04/30/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Self-Segregation in LGBT-Specific Schools?

As of 2012 a new high school created specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students has opened its doors in Phoenix, Ariz., joining the ranks of a handful of such schools across the United States. Harvey Milk High School in New York City's East Village was one of the first high schools to cater to LGBT youth, starting in 1985 and becoming a fully accredited public school in 2002. Milwaukee, Wis. is home to the Alliance School, which was given the Charter School of the Year Platinum Award in 2011. Q High in Phoenix is now following suit.

While schools like Q High are certainly more welcoming of LGBT students than public schools might be, is the creation of such institutions pushing the gay rights movement back as opposed to moving it forward? Can't this be considered an example of segregation and a "separate but equal" mentality?

Consider that Harvey Milk enrolls around 80 students, while Q High can accommodate 25, with only 14 enrolled to date. That's not many peers to socialize with, which is an important facet of high school. This aspect is even more limited when you take into account that Q High has its students taking courses online during the day, operating as an Arizona Virtual Academy school. Is their youth center, with "coming out" classes, enough to bridge that socialization gap?

On the flip side, considering that many of the students enrolling in these LGBT-specific high schools might have dropped out of traditional public schools and had no alternatives without these options available to them, maybe having these educational alternatives does more good than harm. To be sure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states the following regarding the health of LGBT youth:

In a national study of middle and high school students, LGBT students (61.1%) were more likely than their non-LGBT peers to feel unsafe or uncomfortable as a result of their sexual orientation. LGBT students (over 25%) reported missing classes or days of school because of feeling unsafe in their school environment. Overall, the stresses experienced by LGBT youth also put them at greater risk for mental health problems, substance use, and physical health problems.

Furthermore, the CDC asserts that a "positive school climate has been associated with decreased depression, suicidal feelings, substance use, and unexcused school absences among LGBT students."

The easy answer is that, yes, a school environment made for LGBT students is going to be more accepting and easier to navigate in many ways than a non-specialized public high school. I am sure there are many adults within the LGBT community who wish they had had that option when in school themselves. But support groups -- gay-straight alliances and the like -- can oftentimes provide that net within the public school environments, offering not only a safe place for LGBT youth but an arena for the education of potential allies and other students, as well.

The CDC offers the following as ways in which all schools can "promote health and safety among LGBTQ youth":

  • Encourage respect for all students and prohibit bullying, harassment, and violence against all students.
  • Identify "safe spaces," such as counselors' offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations, where LGBTQ youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.
  • Encourage student-led and student-organized school clubs that promote a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment (e.g., gay-straight alliances, which are school clubs open to youth of all sexual orientations).
  • Ensure that health curricula or educational materials include HIV, other STD, or pregnancy prevention information that is relevant to LGBTQ youth; such as, ensuring that curricula or materials use inclusive language or terminology.
  • Encourage school district and school staff to develop and publicize trainings on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and encourage staff to attend these trainings.
  • Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience providing health services, including HIV/STD testing and counseling, to LGBTQ youth.
  • Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience in providing social and psychological services to LGBTQ youth.

Personally, I feel like the creation of these schools, while providing a harbor of safety for teens who have been bullied because of their sexual orientation, also sends a perplexing message to students at public schools that if administrators can't put an end to the intimidation and bullying based on sexuality, LGBT students will just leave. Instead of standing up and making schools incorporate better anti-bullying policies and educating students about being different, this is almost an easy way out. The message seems to be, "If you cannot accept us, we will form a separate space to learn," the bottom line being that public schools don't have to teach tolerance because there are other options out there for students who don't fit into the heteronormative status quo.

That did not move the civil rights movement forward, so why would it be any different for gay rights?