It’s hard to deny the validity of Senator Diaz’s claim that the luxurious expansion and renovation of the Harvey Milk High School represents an inequitable distribution of city funds. Many more youngsters in New York will feel the lack of $3.2 million spread through the public-school system than will benefit from it at Harvey Milk. And the Liberty Counsel’s legal argument—that the school subverts the very laws against discrimination enacted to protect sexual minorities—is equally difficult to refute. Academically, the verdict is still out on Harvey Milk. Principal Rossi says that Harvey Milk, a transfer school, cannot be judged like standard public schools, which are rated according to the progress of students over the normal four-year span of a high-school education. Many Harvey Milk students transfer into the school in their senior year and stay long enough only to collect the few necessary credits to graduate. Performance is also calculated according to how many students graduate within the mandated age range for high school, which is 13 to 18. Many Harvey Milk students are two or three years behind and do not graduate until they “age out” at 21. “So all of this puts us in a unique situation,” says Rossi, “in which our client is often overaged and undercredited.” But Rossi says that “lots” of Harvey Milk students are doing better than at their previous schools, and he points out that the school’s first year’s graduating class, which had its commencement last June, had 21 students, all but one of whom met all the requirements for the diploma, and that 16 of the remaining 20 were accepted at colleges. “So in terms of academics,” Rossi says, “we’re moving in the direction we want to be.”
But it is an unspoken truth of the Harvey Milk High School that rising graduation rates and college-acceptance levels are not the only, or even the primary, justification for the school’s existence. Ask Harvey Milk’s teachers and staff why the school is needed, and they’ll introduce you to Precious Cox, a 17-year-old female who grew up in Harlem with gender dysphoria. By age 3, she refused to wear dresses, play with dolls, or socialize with girls. At Martin Luther King Jr. High School, she was teased over her masculinity. Then she transferred to Harvey Milk. Precious thrived socially and academically, earning excellent grades and becoming her class salutatorian when she graduated in June 2004. “This school is the bomb,” she says.
Not all Harvey Milk students, of course, emerge with bright testimonials. At last June’s commencement ceremonies, one female student, a friend of Precious’s, was honored not with a diploma, but with a moment of silence. Having vanished a few days before graduation, she was later discovered drowned in the Brooklyn Channel. She was 18. Precious sees the death as a cautionary example of the stresses that operate under the surface of even the most stoic-seeming teenagers. The girl had been bouncing from one temporary living arrangement to another, bathing and brushing her teeth in the school bathroom. “She was on her own at a young age,” says Precious. “She had to grow up by herself.” School officials cannot definitively say if she was the victim of suicide or some other calamity. But her death, they say, serves to underscore the very real dangers that New York City’s gay and lesbian teenagers face, and it speaks to the necessity of a safety net like Harvey Milk, even if the school cannot save every student who comes through its doors.
Jonathan Turley argues that “the great irony” of the Harvey Milk school “is that it goes against the teachings of Harvey Milk, who, throughout his career, said that the answer to any challenge based upon sexual orientation was to be open and gay, to come out of the closet, to speak up and stand up for your rights.” Turley says that it is “the total antithesis of Harvey Milk’s life to embrace a high school on the model of separate but equal.” But there is something Turley isn’t accounting for. It was precisely Milk’s clarion call to coming out that has helped to create an environment today in which children as young as 13 feel the freedom and courage to cease hiding their true natures. But in coming out, they open themselves up to hostility and violence from their peers. If the Harvey Milk School offers such children a sanctuary, however temporary, from the bigotry they face, it’s hard to believe that Milk—himself gunned down by an anti-gay colleague—would not say they should take it.