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Last Updated: Friday, 19 November, 2004, 11:31 GMT
When most of your school is gay
By Paul Henley
Presenter, Radio 4

Harvey Milk school pupils
Are pupils at the world's first "gay" state school victims of segregation or symbols of progressive thinking?

The majority of pupils at Harvey Milk High School in New York are gay and were bullied at their previous school for their sexuality.

Harvey Milk refuses to be classified as a "gay school" even though that is the general perception of it from opponents and supporters alike. But it says its unique brand of segregated education fully deserves its public funding.

It says it provides for a small population of victimised and bullied pupils who are made to feel so freakish in mainstream high schools that they are falling behind in lessons, too scared to go to school and missing out on a proper education.

Not everyone thinks this is a valid cause.

"If we need a special school for homosexuals, maybe we need a special school for little short fat kids, because they get picked on too" is the view of Mike Long, chairman of the Conservative Party in New York.

'Pregnant' school

He feels making Harvey Milk an official, state-funded High School has been done behind tax-payers' backs - "on the sneak", as he puts it.

New York does not yet have a school for undersized people with bad eyesight. But minorities of many kinds are already catered for - children who aspire to be fire-fighters, pregnant teenage girls and pupils interested in "active pedagogy" such as rock-climbing.

Harvey Milk
There is no school sign on the outside
One year after opening, the atmosphere inside the school is as unorthodox as you might expect. The Harvey Milk pupils I met were no shrinking violets.

They were self-confident, self-aware and vocal teenagers who seemed to be flourishing in the seclusion of this school.

And it is secluded. From the street, you cannot even tell it is a school. An anonymous entrance between shops and cafes in downtown Manhattan leads, via checks by security guards, to a lift which runs only to the third floor and opens up into a corridor of lockers with classrooms and offices off it.

There are about 160 pupils, more than half of them girls, all between the ages of 14 and 18.

Some pupils look like they could be at school anywhere, others don't. Two teenage boys in crop-tops with long, permed hair are having a heated but good-humoured exchange ("Don't go there, girlfriend!") with an older-looking black girl with a shaved head and heavy boots.

Here you can just be yourself and nobody will talk and make stupid comments
Vampira, 16
They're almost all Hispanic or black, from the worst-off areas of The Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn. They had to nominate themselves to come here.

For most of them, arrival seems to have brought a sense of release. Vampira, 16, says Harvey Milk has become "like my second family".

She says how relieved she is she no longer has to hide her sexuality. "Here you can just be yourself and nobody will talk and make stupid comments."

"I had my problems with people at my old school", says 15-year-old Chanelle. "It was the whole straight thing - the jocks, the football players and so on and, personally, I didn't fit in and I was missing out on my credits. I figured - get out of there".

Good grades

Several pupils stress that they would never have made any academic progress without the school. Ninety-five per cent of Harvey Milk pupils graduate, compared to just over half high school pupils across New York generally.

The teenagers are frank about events that brought them here. Tanaja, a recent graduate, talks about her parents' horror the day she came out to them, aged 14. She comes from a family of strict Jehovah's Witnesses.

Her mother and father put locks on the bedroom door. They forbade her to have any physical contact with her younger brother and sister, who was four. She felt her only option was to leave home and Harvey Milk helped find her a place to stay.

Harvey Milk school
Inside, just like any other school...
Jazzy, 16, says he inadvertently "outed" himself to his mother the same day he discovered she was lesbian, but laughs now about the time they bumped into each other with respective boyfriend and girlfriend.

Critics of the school wonder how teenagers can be clear enough about their sexuality at such a young age, to ask for a place at Harvey Milk.

Josh Lamont, from the organisation Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which collects statistics for the US Education Department, says he's used to raised eyebrows when he tells people the average age of coming out is now fifteen. " A generation ago that figure was closer to twenty-one," he says.

'God Hates Fags'

Others who oppose the school, including gay rights activists, say creating a new form of gay ghetto is no way to encourage integration and understanding. In the real world, they say, gay and straight people have to learn to co-exist.

But some disagree. More than once, Harvey Milk's pupils have had to walk through groups of protesters on the pavement outside.

They have had insults hurled at them by angry members of the public brandishing placards saying "God Hates Fags" and "Go to Hell Harvey Milk Students".

At very least, Harvey Milk gives them strength in numbers. They ignore the protests and go to school.

What do you think about what Harvey Milk school is doing? A selection of your comments appear below.

Not fitting in is a major problem for gay school kids - and not just from prejudice. Not feeling part of your classmates discussions about girls and boys, feeling that there's something wrong with you, and even worrying that other kids of the same sex think you're being friendly for other reasons, are just as bad, even when that exclusion may not be deliberate. I wish I had the opportunity to go to a gay school when I was younger, as I might not have felt so excluded.
Paul Birrell, Luxembourg

I think this is a joke and this is not a way of getting rid of the problem, this will put pressure on other gay victims to not go to school and say they should have the opportunity of an all gay school.
Jerry Devlin, Ireland

Good luck to them. 95% graduation rate, how many would have graduated had they been taunted and bullied in a traditional setting?
Jason Millard, UK

As an "out" homosexual, it strikes me that this school is not about coming out of any closet, but of stepping right back into one and slamming the door. This is ghetto politics at its worst.
Dauvit Alexander, Scotland

In an ideal world we wouldn't need the Harvey Milk School. I don't agree with segregation, and feel that gay pupils should be taught alongside heterosexual pupils. However, I believe that gay pupils have the right to learn in an environment free from bullying and intimidation, which sadly only the Harvey Milk School provides. Obviously, more needs to be done in schools to prevent harrassment of gay students. Until then we will unfortunately need places like the Harvey Milk School.
Steve, UK

At my school my sexuality was a big taboo and the only way to get along was to just not mention it. I know some kids who were beaten up, some even sexually assaulted because of their sexuality. The fact that these children don't think that they can get ahead in main stream schools I think is a sad fact about the education system they have been excluded from.
Sarah, Wales

Being gay myself I know what it is like to go through school as a gay teenager. You never really are made to fit in and I think it's great that the kids at that school have somewhere to go and feel comfortable. But I don't think segregated schools are the way to go. I think it proper education in schools that is needed!
Chris, Leicester

At the end of the school day these students still have to integrate into society, so it's better that they face up to adversity than just shy away from it in their own designated place. I fear to think after religious schools, there may be schools divided by colour and so on. More divisions = more problems. Inclusion is the only solution.
Mo, UK

While I disagree with the taunts these pupils may have received, I think this is a ridiculous idea. I was tormented at school for being a bit over weight, but I didn't get to go to "Fat School".
Tim, Manchester, UK

Good for them! I am 59 now and I was bullied at school. I sympathise 100%. Adolescence is a trying time and extra pressures can make or break a person's dreams.
Ian, Barcelona, Spain

A daft idea. How can tolerance & understanding be achieved by segregating people. This school identifies pupils by their sexuality, surely the opposite of what we're trying to achieve.
Peter, UK

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BBC Radio 4: What's Wrong With Gay Math?
A special programme looking at the school's controversial history

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