The Chicago Public School system’s plan for a gay-friendly high school are on hold for at least a year, and I have mixed feelings about the whole situation. It seems the people leading the effort to start the school were pressured to remove almost all the gayness from their original proposal, which led to disagreement within the committee on how much the language should be watered down. Unable to find an immediate compromise, the team decided to wait until next year to revise and submit the proposal. Here are a few of the specifics from the Sun-Times:
They changed the name of the school from the High School for Social Justice Pride Campus to the Social Justice Solidarity High School. They removed language saying the school would address the “needs of the underserved population of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning youth and their Allies (LGBTQA)” in favor of language that said the school would address “city-wide concerns over violence, bullying and harassment.”
Other references to gays were stripped from the description of the school’s social studies and fine arts curriculum, but kept as part of its literature component. The revised plan also kept a planned “GLBTQ Studies” elective.
Obviously the concept of a gay-friendly high school brings up a lot of controversial questions. Doesn’t everyone get teased? Aren’t we discouraging tolerance by making schools less diverse? Don’t all kids need to learn how to cope with teasing? And most importantly, what will happen to the theater and choir programs at non-magnet schools when all the gays disappear?
I think all the concerns about gay-friendly magnet schools are completely legit. I understand why many people feel that this is not the solution to harassment and bullying problems in public schools. However, as a magnet-school alum, my own experience makes it impossible for me to be objective on this.
I’ve been setting off people’s gaydar since I was five and I spent my formative years attending a public school in a small, über-Baptist town in Alabama. I wasn’t just teased—I was terrorized. From middle school through sophomore year, I went to great lengths to avoid having the shit beaten out of me on a regular basis. I searched my school handbook for every loophole that might get me out of gym class and I took every honors course I could. Still, I couldn’t avoid the cafeteria, and when kids would throw food in my hair day after day, I got really good at pretending it was just a recurring accident. I couldn’t avoid shared hallways, but I did learn to avoid the areas that no teachers watched over. I couldn’t avoid going to my locker, but I did learn to access it in record time while keeping an eye out for the latest guy who had threatened to kick my ass.
My house was the last stop on a 45-minute bus route that went through multiple trailer parks. I was usually able to create a buffer between me and the deer-hunting, mullet-sporting guys who hated my faggy guts. I had enough female friends on the bus to keep the bullies a few seats away, but I couldn’t afford for any of them to be out sick. Even a small hole in my fortification could free up a place for the enemy in an adjacent seat.
At the start of my junior year, I made my escape to a magnet boarding school. While the school had no gay-friendly mission statement, it was full of nerdy misfits from around the state. That campus was my own little Israel—a five-acre reparation for the Holocaust that was my public-school education. (Except in the Jewish Holocaust, people were deprived of food and forced to perform manual labor for the very people who hated them, while I was deprived of rigorous foreign-language courses and pressured to go to Wednesday night bible study at the First Baptist Church.)
In the end, I think it’s wise for Chicago’s gay-friendly high school to broaden its mission. A magnet school focused on creating a safe, supportive learning environment through tolerance is something I can wholeheartedly support. In the end, I realize that might not make it much different from most other magnet schools. But I’m o.k. with that because I believe in the importance of magnet schools in general. I know first-hand that magnets can serve as incubators for innovative approaches to education, where the staff are able test experimental policies and new teaching strategies that could prove useful in other schools once they’re refined.
I believe there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems that currently plague public schools. Different students have different needs that specialized schools are better equipped to address. I’d love to see all schools adopt zero-tolerance policies on bullying and affirm in writing that they do not allow discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. But in the mean time, there are kids who face serious challenges if they’re forced to remain in their current schools—and I’m not just talking about the kids who face the serious challenge of an atomic wedgie or a lemon swirly. I’m talking about kids who might drop out or kill themselves because they feel completely alone or fear for their safety. I’m talking about kids who will struggle to accept themselves for years or decades because they never heard they might be fine just the way they are.
I don’t believe that these kids need to suffer because it builds character and prepares them for the real world. (In the real world, my boss doesn’t pull my pants down at a meeting and write butt pirate on my forehead with a Sharpie.) At the same time, I don’t think it’s necessary to create a school just for gay kids, and I realize that even a school for gay kids can’t protect children from the social traumas of adolescence. However, I do think school shouldn’t make anyone want to die. For now, I think magnet schools offer the most immediate solution to ensure that kids don’t fall through the cracks because they don’t fit in. Of course, I’m also open to subsidizing gangs of teenage drag-queens who offer protection in exchange for sequins and acrylic nails.