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November 2004
Sticks and Stones
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews

 

Jamie required surgery for many injuries she suffered during various attacks in school. One year, students performed a mock rape on her in front of an entire class. In another year, students pushed her head into a toilet and urinated on her. The kicker in this situation is that, even though Jamie and her parents repeatedly asked school officials to discipline Jamie’s attackers, nothing happened. In fact, Jamie was told by one school official that she must learn to expect such treatment since she is gay.—Jen Tylor, Jamie’s Lawyer

Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, I remember from a very early age being distressed by injustices perpetrated against anyone alleged as different. Whether they were from other countries, ethnic and racial minorities in our own country, didn’t wear the right clothes, have the right hairstyle, or those like me, who were simply perceived as ‘odd.’ From ‘tomboy’ to ‘gaylord,’ I certainly learned the hard way that kids can be cruel.

Now, I must confess, at times it does seem that the general public is becoming more “understanding” of queer culture. I mean come on, we have all noticed the TV shows with homosexual themes including Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The L Word and Boy Meets Boy. Madonna kissed Britney Spears on the MTV Video Music Awards. There is proud mom Rosie O’Donnell, the ever funny Ellen, fag hag Margaret Cho and the lascivious Rupert Everett. I mean at least New York responds with a massive yawn, right?

Apparently not. The fact is, New York is one of 42 states that does not offer legal protection to students based on their sexuality. A bill to do just that failed to pass the state legislature due to disputes between the senate and assembly versions.

Furthermore, the president of this more “tolerant” nation, with eyes set on political gain, yawped to Congress to immerse his righteous creed into the nation’s most revered document, the United States Constitution. Yep, our president, leader of the free, chief of the red, white and blue, openly opposes letting gays adopt, favors criminalizing gay sex, vehemently opposes gay marriages, opposes gays serving openly in the military, opposes hate crimes legislation and anti-discrimination legislation if sexual orientation is included, and refused to issue a declaration in support of gay pride. In my opinion, George is right next to Fred Phelps, the anti-gay minister who picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral, and his minions waving Bibles and chanting their infamous “God hates fags” mantra.

A Safe Place
“ I can’t ever let anyone find out that I’m not straight. It would be humiliating. My friends would hate me. I just know it. They might even want to beat me up. And my family? I’ve overheard them lots of times talking about gay people. They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too. Gays are bad, and God sends bad people to hell. It’s really hell. It really scares me now, when I hear my family talk that way, because now, they are talking about me. I guess I’m no good to anyone...not even God. Life is so cruel, and unfair. Sometimes I feel like disappearing from the face of this earth.” Four years after writing this entry Bobby committed suicide.—From Prayers for Bobby: The True Stoy of a Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son by Leroy Aarons

The term sanctuary is traditionally defined as a sacred place, set apart from the profane, ordinary world. From the ever handy Encyclopedia Britannica we learn that the concept was later extended to include human-made structures; the tents of ancient Hebrews, monasteries and cathedral grounds of medieval churches, the sacred lodge of the Algonquin and Sioux. Today, there is still a need for these safe houses, particularly for those who exist outside mainstream conformity.

Imagine yourself at 15, trapped for six hours every day at school dealing with the comments, the shoves, the beatings, and the vandalism. This is school, where life is lived in fear and isolation. At home, your parents make jokes about gay people on TV. On Sunday, your minister says you are an abomination. You can’t date, tell your friends, or express your feelings for another human.

“Faggot.” “Dyke.” School-aged children hear these derogatory, discriminatory remarks every day. Even “that’s so gay,” innocent as it may sound, harms by association. After all, “gay” is no longer synonymous with “happy,” and “that’s so gay” is hardly a compliment.

According to the 2003 National School Climate Survey and the 2004 Safe Place to Learn Report, students who have to endure this hostility tend to receive lower grades, skip school because they feel unsafe, resort to negative behaviors like drug or alcohol abuse, or even bring weapons to school in self-defense. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services it is estimated that 38 percent of completed youth suicides each year are performed by gays and lesbians. These statistics are startling, mostly because they reflect not merely numbers, but our children’s quality of life.

The sad fact is, millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teens around the world cannot even imagine the possibility of coming out, scared that the disclosure of their true identity will result in ridicule and harassment. Their fear is warranted. Those suspected of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered are subjected to regular persecution, harsh discrimination, and violence from other students. According to the Sexual Information and Education Council of the U.S., 69 percent of LGBT youth reported experiencing some form of harassment or violence while in school and 86.7 percent reported sometimes or frequently hearing homophobic remarks.

The Hetrick-Martin Institute, whose mission is to foster the development of the LGBT community, responded to these and other intolerable statistics with the Harvey Milk School (HMS), instituted to offer queer youth a safe environment to learn free of the violence and abuse kids face at other New York City schools.

The Harvey Milk School comprises primarily at-risk kids, ranging in age from 12 to 21. Some of these students have been kicked out of home or school for being gay, and many have been ordered into foster homes. This is the easy-out often taken by teachers, administrators and parents when dealing with the intricate issue of homosexuality. It is often easier to remove the victim than to educate the tormentor, especially since most of the taunting goes on when the teacher isn’t around. And even a fastidious administration has few weapons to battle such ignorance.

HMS students are of all colors and sizes, from all kinds of backgrounds, and have more enthusiasm and creativity than can be imagined. Racially, the school’s composition is 75 percent African-American and Latino. The school’s success rate, which is far better than most of the city’s public schools, is impressive: 95 percent of HMS seniors graduate, and 60 percent are accepted to college. HMS is also nondiscriminatory; created as a “hate-free space,” the school accepts applications for admission from anyone.

And contrary to the alarmist Reverend Phelps, and the yelpings of the naysayers, the Harvey Milk School does not have as its goal the segregation and isolation of GLBT students from the mainstream. It isn’t a step backward for integration or political correctness. Nor is it some clandestine plan to destroy America’s school systems and set up “Homo High Schools” all over America.

The HMS is simply a last-resort opportunity for a small group of LGBT students who have been so harassed, so attacked in their regular school systems, that they might drop out altogether rather than face continued persecution. The institution of sanctuary, whatever its origin and meaning, appears to have performed a critical social function here.

 


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