The News Service
Laura A. Szalacha
For the nation’s gay high school students, separate will never be equal
New York’s Harvey Milk School opened this fall to serve a student body consisting of gay students. Over the long haul, separate is never equal, and separation does not necessarily serve the best interests of students, gay or straight. But for now, safety is the primary concern; a separate school can end the hazing and attacks many gay students face.
“I draw the line in the dust ... and I say segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever... “
Forty years after Gov. George Wallace spoke that line in his inaugural address, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the erroneous notion of “separate but equal” is again bandied as a remedy – this time for school violence committed in the name of normative heterosexuality. New York City’s Harvey Milk School (HMS), which for the last two decades has offered a special program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) students, is now an accredited high school, expanding its student body from 50 to 170 students this fall.
As a lifelong advocate of LGBTQ equality, as an educational researcher and university professor with a focus on the needs and school experiences of LGBTQ students, and as a person who has been beaten for being a lesbian, I find many of my colleagues and friends are confused by an apparent contradiction: I am deeply opposed to the idea of special schools, yet I support the HMS. Yes, this is a contradiction; it arises from the conflict between idealism and reality.
If we have learned anything from our history, it is that separate is never equal. The way to eradicate sexual discrimination and to fight heteronormativity – the social, familial and legal rules that enforce heterosexual standards for identity – is to address it head-on in every school in the nation. In a study of gay student experiences in Massachusetts’ secondary schools, I found that students in schools that had gay-straight alliances and teacher training on LGBTQ issues believed their schools were safer and less sexually prejudiced – and the climate more positive and tolerant – than students in schools without such programs. This belief was especially prevalent among heterosexual males. Schools with effective LGBTQ programs would be the ideal.
In reality, however, we must ask ourselves “on whose backs are our ideals to be achieved?” I am painfully aware of the horrendous victimization many LGBTQ youth face in public schools – victimization that is often trivialized by conservatives who lump it together with teasing fat kids or taunting kids who wear glasses. The HMS provides a last-resort option for a small number of LGBTQ students who have been so persecuted in the regular school systems that they would otherwise drop out altogether.
There are dangers that attend this venture in “separate but equal” schooling. By quarantining LGBTQ students in a special school we may contribute to the fallacies that they are the problem, that they should be hidden away, and that heterosexuality is acceptable as the correct and dominant orientation. To remove LGBTQ students from mainstream schools is to limit the educations of both LGBTQ students and all other students in New York’s public high schools. Still, the HMS is one of several special-purpose schools in the New York City system. There are five schools solely for immigrant students, five sites for pregnant young women, and so on. Alums of the HMS programs can speak to the enormous positive effect attending HMS made in their own lives and the program’s excellent academic success to date.
While the HMS serves as a safe haven for one small group of students, we must be vigilant in fighting any who would use its existence as an excuse to abandon efforts to challenge heteronormativity and sexual prejudice. We must take steps to protect LGBTQ students, to provide appropriate training for all school personnel and those preparing to be teachers, to examine and redesign our curricula, and to develop and enforce school policies against all violence.
We must continue to fight to make mainstream schools safe for all students, including LGBTQ youth.