, national origin, immigration status and so on)? How are we teaching students to negotiate their multiple facets by cocooning them as gay/lesbian students in a "safe" environment. What are we saying about the responsibility of society in general towards its students?

I'd also ask us to think of the ways in which we tend to use the figure of the child/adolescent to justify the workings of neoliberalism. We should never stop thinking about what it means to be a gay and lesbian student in many high schools. But we can't let that distract us from the fact that schools today operate in a heavily corporatised structure that claims to help special needs of all kinds while undercutting the mission of public schools, which is to a great extent about communities engaged in a collective pedagogical commitment to all its students.

I'll stop here for now, and am happy to take any other questions.

Nice philosophizing, Yasmin. But it doesn't address the question of 'what do we do about the issues facing gay and lesbian students in the here and now?"

I agree wholeheartedly with Lucrece -- relying on straight school administrators and teachers to "do the right thing" hasn't done a damn thing for us so far, so why would we think it will suddenly change?

Lucrece said, "Would you deny children the opportunity to grow in an environment where they can finally focus on learning instead of trying to survive the social hurdles they must go through every day?"

I would add, not just "social hurdles" (like name-calling and teasing) but beatings, abuse, torture, rape and even murder. And yes, all that and more is tragically common in our schools across your country (and mine too, in Canada).

Let's stop playing sociology/psychology with the lives our our kids and concentrate on the most immediate and pressing concern -- their safety, and providing them with a secure environment where they can learn free of terror.

Well, Nathaniel,

You're essentially arguing that I prefer to "philosophize" while ignoring the here and now. Here's my question to you: Why do you feel so compelled to ignore my points about the larger system? Why are analysis and immediate solutions seen as separate from each other? Why can't we work on both?

Why should an analyis of the larger context - where our public schools are suffering devastating losses in funding and support -- be separate from the issues facing gay and lesbian students?

Furthermore, does anyone consider the fact that maybe, just maybe, queer students might also want to be among their straight peers, in their own neighbourhoods instead of having to commute to a remote location to find a safe space? Not all queer students will have access to this high school.

Over and over, the gay community seems obsessed with short-term solutions that benefit us immediately. We keep wanting society to integrate us, but at critical times we'd also like to be separated off. Why is that?

I agree with the first point.

I disagree on the second. I think it's a stretch to imply that LGBT's are being selfish when they'd look to their immediate safety instead of caring for issues that have plagued the US school system since the stone age. You'll forgive me if I prioritize immediate well-being over some twisted form of solidarity, if only because the queers who stay there will be even worse off than the straights.

I can assure you most queer kids would opt for the LGBT school, even at remote locations. Some just want to be far away from a society that keeps victimizing them.

CBrachyrhynchos | November 18, 2008 5:41 PM

Well...

Having dipped my toes into a bit of educational policy reform, I think a big problem facing public schools is the matter of size and choice. It's clear to me that micro-schools (even if implemented as schools-within-school in big buildings) offer a number of advantages for students. Having choices and focus may also be a good thing.

The bottom line I feel is the welfare of the students. While I believe that we should put the focus on making every school LGBT friendly, students who are greatly endangered right now shouldn't have to wait a semester for faculty and administration to get in-service training.

I would say that, ideally, we shouldn't prioritize some parts of our identity. Emphasis on "we". However, I come to find that it's quite futile, as the initiative comes from "them". It's not gay and lesbian people who make it an issue; it's heterosexuals who do.

As long as this part of our identity keeps getting picked out by society at large, I don't think there's much remedy in trying to pretend that we can come together as a community in our whole identities, and not as some icon. I can tell you that it certainly wasn't I who said "the gay kid" in my "high school" (the equivalent of that in Venezuela is "bachillerato").

Concerning the "cocooning", I have little issue with it, as anything is better than tripled suicide rates. I don't fin anything wrong in trying to protect them from their first gay bashing, having their lockers vandalized, and being absent for prom because there's no catering for them in such heterocentric events.

If we would have had LGBT HS when I was in school, I would have wanted to go. I have five kids and one of them is also queer and if he would have wanted to go to an LGBT school I would have let him.
If a kid wants to go to a school that is LGBT then that kid should be allowed to do so and if a kid wants to stay in a mainstream school he or she should be treated properly.
I guess that I don't think of LGBT HS as letting administrators and teachers and educational systems of the hook or as an alternative to their doing the right thing in education. I see it as a place to serve kids who want to be educated that way. Catholic kids have Catholic school if they want as do Muslim and Jewish kids.

Wolfgang E. B. Wolfgang E. B. | November 17, 2008 11:11 PM

I think the main problem with the public schools is their size. They're just too big. Cramming 1000 kids into one building and 30+ into each classroom is guaranteed to lead to problems of all kinds. Kids are, by definition, emotionally immature persons in need of guidance. One teacher cannot effectively guide 30 kids for 8 hours a day, five days a week. Children, especially in a group setting, need a lot more adult supervision than they get with that arrangement, and a lot more individual attention as well.

Small, one room schoolhouses were much more effective. We can't realistically return to that, so the next best solution would be to break up the large public schools into smaller ones. These small schools, with perhaps 50-100 students apiece, with a student to teacher ratio of about 7:1, could include specialty schools: schools that emphasize the sciences, or the arts, social sciences, historical scholarship, etc., where children could choose a school based on their interests.

That aside, for the sake of the kids who are in school right now, I'm 100% in favor of the LGBT HS. Our LGBT youth shouldn't have to suffer even one more day in the anarchy of the big public schools.


I agree with you and Rob. I had an ok high school experience, so I didn't really need a gay HS. An -ex had such a hellish experience that he dropped out. The alternative HS he went to wasn't much better. So he never had a "real" high school experience. The system did him a large disservice.

Racially and culturally diverse school environments are probably the ideal. But if it is a matter of keeping glbt teens in school, I am strongly in favor of "gay" high schools. If they started a regional gay charter high school in Bmore, I'd shift most of what charitable giving I can do to it and/or volunteer time and talent to the project.

As the child of a retired educator, I think it's a great idea.

The GLBT high in New York has been successful to the point where they were discussing for a moment joining the New York Public School Athletic division because some of the students wanted to compete in sports.

I while the ideal is for GLBT student to matriculate in the same environment as all other non-GLBT student, since that's a microcosm of the world we live in, on the other hand you can't deny the fact that GLBT students are harassed and bullied in these environments to the point of dropping out. And too often the GLBT kids who disproportionately drop out are Latino/a and African-American ones.

If it takes a public GLBT high school to keep these kids in school so they get that diploma and then move on to college, then that's all good.

But at the same time, that doesn't absolve the district of its responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all students.

It's also an example of an issue that we can coalition build around because bullying affects everybody, whether you're straight or gay and we all want excellent public schools.

.

Yasmin, I think it's a "do both" situation. Some kids are in very real physical danger and need to be put into a safe learning environment now. But at the same time, we need to be working to create Safe Zone trainings for teachers and administrators so that all schools become safe for all students. The LA Unified School District has a great model with Project 10. And they even have a position that's pretty high up in the district's administration to deal specifically with LGBT issues. Judi Chaisson would be a good reference person to talk to. But the LAUSD also has gay charter schools, called OASIS. I think it's a good middle of the road strategy that addresses both the immediate safety concerns, as well as the long term issues you've raised.

I agree with both Monica and Serena about the importance of options. Here are some personal observations of mine, from my six months of volunteer teaching in L.A.'s first "gay high school," EAGLES Center, in 1994. EAGLES was a continuation program, designed to get LGBT dropouts back in the classroom to get their high-school diploma.

There were 42 students -- age range 14 to 23. Predominantly boys, only 5 girls. Mostly black and Latino, with a handful of white kids and 2 Asian kids. Mostly from low-income immigrant families -- only a few from middle-class or upper-middle-coass families. Many religions represented in the group -- mostly Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal, and 1 each who were Mormon, Jewish, Amish and Buddhist. Orientationally they were everything from transgender to bi to tough lesbians and gay boys who were ex-gang members.

Most were from families in the school district. In a few cases, concerned parents had brought them to EAGLES and registered them because they feared for their kids' lives at their home schools. In some other cases, the students were on the outs with their families, and were living with friends, and had transferred to EAGLES on their own initiative, which LAUSD regulations allowed them to do. A few were out-of-state minor runaways living in L.A. shelters, which required them to go to school. A few were system minors whose custody had been surrendered to GLASS and who were living in GLASS group homes in the city.
Two were homeless teen sex workers who came to school in the morning straight from work, then went home to sleep.

Enough of them were special-ed students that EAGLES had a special-ed teacher on staff.

In other words, my students were an amazing cross-section. But what they all shared was horrendous previous experiences with previous high schools. The stories they told, of what they'd been put through by students, teachers and principals at their home schools, were truly sickening.

The hot debates about "should gay high schools be allowed" were already going on. I heard lots of arguments against these schools from both gay and non-gay people.

But the EAGLES students themselves were very irritated at these arguments. They always said that they were grateful that EAGLES existed -- and said emphatically that they would never set foot in a mainstream high school again. They had lost faith in the school district's willingness and ability to protect them, and felt that the only way for them to get through high school was in the protected atmosphere of a gay-friendly program like EAGLES, which was staffed entirely with LGBT director, teachers and volunteers.

Bear in mind that these students had been brutalized in a district whose school board was liberal enough to adopt a POLICY of non-discrimination for LGBT students. Technically the policy said that these kids had a right to get an education, and to be safe at school. But it was a long, long way from policy to the daily reality of being terrorized in the hallways. A few schools in the district, like Fairfax H.S., were liberal enough that LGBT students could survive there. But most were not.

Imagine how bad things could be in a conservative school district where there was NO policy and no way to complain.

After I stopped teaching at EAGLES, I remained involved in LAUSD through serving as a commissioner, 1996-99. Three other similar continuation programs were opened up in the school district.

Today the program picture in LAUSD is very changed, and Project 10 has done a great job of leadership. But the debate has remained. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to visit other similar programs in other cities -- notably the Walt Whitman charter school in Dallas that ran for a few years and the Urban Peaks program in Denver. Invariably I found these other students expressing the same sentiments. They were glad they could get out of the hostile atmosphere of mainstream schools and keep a mental focus on their education.

As one student told me, "It's kinda hard to sit there in the library or home room and do your homework when you know you might get beat up at any minute."

I understand where Yasmin and others are coming from...that it's important to drastically improve the conditions in the mainstream schools, so our students will be reliably safe there. But I also have to agree with the students who have already voted with their feet and left the schools where they feel their lives are at risk.

It's important for our students to have the OPTION -- to stay in their home school, if they can, or to find refuge in a special program, if that's what they feel they need to do.

Without that option, the individual LGBT student whose life is at risk in the mainstream school may well drop out permanently and never graduate from high school at all. And unfortunately that IS what happens in many cases.

I just heard the news that the Chicago school district has decided to can the idea of a "gay high school" for now. It's a very disappointing development.

I wonder if anybody did a survey of GLBT students, to find out how THEY feel about having such a school as an option? Especially students who have decided that they'd rather not finish high school at all than return to a mainstream school?

Was the decision partly a case -- as almost always -- of a bunch of adult educators making a decision without any student input?

Going by the news stories, it was also partly a case of right-wingers who weighed in with their heartless, mindless, soulless objections to such a school. They don't mind seeing an LGBT student like Lawrence King dead of an assault. Yet they scream about "Christianity being persecuted" if anybody even looks crossways at their own children.

Ian Ragsdale | November 21, 2008 1:23 PM

I'm curious about how it could be detemined that a student is eligible to attend a GLBT school. What sort of criteria, if any, would a student have to meet or prove? I can imagine that such a school would be seen as a safe haven for many teens that feel uncomfortable in or unsuited to the stressful environments of conventional high schools. Such places might end up not being particularly "gay" at all, but rather "alternative," with a focus on the arts, humanities, communications, and college prep.

Any comments?

Thanks to everyone for their comments. And thanks especially to Serena and Patricia for their suggestions about school systems that have taken on this difficult task.

Yes, the school is off the agenda for now, but the proposal's going to be resubmitted. The stories about it having been taken off because of right-wingers are not entirely true. There are lots of queer folk who're against it as well, and even those who supported the school feel that the process wasn't as open as it could have been. I appreciate the concern that all of us might have about right-wingers, especially after their mobilisation in California, but being against something gay-defined isn't always a homophobic act.

As to Ian's question: the school cannot, technically, ask about anyone's sexual orientation and is technically open to all. That's a good question, about criteria, and I haven't really heard that addressed. But then the whole process has been quite rushed, with little substantive community input (from straights or gays). Proponents will tell you otherwise, but I disagree - more on that later.

With regard, then, to who gets in - yes, it might end up being a model of an "alternative" school and I'd still have questions about that with regard to what we think is the function of public schools. I'm deeply concerned about the privatisation and specialisation of the public school system when it should be a structure that opens up opportunities for all students.

Hopefully, this new development gives us all a way to discuss the very real issue of harassment of queer students AND the problems with the current system in a way that's not quite as knee-jerk and overdetermined as this conversation has been.

Addendum to the last comment: I meant that the conversation IN CHICAGO has been overdetermined and knee-jerk, not the one going on here. Sigh. The problem with hitting "enter" too soon.

Thanks to everyone for their comments. And thanks especially to Serena and Patricia for their suggestions about school systems that have taken on this difficult task.

Yes, the school is off the agenda for now, but the proposal's going to be resubmitted. The stories about it having been taken off because of right-wingers are not entirely true. There are lots of queer folk who're against it as well, and even those who supported the school feel that the process wasn't as open as it could have been. I appreciate the concern that all of us might have about right-wingers, especially after their mobilisation in California, but being against something gay-defined isn't always a homophobic act.

As to Ian's question: the school cannot, technically, ask about anyone's sexual orientation and is technically open to all. That's a good question, about criteria, and I haven't really heard that addressed. But then the whole process has been quite rushed, with little substantive community input (from straights or gays). Proponents will tell you otherwise, but I disagree - more on that later.

With regard, then, to who gets in - yes, it might end up being a model of an "alternative" school and I'd still have questions about that with regard to what we think is the function of public schools. I'm deeply concerned about the privatisation and specialisation of the public school system when it should be a structure that opens up opportunities for all students.

Hopefully, this new development gives us all a way to discuss the very real issue of harassment of queer students AND the problems with the current system in a way that's not quite as knee-jerk and overdetermined as this conversation (in Chicago) has been.