“The Sad Story of How a Gay High School Got Derailed”

Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award-winner Isaac Stanley-Becker wrote about a controversial proposal in Chicago to open a public school for gay students.

The Sad Story of How a Gay High School Got Derailed
Published in U-High Midway (University of Chicago Laboratory High School)
April 28, 2009, pp 6, 9

Taelor Dorsey travels every weekday from her home in Roseland on the far South Side to Harlan Community Academy High School, 9652 South Michigan Avenue. Living with her grandmother, Taelor is a junior and says she has a passion for creative writing. She came to Harlan from Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School. At 5 foot, 8 inches, with short brown hair and brown eyes, Taelor could easily pass as one of 113,166 Chicago Public Schools high school students. Except her story is different. For Taelor, going to school means facing misery, with fellow students calling her names and isolating her from group activities. That’s because she came out when she was 15 as gay. “I was going to school one time and this guy from my school came up to me and said ‘hey, you dyke,’” Taelor said. “He followed me all the way to the bus stop and onto the bus, spurting out insults. Every day after that it continued. I was afraid to report it because I didn’t want my teachers to know I was gay.” At Taelor’s high school, where 99% of the students are African-American, the motto is “A New Beginning. Educate, Empower, and Encourage all students to reach their full potential.” But Taelor describes discrimination, disempowerment and discouragement because she’s a lesbian. “I don’t think I’m treated very fairly by students at my school. I don’t have the chances everyone else seems to have. It’s sort of like feeling isolated, like you are forgotten by your own peers. Because once they figured out that I was a lesbian, they said, ‘oh, well that’s the end of us doing anything with her.’ Students across the city are facing this exact same kind of thing.” Concerned about the abuse of gay teens in school, administrators from the Little Village Lawndale Campus, four collective schools at 3120 South Kostner Avenue in Chicago, proposed creating a gay friendly high school. According to the proposed school’s website, the school would “address the needs of the underserved population of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and questioning youth and their allies.” A design team of administrators from high schools across the city, university educational experts, and representatives from the Mayor’s office drafted a proposal in July that endorsed the creation of a gay friendly high school. Chad Weiden, assistant principal of Social Justice’s Little Village campus, served on the design team as one of the original proponents of the school and the would-be principal. “On the design team I worked closely with the current principal of Social Justice High School,” Mr. Weiden explained by phone. “We wanted to extend the mission and vision of our current high school. We were intentionally including LGBT along with race and gender. It was an act of inclusion, not separating.” The proposed Chicago high school, at an undetermined location, would offer a college preparatory curriculum with requirements in English, math, science, foreign language, physical
education and the arts, reported Chicago Breaking News, an online news source with contributions from the Chicago Tribune and WGN, as well as other Chicago news sources. Similar schools already exist in several states, including the Harvey Milk High School in New York City, named after the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. The public school serves all of New York City. The proposed school, named the School for Social Justice Pride Campus, was endorsed in October at a public hearing by former Chicago Public Schools CEO, Arne Duncan. Mr. Duncan
graduated from U-High in ‘82. According to Chicago Breaking News, at the hearing Mr. Duncan called for the creation of 20 new schools across the city, among them the School for Social Justice Pride Campus. Other Chicago officials in support of the plan included Mayor Richard Daley. A week later, Mr. Duncan met with a group of 11 Chicago ministers, including Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, senior pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Humboldt Park. Meanwhile, according to the online blog, Queerty, Mayor Daley began to raise concerns about the plan for the proposed school, calling it a work of isolationism. Mr. Duncan then arranged a meeting between the design team and Rev. De Jesus and other Chicago ministers. The ministers voiced concerns over the suggested name for the school, calling it misleading. Consequently, the design team agreed to change the name to Solidarity High School, creating the idea of a more inclusive atmosphere. During the meeting, the team also amended the mission of the school to convey the message that it would provide a safe environment for all students subject to violence and bullying in school, not simply gay students. “We had a very positive meeting with the design team,” Rev. De Jesus explained by phone, commenting on the meeting called by Arne Duncan of the ministers and the design team. “We voiced our concerns about the CPS using taxpayers’ money to create a school for minorities. We wanted to make sure that no one thought we were homophobic.” But in mid-November, the design team pulled the proposal for the school before it could be brought before the Board of Education for a vote. The design team now plans to take an additional year to do research and finalize the plan, hoping to present it in 2010. “We pulled the proposal last November,” Mr. Weiden explained over the phone. “We needed more time to reflect and get more community stakeholders involved. There were a lot of organizations and certain groups of people who wanted to see significant changes to the proposal. But there came a point where the proposal became something that was different from our original mission and vision for the school and what we wanted for the city. That’s why we pulled it. “There were misinterpretations based on what the school was. There were interpretations that this was a school only for LGBT students, which was not our purpose at all. The school was meant to be a work of inclusion, not exclusion. “There were religious groups who were opposed to the project,” Mr. Weiden said. “We need to do a better job of framing the idea for the school, where all students are supported and welcomed. The Human Rights City Ordinance needs to be included in the matter. We need to use the language of law to ensure that every single person in the city of Chicago deserves education regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.” But according to Rev. De Jesus, any future plan for a gay-friendly high school poses the problem of segregation. “I think that segregating kids is never a healthy approach,” Rev. De Jesus explained over the phone. “You don’t solve the bigger problem, which is bullying and discrimination. It’s a form of segregation. If you’re going to say it’s really for everyone and not just LGBT students, well then why call it Pride Campus? We already have schools like that. Although people would say that the intent is not segregation, it certainly looks like it to me.” Responding to claims of segregation, Senior Dana Elliot, co-president of the U-High Lab Schools’ Queer Straight Alliance (QSA), said, “I think that that’s the same argument people have been making for years about women’s colleges. It’s not about separating them from their oppressors. It’s about giving them the tools to become strong, educated people. It is a short term solution, but the presence of these schools changes the attitude and the climate of the current situation, which can only have a positive impact on the issue. “The QSA has had discussions about the school. There have been clashing opinions on it of course. Some people are saying that it’s only a temporary solution to a much bigger problem, although we are all supportive of any type of safe haven for queer youth. I do wish that Lab School students would try to be more informed about these issues. At Lab, I don’t think we get the full blow of it. But in a lot of schools, hate crimes are daily occurrences.” While voicing personal support for the plan, Jim Madigan, interim executive director at Equality Illinois, an organization that aims to protect the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, explained that his organization does not yet have a stance on the matter. “Equality Illinois does not have an official position on the school,” Mr. Madigan explained over the phone. “Mainly because the plan is being retooled and the design team has not yet come forward on that. We’ll wait and see. I have been generally supportive of this school. “The primary focus of the proposal was on the curriculum, and getting support from primarily gay and lesbian parts of the city,” Mr. Madigan stated, commenting on the design team’s withdrawal of the proposal. “However, not enough was done to secure a broad base of public and political support for it. The decision on whether or not this school is created will not be based on the quality of the curriculum. The real test is whether they are getting support for it from a broader base. And that means not people who live in Boystown and not holding your public meetings at the center on Halsted. Those are not the type of people you need support from. It’s going after the people in government, it’s going after community leaders, it’s going after the people who shape public opinion. That’s where the focus needs to be. “If the Mayor and Arne Duncan had really been fully for it, it would have been there already,” Mr. Madigan stated. “But also, most people perceive it as being an attempt to separate gay kids and that makes them nervous. There are segments of the city of Chicago that will oppose anything that does any good for any gay people. What’s more troubling is that people who were usually in support of gay rights were in opposition, not that people who would always be opposed were opposed. “It is the perception by the public that this is something like separate but equal,” explained Mr. Madigan, a former attorney for Lamba Legal, a primarily litigation and public policy- focused organization protecting LGBT people. Addressing the issue of segregation, he observed, “And this is why a lot of people have not been supportive in the past, why they won’t be supportive in the future. So a lot of work needs to be done in terms of explaining to these people that’s not what they’re doing. There is this crazy mentality that somehow it does people good to be tormented. That’s just crazy. If students are being treated badly, they should be given an opportunity to go to school and feel secure.”

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