On the distribution of gay teenagers…

08/16/2003

Yesterday (via new-favourite-weblog Let Me Get This Straight), I stumbled upon an article about a Bronx senator and a conservative legal group in Florida who are suing the Harvey Milk school in New York with discrimination. The Harvey Milk school is the target of this attack because it is ‘the gay school” – it’s being accused of discrimination because (apparently) it discriminates against straight students (Lawsuit challenges gay high school). Now the school is unlikely to have too much trouble with this threat because it’s actually open to students of any sexuality. It’s perhaps not too much of a shock, however, that only gay students really want to enter into a programme that’s marked as being particularly capable of meeting their needs of people who are experiencing problems at their schools on the basis of their sexuality. I’d love to see the barely-hidden smile when they say, “We’re open to anyone who’s having trouble at their schools because of their sexuality – so find me a straight kid who’s being beaten up and harrassed by an overwhelming force of gay students and is being failed institutionally by an entirely gay staff and they’re in…” In fact in many ways this whole enterprise is a really bad idea for the anti-gay people – they’re just providing a platform for gay activists to detail all the ways in which our education systems fail gay teenagers [cf. On Homophobic Bullying in Schools].

Now I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends about the Harvey Milk school and they’ve been quite surprised by my feelings towards it. They assume it’s a kind of ghettoisation and that we should instead be fighting to make all schools gay-friendly. Certainly, this isn’t an uncommon feeling among gay people – the respondents to the Let me Get This Straight post aren’t uncritical. But I’m not critical at all – in fact quite the opposite. First and foremost I’m supportive because the specifics of the functioning of the school aren’t really encapsulated in the phrase ‘gay school’ very well – I think there’s generally a misunderstanding about what the school is there to achieve and when you explain its function to people, they pretty much get it immediately. It’s not there because gay children are a problem, and it’s not there to try and detach them from straight people or ‘normal’ life in any way – it’s there because the kids are getting regular, daily harrassment in their current school – harrassment that is almost impossible to control, permeates everywhere and can be extremely dangerous. Of course these things should be fixed at the source – school shouldn’t be a homophobic environment – but while they are, in extreme cases, you can understand the reasoning…

The other aspect of this is more complicated and I think it’s got something to do with the geographic distribution of gay children. Now the most obvious grounds for discrimination are probably things like religion, race, background or gender. For every single one of those things, while there are some schools in which one religion, race, background or gender might be in a significant minority, there are other schools in which the same ‘type of person’ will be in the majority. In religion, race and background these things are likely to be geographically determined – what’s a minority in one place will be a majority elsewhere. And (all things being equal, as in fact they never are) that means that there’s always the possibility of moving to a place where your child will not be judged on the basis of that one signifier.

Gender is different of course – there isn’t (for example) a massive geographical clumping of women around Nottingham. But still – there’s a roughly 50/50 split in boys and girls in pretty much every reasonably sized area in the world, so any places where there are lots of boys will mean a different place with lots of girls nearby. And of course – in terms of gender and schools – there are more often than not only really three stable states – girls only, boys only or roughly 50/50 (with exceptions of course for schools that place different emphases on subjects that attract one gender more than the other but are open to both – not uncommon, but also normally evened out by the presence locally of schools that complement them).

Now gay kids are in a different situation. Firstly, they’re not in any way geographically clumped. If living in a specific area would normally mean that the people you go to school with would be on average more similar to you on all the axes of religion, background, income and race (language even), it bears no relationship to whether or not they’re going to be gay or not. This makes it quite distinct from the geographical spread of gay adults, who tend towards cities where there’s more opportunity to clump into interest communities and lifestyle communities. But gay parents don’t necessarily have gay children, if they have children at all – so even in the most gay areas on the planet, there are still going to be no more gay kids than the 0.5% – 10% seem worldwide.

So they’re not geographically clumped, but nor are they evenly balanced like the genders. Gay kids represent a disreet chunk of the school-attending population – but not a particularly large chunk. The figures for the incidence of homosexuality among adults vary dramatically depending on which study you believe, but the consensus is that it’s probably somewhere between 0.5% and 10%. At school, the figure of kids who are out to their friends and families (let alone to the world at large) will be considerably smaller than this figure.

So what does this mean? It means, fundamentally, that gay kids will pretty much always be in the minority at their schools. They’ll pretty much always be considered the freaks and they’ll pretty much always have to see themselves as strange, different or abnormal. In this they probably have much more in common with groups with unusual inherited mental or physical attributes that have the potential to ostracise – and that’s everything from severe physical handicaps all the way to the unusually bright. Some of these groups we don’t have second thoughts about schooling differently – autistic children or the insanely clever for example. Others (those with physical problems for example) we try to integrate into local schools – because we believe that whenever possible a physical problem shouldn’t be a reason to stop an individual having the same options and opportunities as anyone else.

So that brings us to gay teenagers – what group are they in? Do they deserve access to the same options and opportunities as everyone else – clearly yes. But do they also have needs that aren’t likely to be met in a school in which they’ll always be in a radical minority. I’d say yes to that too. A gay teenager should have the opportunity while at school to realise that there are loads of other people like themselves, to forget – for a while at least – that they are not like everyone else. They should also have the opportunity to meet and date and flirt with other teenagers without wondering if they’re going to get beaten up. They should have the ability to have crushes on people without it being statistically inevitable that they’d have them on straight people. They should have the opportunity to do all that learning about relationships and going steady that are open in principle to straight people in general (even if many straight kids don’t feel able to take advantage of them).

So where does that leave us? Clearly the Harvey Milk model isn’t right for every gay kid or – indeed – even every big city. Nonetheless something needs to be done. There has to be some way for all gay teenagers to have someone to advise them without worrying that their secret will get back to their families before they’re ready to tell them themselves. And there has to be a way for gay kids to have those Dawson’s Creek moments that their straight friends wander through without realising how lucky they are. Maybe better guidance counsellors and gay summer-camps are the answer – who knows… But let’s not close our minds to the option of schools that advertise themselves as gay-friendly just yet, eh? The situation’s too grim at the moment to shut any options completely off…