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.

For more than a decade, researchers, mental health officials, and youth advocates have believed that gay and lesbian adolescents have significantly higher mortality rates than their straight peers. Numerous studies commissioned by sources as various as the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an 18-year-old national social service organization that addresses the needs of homosexual kids, and a general study on teen mortality commissioned by the Bush Administration in 1989 made similar findings: Homosexual kids are three times more likely to kill themselves; 60 percent of all young adult AIDS cases are gay or bisexual men who most likely became infected as teenagers; on average, 75 percent of gay and lesbian adolescents reported regular alcohol intake, with about 50 percent reporting repeated use of illegal drugs. The statistics don't measure the damage caused by countless beatings.

These grim findings reveal the reasons why groups such as RALLY (Respect ALL Youth), GLBYA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Young Adults), and meetings sponsored by Metropolitan Community Church congregate weekly. Not surprisingly, these gatherings take place off campuses, below school radar, at community centers that are already overloaded dealing with the issues of homosexual adults. Last summer, Thompson and Stone began making the rounds of these Dallas meetings to pitch the school.

The two women, who between them have notched four decades as licensed educators, counselors, and administrators in private schools, first became friends nine years ago, shortly after Stone, while director of the Walden Preparatory School in Addison, hired Thompson as a counselor.

The idea for the school began last May at Walden in a conversation between the two friends. For a while they had considered going independent to apply their own theories about education, but it was the straight Stone who initially broached the idea of opening a school for gays and lesbians.

"The whole time I worked at Walden, I was alarmed by the harassment and just the off-hand comments students made about homosexuality," Stone remembers. "And this was, mind you, a private school, basically a secondary version of a liberal arts college. I started to think, If I was a gay or lesbian student, what would I have to put up with every day? Because most schools don't have a policy in place, if a student has a complaint or just needs guidance, they have to hope whoever they go to is sympathetic."

Obviously, Thompson didn't have to search long to come up with personal motives for such a venture: Her own experiences as a young lesbian growing up in a small Indiana town were sufficient. Her graduating class numbered 63, and she admits she pretty much buried all internal questions about her own sexuality in that claustrophobic environment. In her 20s, after she realized and accepted her homosexuality and began working as an English teacher and a coach in Indiana public schools, the relationship between her and the students became a source of frustration: She saw children struggling with the same issues of sexual identity she had, albeit at an earlier age. She felt powerless to intervene.

"Just because you're comfortable with your gayness doesn't mean you feel safe telling other people," she says. "I hear the same thing from gay and lesbian teachers now. They have a kid consult them who's being persecuted, or is wondering about their own sexual orientation, and it's like, 'I'm not going to come out and risk losing my job to help you.' It's a terrible situation to be in, because you want to help so badly."

Over the last decade, there have been little victories for gay advocates all over the country, even in a conservative city like Dallas with its nationally publicized education woes. Last year, the Dallas Independent School District board quietly approved a resolution to include a plank for gays and lesbians in its anti-discrimination policy. The move was spearheaded by Dallas PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) president Pat Stone and openly gay board member Jose Plata. An official DISD crisis pamphlet distributed to students includes the number of a hot line for gay and lesbian teens run by Oak Lawn Community Services. But Thompson wonders if such innovations are being reflected in practical, everyday matters.

"At a meeting for GLSTN [the teachers' network she's helping create], someone told me that the principal of a DISD school had ordered all pink triangles taken down from the counselors' doors," she recalls. "Someone at this school had created these little symbols to discreetly indicate counselors who wanted to declare themselves a safety zone for students with questions about sexual orientation."

Dr. Rosemary Allen, the affable assistant superintendent for student services at DISD (she's head of all student counseling services for Dallas public schools), says she hadn't heard that story, but that she'd "love to know which school it was.

"I think DISD is far ahead of most school districts in the area in confronting gay and lesbian issues among teenagers," she says. "Five years ago we had our first workshop for teachers and counselors on the subject, and this spring there's a special training program dedicated to educating our staff. PFLAG and Oak Lawn Community Services will be participating."

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