School's out

Walt Whitman Community School in Oak Lawn is America's first private high school for gay and lesbian students. Despite some grim personal stories, the kids are all right.

"That's not how you do it!" insists Chris Ware, who at a lanky, falsetto-voiced 16 could pass for 11. He's criticizing friend and classmate Robert Headrick's impersonation of an effeminate gay man. Sixteen-year-old Headrick is heterosexual, after all, so some important details are lost in translation. We're waiting for world history class to begin at Walt Whitman Community School, the nation's first high school for gay and lesbian students or straight kids with gay or lesbian parents. I've just asked Headrick about the shape of his dangling earring, a silver version of Batman's "bat signal" spotlight.

"No, it's not; it's Spidergirl!" chimes in 14-year-old Miki Roby, a short-haired girl standing nearby. She's obviously referring to some inside joke.

Headrick's wrists go limp, his lips purse, and his hips begin to sway. "Oh, yesss," he hisses, drawing out every sibilant. "I jusst adore Sspidergirl..."

Ware, laughing and serious at the same time, jumps up from the couch and sashays across the room with bony hands on narrow hips. "Forget about your hips, you have to shake your butt," he instructs as he moves slowly, almost as if giving a dance lesson.

At any high school, you'll find plenty of guys doing silly impressions of gay men. What is distinct about the young people here is the affection that infuses both "nelly attacks," as Ware calls them, and Ware's own admission that in his case it's something more than just an act. This clever showoff seems likely to blare his AC/DC status from a megaphone if given the chance.

At other schools, Ware--a loudmouth among many loudmouths his age--might be angrily told to keep his trap shut about who he is. Not only fellow students but also teachers might regularly taunt him with insults. At worst, he could have the shit beaten out of him. In fact, all those things have happened to the students of Walt Whitman Community School.

These kids and the two 46-year-old Walt Whitman co-directors, Becky Thompson, a lesbian, and Pamala Stone, a heterosexual, are pioneers in the thorniest frontier in children's education--the recognition of the long-ignored needs of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents.

If you thought questions of racial parity were about as passionate as the education debate gets, think again. Conservative religious activists, gay youth advocates, and the parents of gays and lesbians of all colors are locking horns with increasing ferocity at school boards and state legislatures over the question of homosexual visibility and the protection of "out" homosexuals in schools.

The last three years have seen an increase in lawsuits by homosexual students who claim their schools did nothing to protect them from verbal and physical harassment. Late last year, Wisconsin high school student Jamie Nabozny won $900,000 in damages after a judge ruled that his numerous beatings and general ostracism were deliberately overlooked by school officials. In Washington state, a male high school student who reportedly was beaten by eight other male students yelling "queer" as about 30 kids watched is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against his school district.

All across America, student groups known as gay/straight alliances are forming, sometimes provoking a counter response. Utah passed a law banning all non-curricular clubs (school organizations without a specific educational purpose) at public schools rather than permit the proliferation of GSAs. Alliances among teachers called GLSTNs (Gay Lesbian Straight Teachers Networks) have formed or are forming in almost every state; Walt Whitman director Thompson is in the process of helping start a Dallas chapter.

Of course, as a private institution with a $7,000 annual tuition fee, Walt Whitman Community School stands removed from the revolution's main battlefield--the public school system.

In almost every public school district where the issue of sexual orientation has brought adults nearly to blows at school board and PTA meetings, the students were the ones who started to agitate for recognition. In the case of Walt Whitman Community High School, Thompson and Stone took their idea to the kids first, attending every gay and lesbian youth group in the area and bringing their proposal for the institution. Interested kids then went to parents and guardians and received permission to transfer to the school, which is housed rent-free in a tiny five-room building on the grounds of Cathedral of Hope in Oak Lawn. That's the Dallas worship center for Metropolitan Community Church, the national gay and lesbian nondenominational Christian movement.

"People have asked us, 'Why in the world do you want to start a gay and lesbian school in the Bible Belt?'" Thompson says. "Well, in the first place, this is where we live. It's our community; why move? And in the second place, it seems like this kind of school is needed here now more than ever, where the Southern Baptists are conducting their campaign from."

The religious right has been moving across the country to silence discussions of sexuality in public schools. The creation of Walt Whitman, a private school composed entirely of refugee students from public schools, was in part a reaction to that. As Thompson puts it, "We're not supposed to use the words 'sex' and 'kids' in the same sentence. Well, guess what--kids are having sex. And a lot of them are having gay sex. And it isn't just a phase. Our refusal to deal with this is causing a lot of misery. Actually, it's killing kids."

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