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.

Heterosexuals take for granted that when they are educated, they will see themselves reflected in the history, literature, and social studies curriculum, though sometimes what they see is based on faulty assumptions. Thompson remembers one straight newscaster whom she met while she and some of the students appeared at the October 12 "National Coming Out Day" at the State Fair under the Walt Whitman banner.

"This woman leaned over to me and said, 'Do you realize you just outed Walt Whitman?' And I thought, 'Who doesn't know that Whitman was gay?' Well, she didn't. She told me she'd read his poetry in school, but the parts where he talks about 'the manly love of comrades' were just sort of skipped over.

Three quarters of the student body of Walt Whitman are trying to conduct an interview en masse while lying on two couches in the school's meeting area. The six students have trickled slowly into the room from their lunch break, guys with dangling earrings and girls with baseball caps and baggy, 'hood-meets-the-suburbs jeans and T-shirts. The four females and two males, ranging in age from 13 to 20, stretch beside and across each other with the casual intimacy of kittens in a cardboard box.

Becky Thompson and Pamala Stone sit behind a desk trying to lasso the most basic information--names, ages, and grade levels--out of a swirling storm of giggles. Many of these friendly, devastatingly honest young adults knew each other before they began attending the academy's first semester September 2. They are clearly comfortable enough with one another not to freeze up or get pissed if the person next to them--or lounging across their lap--rolls his or her eyes at something that sounds silly. Giggles are met with more giggles.

The tittering reaches a crescendo when 16-year-old Chris Ware--who is fast proving himself a charming and eager agitator--saunters into the room and collapses at one end of the couch. He's wearing an extremely loose, silky blouse covered with various shades of lavender. He has followed 14-year-old Miki Roby back to the couch; she's wearing a worn green T-shirt. Roby had pulled off Ware's shirt, walked into the restroom, put it on, and walked out, handing him hers.

"Is this your idea of cross-dressing?" asks Stone wryly, amused but impatient that the kids can't stop clowning long enough to talk to the visitor with a pad and pencil.

Ware models for a moment, stretching the bottom of Roby's shirt in front of him as if he were using it to collect rocks. "I think it brings out my eyes," he says with exaggerated coyness. Then he flashes us a view of his belt, a silver chain of intertwined metal loops. "Like my belt? I think it's spiffy."

It's clear that this group, like any other group of adolescents, is going to short circuit this process with their restlessness. So I'm whisked off into various rooms for individual interviews with the kids. Thompson or Stone is always present, but neither attempts to control the conversations.

First I meet Dee Hare, a solemn-faced, defiantly androgynous 20-year-old black lesbian. She's also the school's oldest student. Thompson informs me another interview with Hare will soon be featured in a People magazine issue titled "Growing Up Gay." Reserved and thoughtful (she often pauses before she speaks), Hare seems more apt to fits of brooding than any other student I speak with.

Being over 18, she didn't have to get parental permission to transfer from Lewisville High, which she had dropped out of twice. That's good, because Hare's mother, who lives with a boyfriend, wouldn't have signed anything.

"She kicked me out of the house two years ago, when I told her I was a lesbian," Hare recalls. "I told her late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed. She didn't want to wake anyone up, so she didn't kick me out until the next day."

It's been several months since they've spoken; Hare admits that may be more her doing than her mother's. "Every time I talk to her, she's always pushing me to date men. I keep telling her I'm not interested in men like that, but she ignores me. After a while, when somebody won't listen to you, you don't want to talk to them."

In fact, it wasn't a hostile high school environment that drove Hare to transfer to Walt Whitman. "I was sort of out at school, and none of the kids really bothered me. I knew they said stuff behind my back, but they didn't confront me. I did have problems with two teachers, though. One of them overheard me talking about a girlfriend, and she pulled me aside and told me to shut up."

After being homeless for a while and living with various friends (she currently stays with the lesbian mother of two other Walt Whitman students), she decided to return for her diploma.

"It was a choice between here and DISD," Hare says. "And although the kids didn't bother me too bad in Lewisville, I didn't want to do the public school again. Some friends dropped out of DISD because they said it was so bad. But even if you're not harassed, you're ignored. The whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing starts, and you feel like an outcast."

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