Life can be hard when you're young. When you're young and gay it can be terrifying. Some gay teenagers get their first taste of bigotry at school and are so traumatised that their education stops there and then. But in New York there is an organisation that gives them a second chance. Reva Klein paid a visit
The teenagers who bound out of the subway at Astor Place in the West Village look like any other young New Yorkers. Richard wears a red bandana around his head to offset his expensive-looking black shirt and jeans. He looks tough as hell. Others, like Jessie, have that casual look that has cost hours of deliberation, not to mention dollars. Her jeans are baggy enough to accommodate half the neighbourhood. Whatever their style, these kids look cool, navigating their way through the building-darkened, lunatic-studded streets to get to school.
Cool they may be, but they're anything but typical. That they are in school at all is amazing enough. Three-quarters of the 80 14 to 20-year-olds rushing up the school steps to their first lesson of the day have dropped out of their previous schools, some for a few months, others for a few years. They have been physically attacked by their schoolmates and even taunted and called names by their teachers. They had lost their friends, their desire to go to school, their self-esteem. Some were thrown out of home by their parents. And there are thousands of others out there, going through the same daily hell.
They were tormented for being GLTB - gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-gender (a person who "feels" they are the opposite gender and who takes on the identity of that gender). It's not that they're not glad to be gay. It's just that the rest of society isn't so pleased with them. Homophobia is rife in the US, even in a gay and lesbian stronghold like New York City. Combined with poverty, gang violence and drugs, it can mean disaster for adolescents struggling to find their way in the world.
While some come out to friends and family, many do not for fear of the consequences. But while the consequences of coming out can be catastrophic, so too can be the suppression of one's sexual instincts. According to a US Department of Health study, suicide attempts among gay teenagers are three times more common than among heterosexuals.
But since 1983 young gay people in New York have had somewhere to go. The Hetrick Martin Institute is a non-profit-making organisation that offers education, counselling, social services and advocacy to young people who are GLBT. It is the first and the only place of its kind in the world. (See box.) Two years after the institute was founded, the Harvey Milk School (named after the gay city councillor in San Francisco, assassinated by a political rival in 1978) opened its doors for the first time to young gays who had been harassed and hounded out of their mainstream schools. It had one teacher and 20 students.
Now part of the New York City Board of Education's Alternative School Programme, the school has four teachers and two para-professionals teaching 80 students a year. The fully accredited school follows the New York curriculum, awarding high school diplomas and the less academic General Equivalent Diplomas like any other high school. Approximately 10 to 15 students graduate each year, putting Harvey Milk's graduation rate - between 80 and 100 per cent - well above the national average. More than half go on to further education.
This is quite an achievement when you are young, gay, living in poverty and from an ethnic minority - at the end of last year, 46 per cent of the students were Latino, a quarter were African-American, and 16 per cent were white - which is the profile of most of the young people who use the institute and attend the school. Some are also in care, and some have histories of physical and substance abuse.
Eric Canny, director of the school, emphasises that the atmosphere at Harvey Milk is not what outsiders might think. "Some of the staff are GLBT themselves, others are not," he says. "We don't ask. If they are, they're a good role model. If they're not, it's still good; it's showing the students that straight teachers can be caring and respectful of them."
Neither does the school deliver the curriculum from a gay perspective. "We teach US history, not gay history. When we teach literature, we do Oscar Wilde but we also cover Hispanic literature. The bottom line here is that we're preparing them for the world outside, so we can't just concentrate on gay and lesbian issues."
Tough love? Yes, but it's a tough world out there. Steve Monroe, a teacher at the school for 18 months, says: "I tell them, 'You might think that your gender identity is an issue, but nobody else does. This is 1997 New York City and you need to be able to go out and get a job.' Here, the focus is on academics. "
The curriculum is delivered via traditional classroom teaching combined with an adaptation of the Montessori system. The core subjects, English, maths and social studies, are taught formally, as are the electives. But all students have independent study periods, when they can concentrate on other issues. "They work on individually designed programmes at their own pace over a semester," says Eric Canny. "It means that they take responsibility for their own education, with staff keeping them on track."
Harvey Milk School is just one part of the services run by the institute, which is committed, in the words of its acting executive director, Verna Eggleston, "to wrapping a ton of services around these kids and their families". These "tons of services", which are free, are currently being used by 1,000 youths and their families. They include counselling for individuals aged 12 and above and their families; a drop-in centre, where young people can socialise, get a hot meal, a shower and a change of clothes; a computer learning centre, where they can learn marketable skills; and a library. As Verna Eggleston says, "We're the first stop for some of these families. As well as everything else, we can help them to access other services."
As well as the on-site services, there is an outreach programme run by Christopher Rodriguez, director of youth service. "We go out on to the streets of New York with our own young, trained outreach workers, looking for youths who are possibly at risk, possibly living on the streets," he says. "We share with them information on safer sex and tell them about our services." According to a study by the Youth at Risk group, there is no shortage of prospective clients out there: it estimates that 35 per cent of the 20,000 young people living on the streets in the New York area are GLBT. And the latest figures from the US Centre for Disease Control show that Aids is now the sixth most common cause of death among 15 to 24-year-olds in New York.
Because safe-sex messages are being ignored by so many youths, a team of trained peer educators from the institute is available to visit primary and secondary schools, health and social service organisations, teachers' training sessions, and corporate firms to give presentations on gay issues and sex education. Eight thousand people a year are reached in this way. Verna Eggleston believes it is only through peer education that young people will get the message about the risks of unprotected sex. "Kids hear adults as if our voices are scrambled. The best de-scrambler we've got is other kids," she says.
The institute has attracted its share of moral outrage, being accused of brainwashing kids into adopting a gay lifestyle and "sexualising" children. Verna Eggleston says: "I don't agree with 12 or 13-year-olds having sex. They're not emotionally or physically ready, and we have to give them the message that they don't have to have sex in order to solidify their relationships. But we also have to acknowledge that kids do have sex. Not only that, but they know their sexual orientation from a young age. It doesn't suddenly occur to them at the magical age of 18."
Still, there are signs that attitudes are softening. Some attitudes, that is. Verna Eggleston believes that, "In my lifetime there will no longer be a need for Harvey Milk School. But I can't say that as a black woman I'll ever be able to get a cab to stop for me in Astor Place."
Ericillio, 19, has been at Harvey Milk School for 18 months. Originally from the Dominican Republic, he dropped out of his Bronx high school after several incidents of physical and verbal abuse.
"I always knew I was gay," he says. "When I told my parents, my father said, 'You're going to die. You won't have a life.' He threw me out of the house at the age of 16, and I went to live with my lover.
"At my old school, three of my best friends were shot and killed. It was a tough school and I only went because I had to. Being at Harvey Milk, I've been able to change the way I feel about my whole life. Here, they say to you, 'You know what? You're the best human being I've ever seen in my life.' And you come to believe it, too. I've learned to love myself. And now I come to school because I want to do better."
HOW THE INSTITUTE RUNS
The Hetrick Martin Institute is named after its two founders, psychiatrist Dr Emery Hetrick and Dr Damien Martin, a professor at New York University, who both died of Aids. In 1979 they set up the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth in response to the high-risk circumstances under which gay and lesbian adolescents live. Since then, the renamed institute has grown and prospered. Today, it receives 45 per cent of its funding from state and local government. The remainder comes from philanthropic foundations and private donations.
GAY IN THE USA
The coming-out age for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is falling, according to research by A R D'Augelli of Penn State University.
First awareness usually comes between the ages of 10 and 12, self-labelling at 15, first disclosure at 16, disclosure to parents at 18. More than 60 per cent of D'Augelli's sample said they were overwhelmed to the point of being dysfunctional, their biggest worries being telling families, friendsschoolmates and HIV. Suicide had been attempted by 42 per cent of those questioned.
In Sexual Preference: its Development in Men and Women, by Bell, Weinberg and Hammersmith, a study of 979 homosexual and 477 heterosexual men revealed that most believed their sexual orientation was established before adolescence, regardless of whether they had been sexually active at that time.