Homo High

(Cross-posted to my Gay Geek site)

I have mixed feelings about the Harvey Milk School for LGBTQ youth (as recently discussed on the consistently interesting 50 Minute Hour). In case you haven't heard of it before, it's a school in New York specifically for all the various flavours of gay kids (and the Q stands for "Questioning", not Queer).

On the one hand, I say great! A school where gay kids who have been beaten up or discriminated against at their own schools can go and be safe and still learn. Gay students consistently have a terrible time at school:

45% of gay males and 20% of lesbians experience verbal or physical assault in high school. 28% of these youths are forced to drop out of high school because of harassment resulting from their sexual orientation.
A back-of-an-envelope calculation says that means roughly 1% of high-school dropouts are dropping out exclusively because people are attacking them because of their sexuality. I don't quite understand the classifications used, but it looks like New York City has about 250,000 high-school students. So the school we're talking about is one that seems to be needed by about 2500 students, which is a decent-sized school by anyone's standards, even if my calculations are off by quite large amounts. So we can ignore claims that this school -- which currently has only 100 students -- is serving too small a minority to be worthwhile.

So the questions are:

  1. Would this money ($3.2 million at the moment) be better spent elsewhere? For instance, improving the conditions at run-down inner city schools?
  2. Is a school for gay kids a good idea?
In answer to the first, I think it's very tricky. If you're looking at dropout rates, is there anywhere else you could spend $3.2 million and stop more than 100 students dropping out? Almost certainly, but the $3.2m is initial start-up, not running costs, so the question is unfair. They're not going to get that kind of money every year. But I think in larger terms, the money should not be the issue. The issue is whether gay kids should have their own school. And I'm not so sure about that at all.

The problem with having a school for harassed gay kids is that you are treating the symptom, instead of the problem. That problem is the awful culture of American high schools, which reward unthinking, patriotic herd behaviour and ostracize the strange, different and brilliant. Gay students are just one of many minorities who experience US high schools' general mistreatment of anyone outside the norm, such as geeks, and being a geek myself, I can't help but think it a little unfair that only one of these groups is being helped out.

Maybe what Harvey Milk should be doing is advertising itself as a school for bullied kids (sexuality is already not a requirement; they have always had straight students). Since lots of the worst-bullied kids are gay, they'd still help the ones they're helping now, and they'd also get the other kids who have a shitty time at school. (The school would also have a much larger potential audience, removing that argument from its detractors' arsenals.)

However, a problem even with that approach is that removing these gay or bullied kids to another school isn't a good move psychologically: the message it sends to bullied kids is "conform, or we'll send you to the school for freaks". To their would-be bullies it gives a twisted sense that they are doing the right thing by assaulting these kids who challenge their narrow-minded assumptions about the world: they got rid of the freaks, and all the conformists are happy again. How are these kids ever going to learn to handle their differences if we ship all the different ones away, in the same way that we already ship away all the clever ones to selective schools? And how are gay kids going to learn about how important it is to stand up for your rights if they don't have any experience of having to fight to be accepted?

Of course, as anyone who's ever read this site knows, I had a crappy time at school. I know I would have jumped at the chance to go to Harvey Milk. Even now, it sounds like it must be nirvana: I'm imagining sexual education classes that address all aspects of sexuality, not just the popular ones, and class discussions full of kids who have a deep-rooted instinct to accept different viewpoints, having been themselves ignored for being different. And if somebody had told me that I was being put through hell as a learning experience for the conformist dolts who were beating the shit out of me on a daily basis, I would have been justifiably pissed-off. So maybe I should ignore the annoyingly adult attitude that "if I survived it, it must be good for you" since living through the bubonic plague didn't exactly mean you were a better class of person, either.

Of course, what NYC should really be doing is addressing the horrible conformist culture that breeds this type of discrimination. But changing the culture of a high school is near-on impossible. As always, it's a lot easier and to try to treat the symptom instead of the cause, though not nearly as effective, as New York's success in reducing crime has shown. So although in the long-run what I would really like to see is a sea change in the way American high school students treat each other, in the meantime I will settle for the Harvey Milk school, where a kid who doesn't want to join the football team and isn't really into typical "boy" things can grow up knowing there's nothing wrong with that.