Chicago’s New Gay High School

Chicago is set for a vote on the new high school targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual students on November 19th. Below is today’s column on the school, which I reluctantly oppose as I did the Harvey Milk high school.

Yielding to bias;
Segregating kids removes the victims, not their tormentors

BYLINE: By Jonathan Turley


With a vote scheduled for Nov. 19, Chicago appears on the brink of creating the city’s first high school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. For those of us who have been lifelong supporters of gay rights, it is a difficult reform to oppose. However, the planned School for Social Justice Pride Campus would be a terrible setback for public education and gay rights.

The proposal stems from the best possible motives. A recent study by researchers in Chicago found that gay and lesbian students are three times more likely to miss school than straight students. A recent national study found that these students are 86 percent more likely to be verbally abused, 44 percent more likely to be physically harassed and 22 percent more likely to be assaulted. Those figures should be cause for alarm for everyone.

However, the new school is less an intervention than a concession to intolerance and violence.

Officials have insisted this would be a high school that targets gay and lesbian students who have difficulties in conventional settings, not a “gay high school.” But that is precisely how it will be perceived by students, who will tell any student they suspect of being homosexual to “go to gay high.” More importantly, instead of removing homophobic bullies, the schools would be removing the victims. The result will be a less diverse student body and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. It is not the victimized students but their tormentors who need special attention.

Chicago is poised to follow the example of New York’s Harvey Milk High School, the nation’s first high school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. It was a highly ironic dedication, since the late gay rights leader Harvey Milk struggled to fully incorporate gay and lesbian citizens into society.

The new school would serve 600 students, a relatively small number in a system with more than 400,000 students and 655 schools. It may indeed prove better for those students, as has Harvey Milk High. But the impact on the overall student body is the greatest concern. A school system has a legal and moral obligation to maintain a safe and nurturing environment. Chicago officials are embracing the approach of segregationists from the 1960s, who insisted that blacks would be “safer” in their own schools.

The proposed gay high school is on some level a continuation of a trend in public education led by the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago is now a patchwork of specialized “charter” or “themed” schools that separate students by race, gender and professional aspirations. Various high schools now cater to specific military branches, including the Marines, Navy, Army and Air Force. Many educators, including myself, have opposed this trend as embracing segregation or aspiring to offer little more than trade schools. School systems such as Chicago are quickly becoming educational theme parks that have abandoned the concept of a shared common curriculum and community for learning.

On Nov. 19, Chicago school officials should take a truly brave stand against homophobia and intolerance. They should reject the School for Social Justice Pride Campus and demand that every school offer an accepting and positive environment for these students. We do not need thematic public education. We need core public education that trains our future citizens to live in a diverse and tolerant society.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.

14 thoughts on “Chicago’s New Gay High School”

  1. Jill,

    I am not suggesting letting human made harm continue. No, far from it. We need to minimize the damage where possible. Humans will keep being crappy to each other until we as a species learn that while competition may be the natural mode inflicted upon us by evolution, it is cooperation that will allow us to survive into the future. Right now we are Gucci-ing our way into a global grave because of competition run amok a.k.a. greed. Indeed, it is that rational realization that stands the best chance of keeping us from destroying ourselves. Rational thought will be required to make the next step in evolution, of this I am convinced. However, I do feel this issue is a problem that is fixed with exposure, not segregation, because while exposure doesn’t always lead to acceptance it has a better chance than segregation. Segregation only breeds “otherness” when the truth is we are all one. Ideally children would be raised not to act that way, but as we all see, it is not an ideal world. Besides, as Bill Hicks was fond of pointing out, realizing we are all one is the greatest threat to government. It’d destroy the weapons industry and screw up the economy (in a different way than the thieves on Wall St. just did).

  2. When I grew up in Chicago, I used to sneak into the Kingston Mines to listen to Big Time Sarah sing, “I’m Big Time Sarah, I’m built for pleasure not for speed.” It was my first serious crush until my family found out. I am not sure if it was the thought of my running away with a massive blues singer or my hanging out in a bar that led to corrective parental action.

  3. Jill,
    The best part of my senior year in high school was cutting classes and going to downtown Chicago to see the lates movies. It was fun until my mom saw the absences on my report card!!

  4. This issue is not being ignored by our schools.
    And there are things that can be done short of segregation.
    I agree with JT as well.

    “…Administrators and teachers were once hesitant to get involved, but that attitude has changed, most urgently after two bullied Columbine High School students massacred 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves in 1999…

    …Educators are increasingly weighing in, trying to change schools’ culture so that bullying becomes unacceptable among students…”

  5. Buddha and rafflaw,

    I completely agree that children cannot be protected from everything, but they can be protected from some things and bullying is one of those things. Life has many harsh realities that come with the territory and other harsh things that don’t need to be there. It is not my belief that a separate school is the best way to treat this situation. It is my belief that a school should take all acts of bullying seriously. If a school will not take it seriously, then a child deserves to be protected. If protection means a segregated school then, as the pagans say, “so mote it be”. It is the lesser of two evils. If any child is being bullied they should not have to stay in the situation without any remedy. Standing up for oneself may mean many things and result in several courses of action, one of which is simply leaving an unsafe, untenable situation. I think we have the idea that letting human-made harm go on will make kids strong, but I don’t believe that. Most people who are cruel and ignorant were treated cruelly and with ignorance. Strength comes from kindness and support in the hard times that cannot be avoided as a part of human existence.


    I found the best part of high school to be ditching class with my friend and hanging out in the parK!

  6. Jill,

    One cannot protect children from all the harshness and stupidity in the world. It’s simply not possible. Think of it as immunity through exposure, like Chicken Pox. A child who is taught to defend his/her self is more likely to survive such encounters than one who is sealed off in a “safe” environment. A bully will never learn to stop unless stopped or otherwise neutralized. I really can’t see how segregation helps the child or the attacker. It results in a type of social “Bubble Boy” syndrome.

  7. Jill,
    I understand your decision to protect the LGBT students from the bullies. However, I am not sure this will prevent the LGBT students from getting the best experience that they can out of high school. The diversity of all types of people and cultures and backgrounds is an integral part of the learing experience. Segregated schools should never be the answer. It is not even the best financial decision for the school board.

  8. I like the school for bullies idea! I do worry about these kids, even the bullies. LGBT children are bullied at a higher rate than normal. Given this fact and the fact that the administration simply will not do the rational and truly helpful action of stopping bullying period, I guess the segregation is a plan I would have to support. It should never come to this point in the first place, but the reality is, it has. I feel we would be asking LGBT students to shoulder the burden of unsafe schools because of an ignorant administration. If they were adults who had more options I would feel differently.

  9. I concur with everyone here that this is a bad idea. All it does is provide the bullies with a victory because they have gotten “rid” of the gays that they are attacking. The obvious solution is hidden from the administration. Stop the bullying and the illegal attacks and make the schools safe for all. Not an easy task, but segregation doesn’t work. Why not a school for the bullies to keep them separate from everyone else?!

  10. This is a bad idea. It’s a disservice to all involved and prepares no one for the realities of human nature. It also smacks of the “g” word: ghetto.

  11. Mike and Sally, I think you both make good points as does JT. Somehow my post ended up in the wrong place when I meant for it to go here.

    I find this situation really vexing. It’s a problem that has a better answer but I don’t think this answer is going to be implemented. The better answer is everyone together with supportive adults who stop bullying in its tracks, who respect the students and teach self-respect and respect for others. If there are stong, intelligent, emotionally aware, caring adults at school, it could be a wonderful experience for the students. Right now it seems adults are too willing to turn away when children are bullied (for whatever reason). As to same sex schools–the best research shows there is more difference between individuals than between the “opposite” sex. So teachers should be open to good research that kids need a variety of teaching methods to help them learn. These techniques are not gender specific, they are child specific. Schools should be places of learning, kindness and encouragment for all children. If one or more student(s) has a problem with a LGBT child, there is no good reason why caring, well informed adults couldn’t resolve these issues. This isn’t my experience of schools which is why I favor home schooling at this time (when that is possible).

    Safety has to come first. As it does not and LGBT children have an extremely high rate of bullying then I don’t see another option than to have separate schools. But I really wish adults would pull their shit together and create a safe, creative, intellectual, thoughtful, fun environment for children. If this happened children would not go out into the world with prejudices intact. They would be able to think for themselves and have a much richer life.

  12. Talk about sitting ducks. This place is going to be a target for a hate crime. It’s just like an abortion clinic. No, I’m not comparing gays to abortions, I’m comparing them because things like this bring out strong emotions for people. I hope they have good security for these students and staff, they’re going to need it.

  13. JT,
    In the first iteration of this story that appeared on your blog I got involved in a homophobia/religion discussion and never got to comment on the idea itself. I agree with you that this does not represent and answer to the problem and actually may tend to make it worse. Our schools should be made safe for all students and all students should be protected from bigotry and the predations of those who would bully. That is the real issue. That people have a different sexual preference should not be a matter that makes them second class citizens. Our school system is one place where this lesson needs to be taught.

    I grew up in a fairly privileged community on Long Island. The only person of color in my high school was an Asian who enrolled in my senior year. I started my work career in the NYC Welfare Department, in 1967 Harlem. While through my parents I was predisposed to be accepting of people of color, it was the daily working with people of color that really informed me as to how alike all we humans are. My clients were black and latino. Many of my co-workers were also black and latino, as were many of my supervisors. I also first met gay people on the job. I learned too through personal contact that we are all of the human race and our individual differences are superficial, but yet make life more interesting.

    The solution to this problem is not to be found in segregating the GLBT population, but in ensuring that their persons and their rights are protected when they go to school. This would allow non GLBT students to get to know them and understand that their existence presents no threat to them and in fact will enrich their lives. The second reason I believe this is a bad idea is that it actually plays into the hands of homophobic America, by making ones differing sexuality a cause for quarantine.

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