Milking the School System

Imagine this: You are 16 years old and going back to school this fall. Like most students you purchased a backpack, a protractor, paper and pencils, but unlike most students, you did not go back-to-school clothes shopping. Why not? Because you are enrolled in the nation’s first all nudist high school, Adam and Eve High.

Lest you lament the fact that you are not of school age and missed this trend, let me hasten to tell you that this is a fictional scenario, at least for now. Impossible, you protest! Schools would never organize themselves around such a private choice as being a nudist, especially for impressionable kids who are not old enough to make that choice.

Well, on that point, think again.

The New York City school system is planning to open a high school for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students” this fall. The new Harvey Milk High School, named after the slain gay politician, will open in September with 100 students. Slated to expand to 170 students next school year, the school is undergoing $3.2 million dollars in renovations funded by the city.

While New York has operated two classrooms for gay students during the past 20 years, this will be the first freestanding high school of its kind in the nation. On the face of it, it seems like a move born of sympathy toward gay students who might be open to antipathy in the “regular” school. However upon reflection, this move fails to make the grade as good policy.

Kids as young as 14 will be identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered long before they can fully understand what such labeling involves. Such an admission criteria assumes that the categories of gay, lesbian or bisexual are as stable as male and female.

Research on sexual orientation does not support such a view. There is no evidence that sexual orientation is in-born or obligatory.

Moreover, sexual feelings are incredibly flexible, especially during adolescence. For instance, 26% of one sample of young adolescents were unsure of their sexual orientation whereas only about 3-4% of the adult population identifies as gay or lesbian. This policy of segmenting students based on imagined sexual preference or what may be uncertain feelings of attraction is bound to encourage premature labeling of sexual orientation. What if a student decides he is not gay anymore? Will he have to transfer schools?

Organizing school policy around sexuality is potentially confusing, and may even be dangerous, to questioning children.

How can children know in early adolescence how they want to organize their identities without any sexual experience to go on? Will guidance counselors suggest that children must be gay or lesbian because of feelings of same-sex attraction? Based on the number of students shifting their attractions during high school and even college, how can such advice be reliable? Some facets of identity cannot intelligently be decided by feelings alone. With the school district suggesting that the categories of sexual orientation are givens, like gender, students cannot help but feel pushed toward premature labeling, which may mean premature sexual experimentation. This not the kind of education most taxpayers want to fund.

What’s next? Harvey Milk High will continue to be run through a cooperative arrangement with the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the New York City schools. Given that the mission of the Institute is to provide supportive environments for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth between the ages of 12-21,” is there a Harvey Milk Middle School on the horizon? How about a gay elementary school?

Newly hired principal, William Salzman, said in news accounts that, “this school will be a model for the country and possibly the world.”

For the sake of the children, I hope not.