A different learning environment

By Madeleine Somerville

At a time when tolerance is the word on everyone’s lips, especially in light of the extreme religious and ethnic conflict in the Middle East, a headline appearing on CNN seemed to signify the opposite. The headline proclaimed the Harvey Milk school, which is specifically designated for homosexual and transgender students and has been operating for a short time in New York City, received 3.2 million dollars funding a transition into a fully operational high school.

There has been considerable opposition from conservative and religious types, especially because the school is being funded from taxpayers’ pockets, however, I see several other things drastically wrong with this scenario.

How incredibly shocking that, according to a 2001 CNN survey, 81 per cent of homosexual, bisexual and transgender students admit to having dealt with harassment about their sexual orientation–dealt with it to such a degree they are forced to segregate themselves to assure their safety and education.

How incredible that nothing is being done in the public school system to protect students from such harassment, to allow them the basic freedom of education afforded in the United States charter.

How disgusting that rather than teach tolerance and acceptance, individuals are being secluded so those who disagree with their life choices won’t have to deal with them.

Above all, how sad that this segregation is voluntary. They are not being forced into this; these students feel it is necessary to separate themselves from their peers in order to learn.

I find a startling similarity between this situation and the integration of black students into the public school system almost half a century ago, however, in this particular instance we are moving towards segregation.

It was assumed then, and rightly so, that tolerance can only be learned when walls between diverse individuals are torn down and popular misconceptions made obsolete. Those first young black students endured extreme amounts of harassment, even threats on their lives. However, we have gained a school system which is now open to all races and as a result, racism has greatly declined–though by no means disappeared.

There are so many issues surrounding this story it amazes me I haven’t heard more about it. There is currently no question on university admission forms which addresses the sexual orientation of an applicant, but having attended this school is an indication of your sexual preference. Although I’d like to think those in university, especially those at the administrative level, are free from prejudices, this presents the possibility of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

I am also curious to see whether homosexual and transgender students feel an increased sense of safety within the walls of the Harvey Milk School or whether the school itself will become the target of unwanted attention in the form of vandalism or protests.

We are granted free speech, I can not deny that, but since when were we granted the ability to force our lifestyles on others and expect them to like it?

Since when is it acceptable to torment individuals to the point where they cannot exist in the same sphere any longer and are forced to take alternative measures to ensure their safety? Whether it be creating a separate school, taking violent–even lethal–measures against their classmates, or staging a war to convert a country on the other side of the world to our "better" way of doing things.

Discrimination is discrimination. It’s denying an individual basic freedoms based on characteristics they were born with and subsequently had no control over such as gender, race, disability, ethnicity and yes, sexual orientation. It is a pervasive issue today, one forcing Iraqi women to wear bhurkas and lurk inside on penalty of death and one forcing American students to move to a separate location simply to learn. They are different extremes of the same problem and I don’t suggest the severity of one is remotely comparable to the other.

Why is it our neighbours to the south deem it necessary to go to war to enable the integration of Iraqi women into normal life, then blindly take opposite measures when dealing with homosexual, bisexual and transgender individuals at home?

Leave a comment