Expanded gay high school becomes lightning rod


By Lincoln Anderson

For most students and teachers returning to school is hopefully a pleasurable experience. However at the Hetrick Martin Institute at 2 Astor Pl., which is being expanded into the Harvey Milk School, the start of the new school year has been marred by controversy.

It started when the New York Post blasted the allocation of additional city funds to expand the Hetrick Martin program to turn it into a full-fledged school. However, the Post portrayed it as if a new gay high school were being created, when in fact the program has existed for years, albeit in relative obscurity because of its small size.

Yet, it is indeed the only public school specifically for gays in the nation.

Following the media glare, Reverend Ruben Diaz, a state Senator from the Bronx known for his antagonistic stance towards gays on various issues over the years, was joined by a conservative Florida organization in filing a lawsuit to block the funding. Gay New York City elected officials hit back, saying the school was needed to protect lesbians, gay, bisexuals and transgender youth from physical and psychological abuse at school, in society and within their own families. Meanwhile, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other newspapers also opposed the idea of a separate school for L.G.B.T. youth.

In a telephone interview with The Villager two weeks ago, Diaz stuck to his position, saying the school should not be funded because it represents segregation. He said he hadn’t known about the Hetrick Martin Institute, because “they kept it quiet.”

The entire school system needs to be made safer if gays and lesbians feel threatened, he said.

“The bullies are the ones causing the problem,” he said. “These are the ones we have to pinpoint.”

Diaz also warned that the gay high school would become a “dumping ground” for gay students who rub teachers or principals the wrong way.

Asked about his past record of incendiary anti-gay comments, Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, said, “Yeah, I’ve been critical of the homosexual lifestyle. I knew you were going that way.”

But he said he’s been unfairly portrayed as being “full of hate.”

“I’m saying homosexual students can compete, can attend [regular schools],” he said, stressing that he doesn’t just oppose the school because it is for gays. Fund the gay high school, he said, “And you open the Pandora’s box, you using public funds.”

Diaz said he supports special schools for pregnant girls, for example. But he added, regarding a school on W. 17th St. in Chelsea, “I have a problem with Liberty School. That’s a school for foreign children.”

He said he’d just heard about Liberty High School, following his getting involved on the Harvey Milk School issue.

“I’m finding more and more and more about it,” he added. “We talking about it,” he said, asked whether he and his co-plaintiffs would consider adding Liberty High to their lawsuit.

He doesn’t support separate public schools for girls only.

“Any one that you know of, let me know,” he said of special-interest public high schools that receive public funds that potentially might fall under categories not acceptable to him.

Diaz, by the way, noted he has two gay brothers.

The Department of Education wasn’t commenting on the school or the lawsuit. A woman who answered the phone at D.O.E.’s press office said there was a “gag order” on communications to the media about the school and that there would be one big event around opening day at which the lawsuit and related issues would be addressed. She said they’ve been inundated with calls from all over the world about the story.

David Mensah, the Hetrick Martin Institute’s director, didn’t want to comment directly on the lawsuit, but defended the school’s right to exist.

“The school has existed for 17 years because there was not a safe space for L.G.B.T. kids,” he said. “The initial 16 kids had dropped out of school, so it was mainly to keep kids in school.”

Told of Diaz’s quest to make all schools safe so one just for gays wouldn’t be needed, Mensah said, “I think that’s a great project. All schools should be safe in an ideal world. This is good for the meantime.”

Before the school’s expansion, the evaluation of students applying for the available 20 seats boiled down to deciding between “a kid who was making so many suicide attempts or one who was hiding from their peers between classes,” he noted.

Gay youth are three times more likely to commit suicide and three times more likely to drop out, according to studies, Mensah said.

The program served 71 students last year, will serve 100 this year and 170 next year. Right now, there is no waiting list to get in, Mensah said. There are seven classrooms, a cafeteria, hallways and lockers and the students follow a Regents-approved New York State curriculum. The graduation rate has been 95 percent in recent years. The school’s new principal is David Salzman.

Diaz said he was particularly hurt when Councilmember Margarita Lopez, whose district includes the school, blasted the Harvey Milk School’s opponents as being hateful. Diaz said Lopez was “his hero” when he was in the City Council. “She’s a fighter,” he said. “It was a shock. She said people that oppose this school, they were full of hate and don’t have the guts to come out and say it publicly. That hurts.”

Lopez said that’s too bad, but that she feels Diaz’s religion is behind his position.

“He should leave his religion at home when he is a state senator,” she said.

She was also incensed when the media suddenly made the school, to which she has provided discretionary funding from her Council budget for years, an issue.

“What the media did with this story, they called it The Homosexual High School. This school doesn’t teach homosexuality,” Lopez said. “The newspapers knew from the start this was not a new high school.”

She said she personally is against segregating any kind of students, mentioning in particular disabled students, who she said are unfairly segregated. Yet the opponents of H.M.S. have never protested the segregation of disabled students to her knowledge, she said. Meanwhile the students at H.M.S. face very real threats, in her opinion.

“The majority of children who go to that school are in foster homes because their families kick them out,” Lopez noted. “The physical, psychological abuse of these children is serious. It’s no joke.”

On the other hand, thousands of disabled students are shunted into a special district, District 75, in Queens, Lopez said, when many of them should be in schools with the general student population. Yet, most disabled students are “immediately” sent to District 75. Studies show disabled and non-disabled students benefit from and are stimulated by each others’ presence, she said.

Only 19 Manhattan high schools out of dozens are wheelchair accessible, she noted. Murry Bergtraum High School by City Hall is “saturated with children in wheelchairs,” 45 at last count, because of this, she said, adding, “How many Einsteins are we losing because of this? It’s a pity.” Lopez is chairperson of the Council’s committee on people with mental health, mental retardation, substance abuse and people with disabilities.

She said she invited Diaz to join her in the fight to make public schools accessible.

“That is real segregation,” she said.

“They are misleading the public when they say they don’t like [H.M.S.] because it’s a segregated school,” Lopez said of Diaz, his co-plaintiffs and the Post. “If there’s a segregated community in this city, it’s the disabled community.”

Also on the subject of violence in schools against gays and other students, State Senator Tom Duane is still pushing a school anti-bullying bill in Albany. The Assembly has passed it, but the State Senate is likely to oppose the inclusion of language protecting transgenders, a spokesperson said. He added that the two legislative branches will take up the bill probably in January.