IT'S AN UNUSUAL PLACE FOR A school, the sliver of building sandwiched between Barnes & Noble and The Vitamin Shoppe on the corner of Astor Street in lower Manhattan. But then, Harvey Milk High is an unusual school: Students apply based on their sexual behavior, boys attend classes in women's clothing, and teachers assure all involved that the whole arrangement is perfectly normal.
Founded in 1985 with private money from the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an advocacy group for homosexual youth, Harvey Milk High is the Big Apple's all-gay school. The institution twice made headlines this summer: First, when it secured $3.2 million in taxpayer money to expand into a full-fledged high school that will ultimately serve 170 homosexual kids. Then, when state Sen. Ruben Diaz, a conservative Democrat, challenged the school's public funding in court, alleging, among other things, unlawful segregation.
Since then, Harvey Milk High has been in the news again. In early October, city attorneys moved to have Sen. Diaz's suit dismissed as baseless. Next, a brawl erupted Oct. 8 outside a Greenwich Village Starbucks between a gang of Harvey Milk students and a man driving a Lexus. NYPD officers told reporters the kids started the fight, but city newspapers gave that scant space. Instead, they devoted hundreds of words to students' claims that the man charged at them with a screwdriver after yelling that they were all "homos" bound for hell.
Both the legal fight and the media's handling of the street fight point to what may be a new multiculturalism, one with an Animal Farm twist: All students are equal, but homosexual students are more equal than others. Although school-choice opponents emphasize educational equality for all children, racial-minority students nationwide remain trapped in violent schools as liberals block publicly funded choice programs that would provide safe harbor. Meanwhile "sexual minority" students-to use a gay-activist term-find haven in publicly funded schools that claim to cloister them for their own safety.
Gay and lesbian students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) can choose "Oasis," a system of tax-funded satellite schools for homosexual students who claim to have faced ridicule or physical attacks on regular campuses. LAUSD launched Oasis in 1992 with one teacher; the school now employs 11 teachers and operates throughout the district.
"Our goal is not to segregate kids, but we do have separate schools for them if they want to go," said Deanne Neiman, director of the district's Education Compliance Office. "Our first preference is to try to cure the environment, and we try to make people understand that being different is OK."
Oasis special-education coordinator Joe Salvenini said the program, despite its public funding, hasn't attracted as much attention as Harvey Milk because it holds classes in donated space rather than on public-school property. "The district has on numerous occasions offered us school-district space to house our classrooms," Mr. Salvenini said. "But we refused because [gay and lesbian] students are afraid to go to school on those campuses."
Mr. Salvenini took exception to the idea that teaching homosexuals separately from other students could be viewed as segregation. "Our students have been segregated in comprehensive school settings.... [They've been] singled out, picked on, harassed, ridiculed, and beaten up by others.... If comprehensive schools were doing their job in making sure that all students are always protected, we wouldn't need these programs."
Matthew Staver, director of Liberty Counsel, the conservative legal group representing Sen. Diaz in court, said Mr. Salvenini's argument is one that segregationists used to defend racial segregation in public schools. "Their argument was that if blacks went to the same schools as whites, that whites would beat them up, so blacks needed to remain segregated for their own protection," Mr. Staver said. To reconstitute that argument now, in support of separate schools for homosexuals, "twists logic to meet an end goal: special treatment for gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and bisexuals."
Whether "special treatment" is a conscious goal, Harvey Milk students seem to fare better than some of their non-gay peers. While fat teens, geeky teens, and minority teens still face schoolyard violence in New York City-a series of assaults last year at Lafayette High School, including several specifically targeting Asian students, led the media to dub the school "Hell High"-the city has created a homogenous, "safe" environment especially for homosexuals. And where only 70 percent of students in the city's high schools graduate or earn GEDs within seven years of enrolling, 95 percent of Harvey Milk students graduated in 2003; 60 percent went on to college. A Wall Street Journal editorial called the school's students an "educational elite."
Harvey Milk senior Kimberly Howard, 17, plans to attend New York University next year. A budding transsexual who is taking hormones to complete an external transition from male to female, he had hoped one day to play girls high-school basketball. But Mr. Howard may graduate before Harvey Milk is able to launch the developmental sports programs it announced in October. Still, he likes the school, he told WORLD: "I don't get teased as much."
Manuel Mendoza, 19, graduated from Harvey Milk last year after transferring from another school where he too suffered teasing. Harvey Milk "is OK," he said. "I went here because I dropped out of school a few years back, and I heard about this school from a counselor."
Publicly paid counselors in other cities also direct kids toward education and support programs tailored to homosexuals. Public schools in Madison, Wis., employ a full-time advocate for gay and lesbian students. Los Angeles Unified holds ongoing pro-gay staff development through a program called "Project 10." "We take lots of questions [from administrators], such as a transgender kid claims to be a girl, but records show he's a boy.... Two boys want to run for homecoming queen, can we do it? So lots of issues like that come up," said LAUSD's Deanne Neiman.
Harvey Milk High doesn't have those kinds of problems. And the school's supporters say questions of equal protection and segregation aren't a problem either, since the school is open to heterosexuals. But that may be only technically true. The school's website (hmi.org) advertises Harvey Milk as a school for "at-risk youth who often find it difficult or impossible to attend their home schools due to continuous threats, physical violence, or verbal harassment stemming from their sexual orientation or identity."
Some Harvey Milk students say it would be OK for heterosexuals to attend (as long as they aren't "hateful and discriminatory," one said); others seem to have embraced the idea that the school is homosexuals' home turf. "I don't think straight kids should go here," senior Allen Harris told New York Newsday. "We left our old schools to be safe. Why change the environment again and bring our attackers here?"
Newsday recently has coddled Harvey Milk High with generally uncritical reports, long on multicultural cheerleading and short on opposing viewpoints. But the school's warm press reception isn't simply the fruit of enlightened journalism. After the New York Times pacesetting editorial page in August came out against the idea of segregating homosexual students, a crack PR team from elite New York firms offered the Hetrick-Martin Institute a pro bono assist. One strategy, according to an Oct. 6 article in PR Week, was to "quiet [the media] down."
It worked. A brief spasm of public protest on the school's opening day gave way to a broad silence that has emboldened at least one private school for gays and lesbians to seek public funding for itself.
The Walt Whitman School in Dallas opened in 1997 with a handful of students. But according to spokesperson Becky Thompson, the school repeatedly faced obstacles to state accreditation, in large part because it relied so heavily on donations to keep running. In light of Harvey Milk's newfound public financing, Whitman is now "looking to become a charter school in Texas, another way for a school to get federal dollars."
New York state Sen. Diaz believes those dollars should provide equal protection for all students, not just gays and lesbians. His lawsuit, still pending before the New York Supreme Court, charges that Harvey Milk's public funding violates a board of education regulation, a state law prohibiting segregation based on sexual orientation, and the U.S. Constitution.
But the senator's critics say his opposition to the school's public bankroll is less about the law than about Christian "homophobia." Sen. Diaz, who in 1965 moved to the continental United States from his native Puerto Rico, is an ordained Pentecostal minister. That, along with his history of standing against homosexual activism, was enough for The Village Voice to brand him New York City's "most homophobic politician."
Such invective, Sen. Diaz said, is par for the liberal course. "That is the way the leftists fight back," he said. "They don't know any other way." He told WORLD that the New York state legislature recently adopted a resolution favoring passage of a same-sex marriage law in the new session that begins in January.
"I will be opposing that," he said. "And you can bet they will call me a homophobe again."
-with reporting by Daniel P. Taylor