Obama’s Education Sec’y Pick Gets Heat for Gay High School Proposal

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Dec 17, 2008

Imagine a school where GLBT students can walk down the hall without fear of being called names or even suffering physical assault; where unlike the majority of America's schools, where fellow students, and sometimes teachers, hurl verbal harassment, queer youth are safe among others who understand them, because the school is designed for GLBT students to call their own.

Arne Duncan, chief of Chicago's school system, envisioned such a school for Chicago. If it had been approved, The Social Justice High School-Pride Campus school would have joined Harvey Milk High School in New York City as a haven for GLBT youth, as reported in an October article at EDGE.

As it happened, the proposal was shot down, but Duncan's attempt to establish a safe school for queer youth has not gone unnoticed by Obama critics now that the President-Elect has chosen Duncan to head up the Department of Education.

A Dec. 16 article at Newsbuster asks, "So, how often do you think that the Old Media will mention that Barack Obama's choice for Secretary of Education, Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, supported to be opened in Chicago a gay, lesbian and transgender high school?"

The article quoted Duncan as having said, "If you look at national studies, you see gay and lesbian students with high dropout rates," with the Obama pick continuing, "Studies show they are disproportionately homeless."

Said Duncan said, "I think there is a niche there we need to fill."

The article speculated that Duncan might "attempt to force school systems all across the country to start up their own gay, lesbian and transgender schools," while at Christian right-wing site CNS News a Dec. 17 story declared, "Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, who President-elect Barack Obama announced yesterday as his choice to be Secretary of Education, supported and approved plans for a special public high school for homosexuals."

The school would also have been open for straight students, but would have made a focus on support for GLBT youth, including allowing discussion of significant gay and lesbian figures to occur in the classroom.

But social and religious conservatives have blasted the idea, along with Duncan, now that he has been named to Obama's administration.

The CNS article quoted anti-gay Illinois Family Institute spokesperson Laurie Higgins, who said of the pick, "Our concern, of course, is that [Duncan is] going to take these values--these arguable, unproven theories about homosexuality and how public schools should treat it--and using his power and position, affirm that in some kind of more nationwide proposals, or policies."

Higgins added that Duncan's support for the school was evidence that "he necessarily has taken a position on what homosexuality is--the nature of it, and its morality.

"In order to have curricula that affirm homosexuality, you have to have come to these prior conclusions."

CNS also quoted the Gay-Straight-Alliance for Safe Schools executive director, Cindy Crane, who offered a view from the other side, saying, "We very much support these sort of efforts [at supporting GLBT youth]."

"[F]rom that perspective, we're very happy that [Duncan] has been offered this position."

Added Crane, "We're pleased that someone who established himself as understanding the special challenges of LGBTs or sexual minorities within his own state is now in a federal position, and will be able to influence legislation and budgets on a federal level."

According to GLBT student support and advocacy organization GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), about 5 percent of high school students identify as gay or lesbian. Many of them face physical and verbal harassment at school, due to real or perceived sexual orientation.

According to the GLSEN Web site, "4 out of 5 LGBT students hear homophobic remarks often in their schools.

"39% of LGBT students report being verbally or physically assaulted, often with a weapon and transgender students reported physical harassment 30% more than students that identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

"Nearly 1 out of 3 LGBT students skipped school in the past month because they were simply too afraid to go."

According to the Web site Inside, Harvey Milk High School in New York is a four-year school with a student body of 99 and a 20 percent graduation rate.

The enrollees at the school break down ethnically to 47 percent Black, 33 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Asian, and 8 percent White.

As would have been the case at Chicago's proposed Social Justice High School-Pride Campus, Harvey Milk High School is open to straights as well as to gay and lesbian students.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2008-12-18 05:06:28

    I like a fair minded leader like Duncan. However, the reason of opening a special school for LGBT students is not the best moved. It does not address the real problem in the school with their homophobia. We have to focus on fighting the homophobia on every aspect and level of life. Make laws or regulations that protect LGBT students from being bullied is more make sense to me. LGBT students are not leprosy that have to be isolated in a special school. We should not running away from problems but we need to solve them together.

  • , 2008-12-24 14:56:33

    B4 any $ are spent on sexual orientation schools, lets get the normal population graduating. In Chicago Duncan presided over a graduation rate of less than 50%. Fix this problem through charter schools or school vouchers. That my friends is a "no brainer." Sadly, Duncans decisions show that he was not effective in the Chgo school system, rather than promoting him to the national basis. Just one more example of the sad Chicago (and Illinois) connection rearing its ugly and dishonest head.

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