In the morning of September 8, 2003, a small group of men and women gathered on a street corner in downtown Manhattan and shouted “Die, fags!” and “God is not mocked!” at the teenagers who were entering a high-rise at the corner of Astor Place and Broadway. The placard-wielding crowd, composed of members of a Topeka, Kansas, church, were protesting the opening of the Harvey Milk High School, known as the nation’s first public school for gay and lesbian youth. “I was scared,” recalls 19-year-old Chris Castro, one student who faced the protesters that day. David Mensah, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and a driving force behind the Harvey Milk High School’s creation, was both worried and saddened. “I couldn’t believe the horrific visual and verbal assault they were subjecting these kids to,” he says.
At the same time, Mensah knew that Harvey Milk faced a far graver threat than hurled abuse. Three weeks earlier, he had learned of a lawsuit seeking to have the school’s $3.2 million in taxpayer funding revoked—on grounds that Harvey Milk, which serves just 100 students, is a waste of city money and illegal under New York’s sexual-bias laws.
Almost a year and a half later, the Harvey Milk High School has failed in its bid to have the suit thrown out, and the legal challenge remains a serious danger to the school’s continued existence. That the suit was brought by a state senator known for his opposition to gay causes, and supported by an Evangelical group, has prompted some to dismiss it as reflexive homophobia. But members of the religious right are not the only ones questioning the school’s need to exist. Even some gay-rights advocates call the Harvey Milk High School a decisive step backward in homosexuals’ quest for equality and acceptance—a “uniquely bad idea,” as one liberal critic puts it. The question today is whether the city of New York has come to agree with that opinion.
In the debate over the Harvey Milk school’s right to exist, one thing is certain: You cannot spend time within its hallways without acknowledging that it serves a real need—at least for a minuscule portion of the city’s 300,000 high-schoolers. Located on the third floor of a nineteenth-century high-rise at 2 Astor Place, the Harvey Milk High School could, with its chic multi-million-dollar renovation, be mistaken for the hip headquarters of a downtown ad agency. Eighteen spanking-new glass-walled classrooms, many outfitted with state-of-the-art computers, are arrayed along a curving hallway lined with candy-colored orange lockers. With its compact physical space and tiny enrollment, the school, David Mensah argues, is simply one example of the Bloomberg administration’s revolutionary approach to education: the breaking up of vast, anonymous, 7,000-student educational gristmills into smaller, more intimate schools devoted to a single theme—science, dance, the arts. “Within that continuum,” Mensah says, “it is simply one more very responsible option.” But by Mensah’s own admission, the school is also utterly unique: an institution based not on academic interests but on a fundamental building block of human identity—sexual orientation and gender identity. This makes Harvey Milk different from any other school in the city, or, indeed, the world—a fact hardly lost on the school’s religiously inspired opponents.
Many Harvey Milk students first come to the school as runaways seeking help from its umbrella organization, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a social-services agency that for 25 years has been ministering to “at risk” gay teens. The school actually began back in 1985 as a tiny non-diploma-granting institution within HMI—a place for the agency’s displaced youths to earn a GED degree, taught by one full-time instructor hired by the Board of Education. Over the next fifteen years, enrollment grew from 17 to 40 students—until Harold Levy, school chancellor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, set the wheels in motion in 2001 for the expansion of Harvey Milk into an accredited, four-year, diploma-granting high school.
At first, the newly renovated Harvey Milk High School made headlines chiefly for the crimes committed by its students. In the school’s debut semester alone, three students were arrested after a Brooklyn man was stabbed with a screwdriver at a nearby Starbucks, and four transgender students and one member of the after-school program were arrested on charges of impersonating undercover police officers and shaking down johns whom they’d lured into fake assignations—incidents that school officials blamed, partly, on the growing pains associated with a school that, within six weeks, had gone from a three-teacher GED-granting institution serving 40 students to a full-fledged public high school serving 100 students, with a new faculty of seven teachers, a principal, a new physical plant, and a new curriculum. But the tabloids had a field day portraying the school as an out-of-control collection of fashion-mad, transsexual juvenile delinquents and streetwalkers who channeled their illegal profits into buying sprees at Dolce & Gabbana. HMI’s Mensah does not deny that much of the student population does indeed belong to such at-risk groups—which is precisely why, he says, the Harvey Milk safety net is needed—but he says that the trial-by-tabloid was largely the result of discrimination. “All kids get in trouble,” he says. “They act crazy sometimes. But any time these kids got in trouble, it ended up in the paper.”