In the late 1970s to early 1980s openly gay students faced ridicule and abuse on a daily basis in their high schools, teachers and administration did nothing to defend them and often added to the torment. Homosexual teens were often viewed as inferior or sick by their heterosexual classmates.
This, to them, justified their anti-homosexual behavior which would get increasingly worse. This led to two outcomes in the late 1980’s: The Harvey Milk School of New York City, and the Gay Academic Union which was biggest in St. Louis.
The Harvey Milk School was founded by the Institute for the Protection of Gay and Lesbian Youth (IPGLY) and served to provide an alternative learning environment for students whose only other option was to drop out. The school was one classroom with two teachers and sheltered about a dozen students its first year in 1986.
The school was founded in honor of the late Harvey Milk, a New York native, who was the first openly gay government official when he served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Harvey Milk was an icon for gay rights, especially those for gay youth. He often reflected on his adolescence of hiding and wanted to provide a better life for the gay youth during his time in office. He is quoted saying this after two gay teens from Pennsylvania and Minnesota reached out to him, “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great…you have to give people hope.” He was a revolutionary hero for the teens deciding to come out.
When these teens did come out they were sometimes beaten and ridiculed to the point where leaving school was their last option. For those who did face this ultimatum, the Harvey Milk School provided a safe haven for them. It provided a comfortable learning environment and protected the students from abuse.
For gay youth who advanced into college the ridicule often continued, here the Gay Academic Union became prevalent. Originally founded in New York, it consisted of small groups at colleges across the nation. The GAU worked to promote better treatment for incoming and current gay students. The union consisted of mostly of students, but some teachers did try to help. The group raised awareness for how students are treated in the American education system.
There was often concern from professors who felt they would be fired or looked down upon for helping the cause: “I think Washington University was a more conservative community than Oberlin was, and probably, I don’t know, the tenured professors would have more protection. But I think they also perceived they had something to lose in the way of reputation” said student Jim Andres.
For this reason, the students trucked along without much help from the professors. This is also why it did not spread so quickly to other colleges and universities. Students who attempted to form committees and groups were told it was wrong, and you often needed a professor backing you which was hard to find when professors were scared of losing their jobs.
The Gay Academic Union was small, but it had big ideas. It provided a community for gay college students to meet and discuss issues. They worked together to end small problems such as homophobic faculty and brought homophobic classmates to be punished.
-Alex Burdo Feb. 25
Additionally, a classmate of mine wrote about violence in education in the decades prior
Andris, Jim. “Even Alexander the Great?” Pride St. Louis 1980. Accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.siue.edu/~jandris/Pride80/pride80s.html.
Andris, Jim. “Gay Academic Union—St. Louis.” GLTB History. Accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.siue.edu/~jandris/history/h80.15.html.
Dennis, Donna, and Ruth Harlow. “Gay Youth and the Right to Education.” Yale Law & Policy Review 4, no. 2, 446-78. Accessed February 17, 2015.
“Bringing People Hope: Harvey Milk and the Gay Rights Movement in America.” Tavaana. Accessed April 22, 2015. https://tavaana.org/en/content/bringing-people-hope-harvey-milk-and-gay-rights-movement-america-0.