In early April, the New York City Board of Education opened the nation's first public school for homosexual teen-agers in a Greenwich Village church. Named the Harvey Milk School for the homosexual San Francisco city supervisor who was murdered in 1978, the school has 20 students who had been dropouts and truants.
"For the most part, the males are overtly effeminate, some are transvestites, and the girls are all tough," said Fred Goldhaber, the school's only teacher. "All of them would be targets for abuse in regular schools."
But if the students were targets in mainstream classroom settings, the solution that New York City devised has made them targets of another sort: publicity.
During the last few weeks, journalists have flocked around the outside of the school, some taking pictures, and many of the students have felt so harassed that they have been forced to cover their heads as they entered the school, as if in shame.
But publicity is only one of the many problems that the little school and its students are encountering. The controversial institution has sparked heated discussions between conservatives and civil libertarians over whether a school for homosexuals should even exist.
Ironically, some of the people within these two political factions are in agreement. Some liberals feel the school shouldn't exist simply because separate schools are inherently unequal. "I don't think it's sound to encourage segregation of anything," Buffalo School Superintendent Eugene Reville told the Associated Press.
Conservatives, on the other hand, particularly the fundamentalists, feel that public money should not support the school because homosexuality, they feel, is a sin. Other conservatives go so far as to argue that separate schools encourage social fragmentation. Following their argument, it would be conceivable that we would one day have separate schools for brown-eyed and blue-eyed people.
But Washington's Frank Zampatori, a member of the city's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, rejects the separatist argument. "I knew I was different since I was 12, but I dated women until I was 30," he said. "Such pressure makes you question your own value and self worth. Teens need a supportive atmosphere or they live with those conflicts that stunt their development."
Indeed, much teen suicide and substance abuse have been traced to the coming out of gay teens or the confusion and rejection that results from their sexuality because society is often so hostile to them.
Clearly, the existence of this school does raise many thorny questions and problems. Would the proliferation of such schools create an insular atmosphere for homosexuality to flourish, for example? Given this country's history of segregated schools based on race, should the issue of segregated schools for homosexuals be taken lightly?
"High school challenges students to understand others and to adapt to an often hostile society," a Brooklyn reader wrote The New York Times. "Segregation in any of its forms only deprives students of that vital educational experience."
But Chris Riddiough, president of Washington's Gertrude Stein Club, has another view. Indeed, she said she wishes that such a school had existed when she was growing up. "When I was a teen-ager 20 years ago, there was literally no place for me to go. The idea that there are now beginning to be some places for gay teens is exciting."
If this were a less judgmental world, people who are a little different would not be harassed by those who fit the norms or others who fear the unknown. Indeed, such fears could be lessened for both young people and adults by a broad and concentrated education effort, a process that would move our society toward the more enlightened attitudes that are desperately needed.
But until that utopia arrives, should a person be denied an education because of his or her sexual preference?
I say, "No." Under no circumstances can we put a child into the world today without an education. New York City's test case is a daring first step. The road may prove rocky and the controversy unrelenting, but nonetheless, it is an important move in ensuring that people who are a little different are not penalized for those differences and are guaranteed the education that law -- and decency -- require. into the world today without an education. New York City's test case is a daring first step. The road may prove rocky and the controversy unrelenting, but nonetheless, it is an important move in ensuring that people who are a little different are not penalized for those differences and are guaranteed the education that law -- and decency -- require.