School's out

"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."

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."

Allen acknowledges that "we walk a fine line in counseling students who're questioning their sexuality. We don't want to influence them in any direction, but we do want to provide a supportive environment so they can come to decisions about their identity themselves. We encourage students to discuss the issue with family members as part of helping accept themselves."

And what if family members don't want a gay or lesbian teenager to accept their sexuality?

"Then we have outside therapists, organizations, and alliances we can refer the student to. We try to help them decide whether it's safe to discuss these issues at home."

Walt Whitman Community School isn't just a safety zone. It's practically a womb, a cocoon for young people whose emotional issues generally are ignored by most secondary institutions. But both organizers admit its legitimacy as a school is still a question mark. Open just two months, the school has yet to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits private institutions in Texas. Stone and Thompson plan to go for "special purpose school accreditation" as soon as they're permitted, which won't be for three years. A private school has to stay open that long before SACS will even consider an application. Once accredited, all diplomas get the SACS seal of approval retroactively.

"It's a bit of a risk for the students," Stone admits, "especially those who are college-bound. But as anyone who's ever home-schooled their kids can tell you, the system has ways around not having a diploma from an accredited school. There are exceptions for students with high SAT scores. We're also working with two seniors right now to get them into community college programs that will gain them credits the universities want. We've had college recruiters down here, and they were very supportive of what we were doing."

Both believe the risks are more than compensated for by the personal attention the students receive. As for the annual $7,000 fee, Thompson says, "No student is turned away because they can't afford it. In fact, no kid here pays full tuition. We're just now researching private and public scholarship funds, and we've gone to a few sympathetic individuals who'll sponsor the kids."

Thompson and Stone pull their salaries "on a month-to-month basis" from a donation pool that's replenished by some regular private investors, but mostly by one-time donations from individuals who have read about the school. Thompson admits that they considered not opening Walt Whitman after the initial enrollment of seven fell below the goal of 10 they'd set for the school. The lower-than-expected tuition revenues have made their lives and the future of the school precarious. But she says they get calls daily from interested students, and based on interviews expect to double enrollment by mid-semester.

Thompson and Stone say "all the bureaucracy" of the public school system was a major reason why they chose to open a private school rather than crusade inside DISD. It was a matter addressed by one local school board member. In private talks, the trustee "supported the idea [of a gay and lesbian school], but wondered why we weren't pushing to do this work in public schools, especially since the parents were paying taxes to finance the system anyway," Thompson says.

"The difference between teaching a class of 35 and a class of eight is remarkable," she says. "You don't have to run to somebody above to get approval for every little thing you say. You have time to treat the students like individuals. We had 65 students at Walden Prep, and I liked to say there were 65 different reasons why they were there."

The reasons why eight students have enrolled at Walt Whitman Community School are just as diverse, but they can be attributed to a common source--the stigma of homosexuality. Thompson cites a number of local skirmishes, like the parents and school employees who demanded a Carrollton high school band cancel its trip to Disney World in order to support the Southern Baptist Convention's boycott. (After a fractious school board meeting, the trip continued.) And "you can't even say the word 'condom' in Plano schools," she notes.

"People wonder why gay and lesbian kids drink and drug in higher numbers than their straight friends," Thompson says. "Well, if you accept what counselors say--that addictions are started to numb emotions people can't handle--the explanation is clear. These kids hear from adults that their feelings are a sickness that must be cured or controlled, or something positively evil. That sounds like a prescription for self-medication to me."

Stone and Thompson are adamant that their curriculum addresses the intertwined issues of identity and visibility--of giving their students the chance to feel better about themselves. Their classes note the homosexuality of historical figures whom traditional schools also cover but don't "out." Stone says that just recently she compiled profiles in her world history class that included gay, lesbian, or bisexual leaders and pioneers from different countries and eras--all figures that most people presumed are straight because they were never taught otherwise.

Still, Thompson admits that there's a limit to the identity affirmation. "Somebody asked me one time, 'Do you guys do gay and lesbian algebra problems?'" she recalls with a laugh. "I tried to imagine what that was: 'Three lesbians drive to the grocery store, buy three gay magazines each...' The answer is, no, we're not that anal retentive."

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."

Hare broadens the conversation away from sexuality to talk about how lonely childhood can be for anyone.

"A lot of adults think you don't feel depressed until you grow up and have to take care of yourself," she says. "But kids get depressed too. You're in this weird in-between where everybody's 'taking care of you,' but nobody's listening. You just kind of float. That's why kids want to sneak into adult clubs and stuff, because there's such a variety of places that adults can go. There's not really a lot for kids to do; they just float."

I ask Hare if she feels more stress over being a racial or a sexual minority, but she's too crafty to fall for such a simplistic proposition.

"It's hard being black, and it's hard being gay," she says with a humorless smile. "But it's hardest of all to be black and gay."

As a straight white male, 16-year-old Robert Headrick was accustomed to being a minority long before he came to Walt Whitman--first as an Anglo attending largely minority schools, and second as a school kid with a lesbian mother.

He admits to a long history of getting into fights and skipping classes, including one 80-day absence during a six-month period. That's part of the reason why, at 16, he started as a freshman at his new school, although, like every other kid I speak to at Walt Whitman, he's articulate and blunt.

"I'm not a violent person," Headrick insists. "My mother taught me to respect people, but she said, if I'm pushed into a corner, I have to fight back."

After his father was sentenced to a six-year jail term several years back, he moved to Texas from Alabama and began living with his mother, a lesbian. At Stephen F. Austin Junior High in Arlington, Headrick's troubles had more to do with race than sexuality.

"It seemed like I was the only white kid in Stephen F. Austin," he says. "And I caught a lot of hell for it. People were always picking fights with me because of something my ancestors did to their ancestors. I didn't win many of those fights."

When Headrick transferred from Stephen F. Austin to Shackleford, another Arlington junior high school, the nature of his troubles changed. Headrick says that then "people started opening their eyes about what 'gay' meant. I invited a couple friends over, and they saw that my mother lived with another woman, and they shared a bedroom. And one of them saw them kiss. After that, the rumors started flying."

He admits to being perplexed that he rather than his mother became the object of scorn. "Some kids started calling my mother 'dyke' to my face. But what was weird was, they started assuming I was gay. They called me 'fag' and 'gay lover' and all the other things that make a straight person want to hit somebody. I was getting jumped all over school. The principal would suspend these guys for three days, but nobody was expelled. The teachers did this--" he affects an insipidly blank expression and turns his head away slowly.

"But I won most of those fights," he resumes. "Except the last guy. He was 300 pounds."

I can't help but wonder if Headrick--who's not physically imposing and, with sparkling crystal blue eyes, quicker to smile than almost anyone else at Walt Whitman--was the victor in those battles because his mother's reputation was involved. When asked if he's close to his mother, he leans forward and says: "We look exactly alike. There's a strong resemblance."

He also boasts that he's spent time trying to find his mother a girlfriend, although the search has since been canceled. "She's getting married," he says proudly. "And I'm the best man."

Headrick claims he doesn't care if people think he's gay because he attends Walt Whitman; he's been accused of that so often already, the charge has lost its sting. Unlike almost every other classmate, he didn't hear about the school from local gay and lesbian youth groups; his mother asked him if he wanted to join. He insists that doesn't imply any ulterior motives on her part.

"My mother wants me to be straight," he says.
Is it because, as a lesbian, she doesn't want him to go through what she has?

"Yeah, that's part of it," he says. "But it's really because she wants to have grandkids."

"Do you realize you've just outed your 'homeboy?'"
Pamala Stone swivels around in her chair, away from her computer, to ask this of 16-year-old Ware, a fast-talking wise guy who is probably smarter than many of his teachers.

Ware has moved from one couch to another to tell me about his "homeboy" (they're just friends, and said homeboy doesn't attend Walt Whitman), a "closeted Baptist who smokes pot. Isn't that cool?"

This is just one of a few juicy tidbits of gossip that Ware has whispered to me while Stone sits across the room. Also among them was the observation that "You have to be careful who you sleep with at this school." His sudden drops in volume are the aural equivalent of a neon sign flashing "Sensitive Information Transmitted Here!" but Stone never attempts to intervene. Spend a little time with Ware, and you get his number: He likes to provoke.

He regales me with stories of his father, who lives in Branson, Missouri, with his new wife ("I don't like either one of them"). His stepmother, he claims, insisted to his staunchly Catholic father that the man make Ware cut off all ties with his mother, "who'd turned gay on him, which is one of the reasons they got a divorce."

The lesbianism of Ware's mother wasn't the first family shock his father would receive. When Ware walked into his Branson home one night wearing black nail polish, "the shit hit the fan," he says.

"He yelled at me in the kitchen for over two hours. I hadn't told him I was bisexual yet, but he started assuming all this stuff. He said that men who have shameful feelings start off by trying to hide them. They do things like wear pantyhose under their jeans. But slowly, those shameful feelings come to the surface, and then they start wearing nail polish and dresses."

When Ware finally told his father, over the telephone, that he was bisexual, the reaction was angry rejection that still hasn't cooled. "The first thing he said was"--Ware deepens his voice suddenly in what, I can only imagine, is a ruthlessly accurate impression of his father--"'Oh, that's just great.'"

Ware moved to Dallas to live with his mother, who for a while shared an apartment with a transgendered lover named Tony. His first day at W.T. White, a Dallas high school, didn't meet with the approval of many other students.

"I wore a striped, sort of tight muscle shirt to homeroom the first day, and immediately some guys started messing with me," Ware says. "They started asking me if I was a faggot and stuff. After that, people started mad-dogging me in the halls [trying to stare him down]. I never got jumped, but I wasn't there for very long. They were big and scary seniors, and they had lots of friends. It would've happened.

"W.T. White is filled with--"he adopts an especially disgusted tone here--"white Christians. Everyone's so white and so Christian there. I was always being judged by Christians, so I decided to wear one of my shirts that read: 'Jesus, protect me from your followers.' That didn't go over well. Guys started mad-dogging me even more. One guy in the senior store kept crossing himself as I was buying something."

Ware craftily defends the shirt's message. "You could interpret it any way you wanted, like a horoscope. You could say it was pro-Christ, but was criticizing what people have done to his words."

On the subject of his self-proclaimed bisexuality and what that means, Ware has discovered at a tender age what adults who make the "bi" declaration quickly learn--nobody trusts you. Straights think you're too scared to come all the way out of the closet, and gays think you're just in the mood to experiment.

"A couple people here [at Walt Whitman] get really pissed when I say I'm bisexual," he adds. "They're like, 'Oh, just admit it, you're gay.' Even though sometimes I like to say 'girlfriend!' I'm leaning toward straight right now. My one [sexual] experience with a guy was not very pleasant. It was my choice, but I chose the wrong guy. Usually, guys understand each other better, so it's easier to date them. But now I'm looking at girls more."

Convinced that, 10 years from now, this kid will either be in jail or running his own multinational corporation, I'm heartened to learn that he's already taken personal steps to improve his future. In addition to what little money his mother can provide and a few private grants the operators of Walt Whitman Community School have managed to scare up, Ware is working part-time at Tom Thumb to finance his own high school education.

"You get more attention in public schools," he informs me, although he won't specify if "attention" means interaction with educators about the curriculum or proper outrage at antics that don't, in the Walt Whitman universe, seem quite so outrageous. "And if we don't get accredited, I'm screwed. But it's definitely way more tolerant here."

Any last words of wisdom from an enlightened bisexual teenager?
"It's tough to find good dating material, whether it's boys or girls," Ware confirms. "And Jerry Falwell sucks.

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