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A Safe Haven Finds Itself Under Siege


August 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

"I WAS always different," Dino Portalatin said. "A few years ago, when I was 15, I went back to visit my old elementary school, P.S. 169. They're like, 'Did you come out yet?' I said, `You knew then?' They said, `Oh yeah.' "

He was a little boy who preferred playing with dolls. "There's these photos of me," he said, "my legs crossed like a school girl and a big cheesy smile." In middle school it was no big deal, he said; he was popular. But things changed at Franklin Roosevelt High in Brooklyn. He told a few friends the truth, and then it took just one ex-friend to spread the news among the 3,500 students.

"People were like, 'That's the faggot,' " he said. To hold onto his popularity, he recalled, he became the bad kid, heckling teachers, fighting kids who insulted him. "I was knocked blind just once," he said. "I was conscious, I just couldn't see anything."

He went from honor roll to delinquent. He threw a table at school, cracked a door off its hinges, skipped classes for weeks, was given a diagnosis of depression, shredded a couch at home with a knife. His mother, a day-care worker and single parent, took him to a hospital clinic. "I saw a therapist there," Dino said. "He told me about Hetrick-Martin. He said it's a place for people like you. I said, Puerto Rican people? He said, Gay youth."

Starting in the mid-1980's, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a nonprofit agency in Greenwich Village that serves gay youngsters, has operated a small public school, the Harvey Milk School, that accepted gay students who had either dropped out or couldn't cope at a mainstream high school. A few arrived after suicide attempts – gay teenagers are three times more likely to attempt suicide than straights, according to the National Mental Health Association. More often, like Carlos Diaz at La Guardia High in Manhattan, a school for the performing arts, they just got worn out by the verbal abuse.

Jose Irizarry could no longer stand being mute. "At my other schools, I didn't hide it, but I didn't tell anyone," Jose said. "I didn't feel it was safe to tell. I stayed to myself. I was always living under pressure. I couldn't concentrate. My grades dropped."

At Harvey Milk, he said, "I put my guard down. All I had to concentrate on was learning."

Jose, Dino and Carlos all said they never would have graduated from high school without Harvey Milk. And it kills them now to see the school under attack.

One of the best things about New York City public high schools is their enormous variety, giving children a chance to find a niche. There are elite schools for future Ivy Leaguers and vocational schools for the skilled trades. There are five international schools serving 2,300 students who must be immigrants to attend. And five sites around the city for pregnant girls only – 600 attended last year. For children too severely handicapped to be in mainstream classes, New York City has 56 schools exclusively for the disabled. There is also the Young Woman's Leadership School in Harlem, serving 370 girls, part of a network of same-sex public schools that includes all-girls schools in Chicago and Philadelphia and an all-boys school in Philadelphia.

But of late, the only one catching heat is little Harvey Milk. It started last month with front page ("Gay High") coverage by The New York Post – big play, considering the news: that the city was spending $3.2 million (of a $43 billion budget) to expand the 20-year-old program to 170 students by 2004 from 70 now.

As the story rocketed worldwide, it assumed cartoon form. Before students can attend Harvey Milk, they must have the consent of a parent or guardian, but Mike Long, New York's Conservative Party chairman, warned of defenseless children being shanghaied. "We're not doing a confused ninth grader any favors by plucking him out of his school and shipping him off to some gay academy of social engineering," Mr. Long wrote in The Daily News.

School officials estimate that 25 percent of Harvey Milk students are transgender, meaning the child may physically be a boy but feels and behaves like a girl. The idea that such students might be harassed at a mainstream high school struck Mr. Long as hilarious. "What's next?" he wrote. "How about a special school for chubby kids?"

The majority of students at Harvey Milk are poor, 10 percent are in foster care, 75 percent are black or Latino. And yet in filing suit last week to block financing for the school, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., Democrat of the Bronx, complained that resources were being diverted from poor black and Hispanic children. Others, including The New York Times's editorial page, praised Harvey Milk as well-intentioned but argued that the answer was not a segregated school, but to make all schools safe for gays.

If only that day were close at hand. Neither the mayor nor the schools chancellor thinks it is; both strongly support Harvey Milk. Nor does Dr. Anna Maria Thomas, a longtime teacher at Boys and Girls High, a large (3,300 students) mainstream school in Manhattan.

"At our school, prejudice is big," Dr. Thomas said. "I bumped into a student on the street. I said, `How come I don't see you?' He says, `I was always being beaten up in the boys locker room.' I said, `What do you mean?' He says, `I'm gay.' "

Gail Miller, a social worker recently retired from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts (1,600 students) in Manhattan referred about 15 gay students a year to the Hetrick-Martin after-school program. About two a year transferred to Harvey Milk.

"They're kids who just can't figure out how to fit in," Ms. Miller said. "Without Harvey Milk, they'd drop out."

Thousands of New York gay children get by in mainstream schools. They're comfortable being themselves, or they mute themselves or hide who they are. For whatever reason, a smaller number cannot find a place, and Harvey Milk becomes their niche. Jose Irizarry, who graduated in June, will enter John Jay College this fall and plans to be a lawyer. After Harvey Milk, Carlos Diaz became a Continental Airlines flight attendant.

When Carlos came out to his mother in high school, he recalled, "she said, `You're sick.' But she came around – after a couple of years."

While Mrs. Diaz was getting used to a new Carlos, he said, it was nice to have a place to fit in.

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