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Esther J. Cepeda Headshot

A Gay Time Will Be Had at the Pride Campus of Social Justice High School

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The Chicago Public Schools unveiled a bevy of new Renaissance 2010 schools at a press conference Wednesday. Among the new schools focusing on vocational studies, studying the humanities, learning about health and loving the Chicago Bulls, one sticks out for striving to create a safe haven for gay students.

The Pride Campus of Social Justice High School doesn't have a location set, is to open in 2010 and will eventually serve 600 any-oriented students.

My initial reaction: separate but equal ... why would you want that?

According to Bill Greaves, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered liaison from the City of Chicago's Commission on Human Relations, as quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, the school will provide students with heroes and role models delivered through a standard curriculum which will be augmented with stories highlighting GLBT people.

The point is to provide a school open to kids from all parts of the city with a safe, gay-friendly atmosphere aimed at serving GLBT students who face higher rates of depression and, subsequently, tend to drop out more because of intolerance and bullying in "regular" schools.

But, isn't high school supposed to be where the gloves come off and you're forced to deal with life as it is, rather than as it should be? Does insulating kids in the warm embrace of a gay-friendly cocoon really serve them when they leave and step into college life and then into the work world? Let's face it, unless you go into theater, it's a bit of a hard-knock life for the openly gay.

I'm not being callous to the very real and intolerable nasty treatment boys and girls who even simply appear to be GLBT are subjected to in high school; it's unacceptable--I used to freak out when any of my students even said "that's so gay" in my classroom--but I don't think "separate but equal" is the answer.

But before I get to that, doesn't such an endeavor put an eighth grader in the precarious position of coming out to his or her family before he or she is even sure of themselves? How, exactly, do you tell your parents you want to attend the Pride campus rather than your neighborhood school? And what do you tell your friends?

What about the kids who don't want to or aren't ready to declare themselves? This feel-good initiative effectively leaves them stuck in the same unfriendly environment that spurred such a specialized school in the first place.

And what kind of security measures will these students have working for them? I can easily imagine their facility being the target of vicious attacks from the same sort of people who'd make life unbearable at a mainstream school. Fevered attempts to get anyone to talk to me about these concerns were fruitless.

So, am I the only one thinking that red flags would go up if CPS designed an illegal immigrant student high school, or a wheelchair-bound student school? I don't think that the distinct learning styles in males vs. females--making single-sex education a vital learning environment--quite applies here.

"I've heard those arguments over and over again; many of them are valid," Tania Unzueta, a Latina GLTB activist who works as support to "Homofrecuencia," a Latino GLTB radio show airing on Pilsen-based Radio Arte told me. "But these are the same arguments against ethnically-based schools like African-American colleges, it's just we're not used to hearing gay positive news."

"Besides what's the alternative? Do we continue to not have any resources for GLBT?" Tania asked me, making an excellent point. "From what I hear from the organizers, part of the project is to continue to do education and outreach to the rest of CPS schools, but I don't know whether that's actually going to happen or not."

I hate to be a naysayer but there are two types of people in the world: The type who, feeling marginalized by society, take their group and make a space for themselves outside the mainstream, and those who dig in and work to make themselves part of the mainstream through education, exposure and integration.

Neither choice is easy, and I don't want to judgmentally say that one is better than the other, but instead of a token, I'd much rather see a tour de force effort on the part of CPS and the GLBT community to make gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students comfortable, accepted and valued in all our high schools.

There is no reason why our history and literature curricula--just two examples--shouldn't be peppered with GLBT contributions and experiences just as we struggle to do so with women and minorities in required high school courses.

And there's no reason why our city's gay students should have to be separated from the rest of the educational community to have their educational and emotional needs met.