“Not that a straight person couldn’t do the job,” he says. “But to have openly known gay adults—whether teachers or administrators or any other position—is, I think, extraordinarily valuable, for the same reason you have women’s colleges or other types of select groups.” For Bell’s part, the greatest challenge as a teacher at Harvey Milk has been to avoid overempathizing with his students. “In the very beginning it was exhausting,” he says, “because I was crying my eyes out all the time, feeling sorry for them.”
Outside of the classroom, it’s clear that gayness permeates every aspect of life at Harvey Milk, and not only because many of the girls proclaim their same-sex orientation by dressing in aggressively butch hip-hop baggy wear; or that many of the boys come to school in gender-bending wigs, dresses, high heels, and makeup. There is also the school’s tight relationship with HMI, which runs the after-school program. This includes the standard array of homework help, tutoring, and college and career counseling, but because HMI is not constrained by DOE mandates, the after-school activities are replete with gay educational subjects. Last fall, when the theater-and-pop-arts class put on a series of plays, the theme was HIV and aids prevention. In one mini-drama, a pair of male Harvey Milk students played lovers in the waiting room of a doctor’s office anxiously awaiting the results of an aids test; another skit involved a lanky male student cavorting onstage in full drag—not the kind of fare likely to be staged in a conventional after-school program. Likewise the highly popular after-school voguing class, modeled on the “drag balls” made famous by the movie Paris Is Burning.
In August 2003, Democratic state senator Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, sued the city over the Harvey Milk High School. Diaz’s stated reason was the injustice of the city’s devoting millions of dollars to a school servicing just 100 students—“with all kind of high-technology equipment, air conditioning, the best teachers”—when so many other city schools, like those in his district, were in deep crisis. “Teachers take money from their own pockets to buy equipment,” Diaz says of his Bronx schools, “because they don’t provide the teachers with the equipment—no books, no pencils, there’s nothing for the students. You are leaving some kids behind.”
Eden Abrahams, a Harvey Milk board member, dismisses the notion that there is any unfairness in the school’s drawing money away from students in poor constituencies like Diaz’s. “The kids are from their constituency,” she says. Indeed, the vast majority of Harvey Milk’s students—some 80 percent—are blacks and Latinos from the city’s worst school districts—Harlem, the Bronx, East New York—kids whose sexuality has opened them up, Harvey Milk officials say, to excessive harassment and violence from their peers. But this does not answer Diaz’s main charge: that the $3.2 million lavished on the Harvey Milk school would, if spread more evenly among the city’s 1.1 million public-school students, benefit a great many more than the 100 students attending Harvey Milk.
Any legitimacy to Diaz’s argument, however, was quickly obscured by charges that he was acting out of homophobia. And, indeed, Diaz has a history of opposition to gay causes. In 1994, while on the Civilian Complaint Review Board, he opposed the 25th anniversary celebration of the Stonewall Rebellion, saying it would have a corrupting influence on youth and that the festivities would spread aids; and during Bush’s reelection campaign, he rallied religious leaders to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But Diaz shrugs off charges of anti-gay bias. “I’ve been getting that all my life,” he says. “There are people who love to attack you with personal name-calling, and branding you so you keep quiet. I’m not keeping quiet.” Others are—even politicians whose districts are also filled with blighted schools. “Everybody’s afraid to touch it,” Diaz says. “Who goes against the State Legislature and the city of New York? As soon as you go against what they want, they say, ‘You’re homophobic.’ And no politician wants to be branded homophobic.” As for the teachers in failing Bronx schools speaking out against Harvey Milk, Diaz says with a chuckle. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he says. “They’ll lose their job.”