Feature writing


Glad to be gay? Then come to our school

The Times

January 21, 2011


When did you realise you were gay? It’s a question a lot of gay people get asked. Many tend to struggle to answer it because, well, think about it: if the question is asked of a heterosexual — “When did you realise that you were straight?” — it sounds absurd. You just are.

Betty Kitten Ross, Jonathan Ross’s 19-year-old daughter, who has just come out, has said she had “crushes on girls forever”, but never realised that was “being gay” until she was older. “It just kind of clicked really,” she said.

Of coming out, she added: “It was sort of hard” and that hadn’t been made easier by “Two people who said things to me that made me never want to come out, so I was really worried about telling people I was close to in case they reacted the same way. But of course, all the people I really cared about were nothing but accepting and happy for me.” Indeed, Ross and his wife, the screenwriter Jane Goldman, have spoken movingly of being proud of their daughter and only wanting her to be happy.

The Ross experience contrasts sharply with the work of therapists aiming to “cure” patients of their homosexuality. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is presently considering stripping Lesley Pilkington of her BACP accreditation after she was taped by the journalist Patrick Strudwick offering to “cure” him. Was homosexuality “a mental illness, an addiction or an anti-religious phenomenon”, Strudwick asks her.

“It is all of that,” Pilkington replies. Apparently she has a 29-year-old gay son, whom she says is heterosexual. “He just has a homosexual problem,” she says.

Prejudice, bullying, self-doubt: it’s an insidious cocktail many gay teens experience as they come out, and helping them to fight it is central to the purpose of a unique school in New York for 15 to 21-year-olds. Harvey Milk High School (HMH) exists for those who are “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning” (LGBTQ) and became a fully accredited New York public school, the US approximation of a comprehensive, in 2003, having first been conceived by its founders in 1985.

A few years before, Dr Emery Hetrick and Dr Damien Martin, educators and life partners, had been shocked by the story of a gay teenager, beaten up and thrown out of a homeless shelter because of his sexuality. The two men founded the school believing “all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential”.

The school takes its name from the San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, murdered in 1978 after becoming an eloquent and charismatic gay rights champion. Sean Penn won the Oscar for portraying him in a 2008 film.

Christian, a pupil at HMH, says that at his two previous schools classmates would ask mockingly if he was a “girl”, a “fag”, gay. He’s 16 now, shy and far from “girly”. It reminds you what vicious goldfish bowls schools can be, where, if you are slightly different from the narrow and confining definition of “the norm”, you can become a target.

“I ignored it,” Christian says of the bullying, “but I thought that I was cursed. Sometimes I would pretend I wasn’t gay, try to convince myself I wasn’t. I thought maybe I am the only one, maybe I’ll get it over one day. My family was homophobic, especially my dad. I just wanted to blend in.”

Since enrolling at HMH last September, Christian’s life, and his grades, have turned around. The need for the school has been given extra piquancy in the US in recent months after a spate of suicides of gay youth. According to the most recent surveys, 73.6 per cent of students heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school and more than 20 per cent had experienced physical harassment at school based on their sexual orientation.

The cumulative effect of this bullying and torment means LGBTQ students are twice as likely as the general student population to say they were not planning on pursuing post-secondary education. HMH, which has been supported by celebrities such as the band Erasure and Cyndi Lauper, has a capacity for 100 students and, at times, has found itself oversubscribed. Its present intake is 77. Another school run along similar lines is planned for New Jersey. The school, on the third floor of a building near the East Village, is compact, with classrooms off a central passageway of red lockers and a lunch hall that doubles as a gymnasium and an assembly area.

Despite its unique founding principles, HMH isn’t set apart from the central purpose or curriculum of other schools. Its students work the same school day and learn the same subjects as students in every high school, although there are some intriguing add-ins to lessons.

The English teacher Orville Bell, for example, raises the idea (not insists, before conservatives get their knickers in a knot) that Othello and Iago’s relationship may have been deeper to make Iago turn so viciously.

Not all the students are gay (they are not asked if they are when they are interviewed before enrolment), the same with the staff. But, says Bell, smaller class sizes (no more than 22 students in a classroom compared with the more typical 32) and the open atmosphere of the school means students get “highly specialised individual attention”. The school’s results reveal heartening success: over 90 per cent of its seniors graduate (well above the New York City average) and more than 60 per cent go on to advanced programmes or college. The FBI recently invited the students to exhibit artwork at an event for lesbian and gay agents at its New York office.

Not all of the children are having problems at home, with parents struggling to accept their sexuality: “We have a very healthy parent body,” says the principal Alan Nolan, who is heterosexual. But isn’t the need for HMH an admission that mainstream schooling is failing gay children, I ask. Shouldn’t the resources go into the wider public school system to help gay children there? Nolan says that “programmes addressing bullying exist” and HMH is “part of the family”, but there is a need “for educational tolerance, accepting that differences exist among people. America is a very multicultural population, but there is still extreme ignorance, intolerance, discrimination and meanness out there.”

The school and its pupils have been the target of protests by Fred Phelps’s placard-waving “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church followers, as well as encountering ire from conservatives railing, misleadingly, at its provision of “gay maths”.

Michael Long, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party, once said: “Is there a different way to teach homosexuals? Is there gay math? This is wrong . . . there’s no reason these children should be treated separately.”

Which misses the point: HMH wasn’t conceived as a luxury, its pupils are only being taught “separately” because mainstream schooling has failed in its duty to educate and protect them.

Bell, who is gay and has taught for more than 30 years and at HMH since its inception, notes: “It’s great our school is healthy, that another school is coming in New Jersey, but it would be even greater when HMH is disbanded, so we wouldn’t need to lift children from places that should be supplying safe spaces for education. But that is not happening now and that’s why we’re here.” Bell recalls “the real stories, not the nice magazine ones” he has encountered. One of his young male students was put into foster care because his mother’s boyfriend couldn’t accept his sexuality and she chose the partner over her son. Another young man was molested by male members of his family, but when he came out they cast him out because he had bought his own sexuality into the open.

Nolan and Bell have counselled suicidal gay teens (depending on the severity of what the student is saying, other health agencies can become involved), but Bell emphasises that “every day” he makes breakthroughs with his students. “You get these kids and there’s no connection there, they’re not performing. Then they turn it around and start doing wonderful work. Their spirits may be damaged but they certainly have not been broken.” Nolan, a father of three, doesn’t pretend his school is a paragon or paradise: “This is a typical high school. There is bullying here, we have the same issues any high school has. But we are blessed with a staff in touch with their own humanity.”

Bell says: “I always say to the new student-teachers, accept the behaviour of the pupils as you would do anywhere, don’t make any special exceptions because this is Harvey Milk High. The big difference here is that the kids feel connected to the adults. They know they can talk to us. I tell the kids that I’m a gay man. I may be the first positive gay role model they’ve seen. They ask me personal questions and I answer them honestly. I’d rather they get their information in a safe, healthy way here than the street. When kids come here they can exhale for the first time; when a girl sees a girl she’s attracted to she knows she doesn’t have to hide it.”

Alexa, a wise and funny 15-year-old, is straight and came to HMH because she was teased for “looking and being different”. She laughs: in the school she and three others are in “the heterosexual minority”. But she adds: “It’s the most comfortable school. People know here what it is to be different and they accept me. At my previous school the principal didn’t look into people being bullied. I was depressed and if you’re unhappy the last thing on your mind is getting good grades. I would come back to school after everyone had gone home to do my work. My mum’s happier that I’m happier. Now I don’t dread being tormented at school.”

Christian adds: “I came out to my mum and sister. They cried at first, but over time they accepted me.”

Alexa, who wants to be a musician, and Christian, who wants to be a photographer, have been profoundly changed by their fellow pupils’ experiences: Alexa says that one boy taught her “you don’t have to categorise yourself” or rush to answer bullies, “when you are still trying to find yourself.” She has also met some kids who were teen prostitutes “and no one should have to go through that”.

Christian says that he’s learnt that “we’re not just defined by our sexuality and gender. You’re attracted to whoever you’re attracted to. I met a boy who had been abused so badly he retreated into his own world where he made-believe that everything was all right. It touched me so much and gave me motivation: if he can come here and do well, hopefully it will also give me the knowledge and strength to go into the real world.”

In big schools they say, it’s so easy for children to lose themselves. In HMH the connection with teachers has been “amazing”. Alexa says: “You can see them anytime, long after their day should have finished. Unlike in regular school, the teachers here are not afraid to relate to you and that strengthens the respect between the students and teachers.”

Alan Nolan says teaching and running the school has changed him. “They’re my children. Being here has made me more human, it’s taken off my rougher edges.”

The artwork on the walls is heavy on positive images, notices for women’s groups and upbeat maxims such as, “Nothing is impossible. The impossible only takes longer” and “What do you call a roomful of authors, inventors and explorers? Your first period class”.

“Sure,” Alexa says rolling her eyes, “it’s all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s still high school.”