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Controversial New York High School Casts Spotlight on Gay Teenagers - 2003-10-08

A new school in New York City has opened its doors to homosexual teenagers who’ve been harassed or even physically attacked at other public high schools. Named after the nation’s first openly gay politician, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk, who was murdered in 1978, the tiny school has engendered controversy, and brought new attention to the lives of gay teens.

Like most teenagers, 16-year-old Grissel Olavarria is a mix of child and adult. She lives in New York with her parents and dog, Cody, whose pink-dyed mane matches her own modified Mohawk haircut. “You’re beautiful, Cody, the camera loves you! Cody and I have almost the same color hair. It used to be blue, but he got bored!”

Grissel likes to dress punk. She plays guitar and writes her own songs, and she knows what she wants to do with her life: to pursue her music and to become a scientist and a social worker. She’s also known she was a lesbian since she was 13, when she had her first relationship with a girl. Soon after, she says, she told her family and friends:

“I told my Mom and she started crying and saying it wasn’t right and that I was confused, and that night they called up friends from church. And they took me right away, like if I was sick, going to an ambulance, and right away, and took me right over there so they could pray for me.”

In time, Grissel’s parents came to accept their daughter as she is. But she says classmates at her public high school didn’t. “I started getting harassed more and more. I couldn’t go into the girls’ bathroom without somebody saying, ‘don’t look at me,’ when I wasn’t looking at them. And eventually it got pretty bad, like I couldn’t go into the locker room, so I couldn’t change for gym and a whole bunch of crazy things.”

Grissel began to skip school because of the harassment, and nearly dropped out. She says her school was no help: “ I would go to my counselor’s all the time, and they would just tell me to go to mediation. But mediation would mean that I would just be with the person, one on one, but the problem was a lot of people, in most of the school, and it wasn’t really the people, it was their state of minds.”

Grissel later found an alternative public high school where students work independently in internships. She says she’s happy there. If she wasn’t, she says, she might have tried to enroll at Harvey Milk. A newly expanded school for teens who are gay, bisexual, or transgendered, it opened its doors for classes again this month – in the midst of both supportive demonstrators and a smaller group of anti-gay protestors, who held signs expressing disgust for homosexuals. “What’s next, a gang member is going to want his own school? A fornicator is going to want his own school?” one protestor asked.

Pro-school demonstrators said that it’s necessary to protect gay teens from the intense hostility many experience in regular schools: “Today, right now, students are being picked on and they have teachers who aren’t prepared to defend them, don’t know how to defend them -- and who may actually agree with the people picking on them. And they won’t have that here,” said one demonstrator.

Nila Marrone is president of the New York city chapter of P-FLAG – Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which is working with the Harvey Milk high school. She says the school is a refuge for students who’ve been targeted for their sexually ambiguous appearance or mannerisms, or open avowal of their homosexuality: “These are students who have gone through enormous violence and harassment,” she says, “and they have dropped out, and they have found that they cannot continue going to traditional schools in the city.”

Student Kimberly Howard says that physical violence brought her to enroll at Harvey Milk. “You’re scared to go outside because you’re going to get beat up or someone is going to beat you up in your neighborhood. Now I can come to this school and nobody bothers me. It’s great.”

But when city officials announced that they were expanding the nearly 20-year-old program from 20 students to a full-fledged high school of 170, some conservatives protested. New York state senator Ruben Diaz filed suit arguing that the Harvey Milk school siphoned off resources needed by New York’s poorest black and Latino children – and that it violates anti-discrimination law:

“To take a group of students and use public funds to segregate them away from the regular population, that is wrong,” Mr. Diaz says. “I think that the problem in the New York city school system are the bullies, and we have to deal with the bullies.”

School supporters reply that the great majority of Harvey Milk’s students are poor blacks or Latinos, and that New York has other special public schools, even single-sex schools. Nor is it segregation, according to school principal William Salzman. “All the students are here voluntarily,” he says. “They are transferred here because they wish to be here.”

P-Flag president Nila Marrone notes that New York’s school system already prohibits harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. But she says the rule is often ignored, because the subject of homosexuality among the young is taboo. “Some parents, particularly parents who come from certain religious backgrounds, do not want to hear the word gay or homosexuality used in any school context,” Ms. Marrone says. “They feel that that in itself is encouraging homosexuality. And so in many cases, the principals, the teachers, the counselors prefer not to deal with the issue, because they fear that if they do, they may have parents coming and complaining.”

Grissel Olavarria say that was her experience at her Brooklyn public high school – where even some staff joined in the harassment. “A lot of people, after I came out, they kind of used my dress as a target, like ‘oh, you dress like that, you dyke.’ The security guards would laugh and thought it was funny. If I said anything, they would just say, stop. So it’s not really enforced.”

Yet despite the abuse many face, not all gay high school students would opt for a separate school. College student Dorian Shorts says he was open about being gay when he attended public high school outside New York. His friends and family were all supportive – and his grandfather was the chairman of the local board of education -- but that still didn’t protect him from harassment at school. “It was very upsetting for me just because it was so incessant, they were always bothering me, it never stopped,” he says. “They would throw things at us, like bricks, and rocks and sticks, various food products, acorns -- a couple of times we had chairs thrown at us.”

Yet Dorian Shorts says he chose to stay in that school despite the harassment – and says he has mixed feelings about the Harvey Milk high school: “I feel it’s a really good idea in that there are kids who are tortured and physically beaten by other students at their high schools, and for some kids there is no escape. And I feel that the Harvey Milk school is a place where they can concentrate on their studies, and be able to have a high school experience. However, to go to a high school and not have the benefit of knowing all different people, from all different walks of life, I feel that’s going to hurt you in the real world, in the outside world.”

Activists say that tolerance in the real world can’t arrive fast enough for gay teens. According to public health data, they’re three times as likely to attempt suicide or drop out of school as straight teens. “We need help, we really do,” says Grissel Olavarria. “A lot of our parents kick us out. We have to leave school because of harassment. We have to do a lot of changes because society does not accept us.”