Equity & Diversity

Expansion of N.Y.C. School Ignites Debate Over Gay Students’ Needs

By Catherine Gewertz — September 03, 2003 4 min read
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Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York is drawing fire for backing the expansion of a high school for gay and lesbian students. The controversy is coming from various points on the political spectrum, from those who criticize the school as advancing a gay “agenda” to those who see it as a dangerous precedent for segregation.

The expansion of the Harvey Milk School, approved last year, was intended to provide a safe learning environment for more teenagers who are verbally or physically harassed for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Mr. Bloomberg is taking heat for supporting the school after the expansion was outlined in the New York Post.

The most concrete attack has come in a lawsuit filed on Aug. 13 by a coalition of religious groups. Led by Democratic state Sen. Ruben Diaz, who is also a minister, the group contends that the $3.2 million expansion, from 70 students to 170 by 2004, unfairly diverts funding from most of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. It also complains that the school violates equal-protection laws and laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Mathew D. Staver, whose Orlando, Fla.- based legal group, Liberty Counsel, filed the lawsuit, said that even though the school is open to students of any sexual orientation, it still violates the law by “catering” to gay and lesbian students. No hearing has been scheduled on the lawsuit, which was filed in Manhattan Supreme Court.

In a commentary for the New York Daily News, state Conservative Party Chairman Michael R. Long said tax dollars are being used in “promoting a gay lifestyle.” He asked: “What next? How about a special school for chubby kids who get picked on too much?”

The Harvey Milk School, named after a gay San Francisco city supervisor who was slain in 1978, has operated as a partnership between the city and the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group for gay youths, since 1985.

Its backers say the school serves a distinct and urgent purpose. They point to studies that show gay teenagers are harassed, commit suicide, and drop out of school at much higher rates than do heterosexual students. Harvey Milk is intended to serve students who have suffered most severely for being gay or transgender, such as being repeatedly beaten in school or kicked out of their homes.

Mayor Bloomberg has been joined by a group of City Council members in supporting the school. City officials have called the suit “frivolous,” and have pointed out that Harvey Milk School has served many students who might otherwise have dropped out.

Debate Over Means

Even those who acknowledge the need for safe schools for gay students, however, disagree on the best way to meet that need.

A common argument holds that the district should make sure all schools are safe for all students, rather than creating separate environments for those who are victimized.

“The need for a program like Harvey Milk represents a failure on the part of the schools,” said Arthur Lipkin, a Cambridge, Mass., writer and researcher who has written two books on the challenges faced in school by students who are gay or transgender, a term describing people who are physically of one gender but feel as if they belong to the other gender.

“The school system assumes the problem has been solved by sending away these nonconforming kids who are being attacked,” he said, “and that leaves little incentive for them to create a more supportive environment.”

But some advocates for gay teenagers counter that while zero tolerance of harassment is the right objective, it is not yet within reach, and that troubled students need a safe place to go to school in the meantime.

“While that’s an important goal, it’s an intellectual debate for kids who need a safe place today. That’s why Harvey Milk exists,” said David K. Mensah, the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

Dino Portalatin, 19, said that transferring to Harvey Milk might well have saved his life. At his first high school in Brooklyn, he had become violent and his grades had plummeted in response to daily harassment.

“If I hadn’t transferred, I would have dropped out and become nothing, or committed suicide,” said Mr. Portalatin, who graduated from the school in 2002. “The fact that Harvey Milk is there is a necessity.”

New York City runs many specialized public schools, including those aimed at immigrants and at pregnant or parenting teenagers. Some worry, though, that schools serving specific subgroups are a form of segregation.

Andrew Marra, 18, who graduated last year from a public high school in Bethlehem, N.Y., said he was called names, spit on, and shoved for being gay and Korean. But he still thinks a school for gay youths solves such problems only temporarily.

“It’s just segregation. That’s not the solution,” Mr. Marra said. “It says we are marginalized, and that’s not fair.”

Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, said that the only way for disenfranchised minority groups to make true and lasting civil rights progress is to insist on and maintain inclusion in the mainstream. “Separate can never truly be equal,” he said. “The [U.S.] Supreme Court agreed with that in Brown vs. Board of Education. We are only yielding to prejudice by allowing segregation. Assimilation brings conflict in the short term, but in the long term offers more equality.”

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