An email arrived Thursday at 8:30 in the morning, asking me to attend a press conference at City Hall to show "support for the Hetrick-Martin Institute."
Sure, I had heard the recent news that the city had finally agreed to extend serious support for the 19-year-old Harvey Milk High School, so I felt honored that I was being asked to be a part of the celebration, and I thought nothing more. It never occurred to me that some people would seriously attack the concept of educating and protecting from assault or even death kids who were, or who were perceived by others to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, or in some cases just questioning.
When I arrived, I found out that the press conference had been quickly assembled and scheduled in response to the news that some powerful people had decided to file a lawsuit to block the city from funding the school.
Lets get a few things straight, before we try to address the issues being raised. One, the school is not new. It was first opened in 1984, and it was a public school "program" even then. Two, as a high school which operates to serve kids who would otherwise be lost in the system, it is not unique in New York. Third, its not a school where kids learn how to be homos; they are taught the same subjects available in any other school, but here they have a chance to learn, without having to worry about their safety.
These kids are truly at risk. They are tormented by their peers, and sometimes even by teachers, principals and others charged with their care; they are assaulted; they are terrorized. They are unable to learn in what is intended to be a learning environment. For the most vulnerable youths it is a torture environment which may somehow be endured or not. Sometimes they are killed.
They are not like the character Will on televisions Will and Grace. They are not middle class. They are overwhelmingly not white [75% are black and hispanic]. They have no support system. Many are homeless or in foster care. Many have attempted suicide. Many are not open to their parents or any other adults. Many have been thrown out by their parents. They are not codifying their sexuality; others are doing it for them. Their numbers include many who are still questioning their sexuality, and statistically 13% of Harvey Milk students are straight. Regardless of whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning or even straight but perceived by peers as otherwise, these kids just cant hide it. And they shouldn't. They're kids.
There are 1.1 million children in the New York school system, which means that perhaps 100,000 are homosexual, and that doesn't even include the other queer categories. Harvey Milk, even after being expanded this year, will be able to protect only about 170. Obviously not every queer gets to be saved.
LGBT and Q youth have been in danger in our schools for hundreds of years, and they shouldnt have to wait for adults to realize this and to decide what they will do about it even whether they will do something about it. We should not inflict societys bias on the young and simply say they have to live with it.
This totally unnecessary battle is being waged today in an electric environment. We are in the midst of a period of great change. The larger American publics acceptance of sexual difference is clearly growing, but it is still appallingly retarded. Only this summer did our highest court decide that private homosexual acts could escape criminal charges. Largely due to attitude changes now everywhere so apparent, what I call the forces of darkness are feeling more threatened than ever, and they will not roll over. Bush and the Pope are freaking out. They hope variously to bring others along with them or to personally profit from the ignorance and fear of millions.
Notorious homophobe Ruben Diaz and his friends and allies want to erase us. Are they threatened by GLBTQ people finally being recognized as human beings?
Well, they sure aint interested in the kids. Diaz says his opposition is not based on prejudice but rather on the fact that the Harvey Milk school promotes segregation, yet Diaz and other social conservatives and religious fundamentalists have never supported the integration of queers, and they arent starting now.
The "Children of the Rainbow Curriculum" proposed ten years ago to foster greater tolerance and diversity in New York public schools was excoriated and thrown out the window by Mr. Diaz and other homophobic individuals and institutions. The result is the moral chaos we have now. My partner Barry looked at this photograph and said that Diaz and the New York Hispanic Clergy Association might as well be screaming, We want our gay kids dead! For Diaz-sorts however, there are no gay kids. There are only what he calls normal kids, and any others are just deliberately being perverse.
Diaz and his cronies shout that HMI means segregation. "It's misleading to say this is an issue of segregation," Newsday quotes the Hetrick-Martin Institute's director, David Mensah. "Kids have fled their home schools to get to us. They need a safe haven."
Mensah cited the example of a student referred to Harvey Milk after his third suicide attempt. "For him, suicide was not a mental health issue," Mensa said. "He was being harassed at his school."
In the latest Hetrick-Martin Institute newsletter, Debra Smock, the Director of its brilliant child, the Harvey Milk School, describes the need for its expansion as bittersweet. In a perfect world, there wouldnt be a need for HMS, but in this day and age there is a need for the school and a need for the expansion.
The saddest part of this very sad story of what we do to our youth was made clear to me during the press conference, when several speakers described the means by which a student is enrolled in the school. Harvey Milk High School is over-subscribed. A kid can be referred by his or her parents, his teacher, principle or his guidance counselor. The kid can also apply directly. There's just one catch. To be admitted, you have to be able to demonstrate what one person called a history. Think what that means, especially when so many still have to be turned away.
We have to get to work on the schools that are not Harvey Milk. We have to get to work on New York. We have to work on America.
For more, see Bloggy, "REGARDING 'THE GAY HIGH SCHOOL,'" and dkos, "Gay hysteria."