Lesbian and gay youth are sometimes called names, humiliated and even beat up in high school simply for being different. In most cases, these abused teens have only two options: live with it or drop out.
But a one-of-a-kind school in the heart of the Bible belt now provides a third choice — an education with dignity and respect for individualism.
Last September, Walt Whitman Community School in Dallas, the first private school in the country for students dealing with lesbian and gay issues, opened for business.
The founders of the school, which was only in planning a few months before opening, are calling the school a success and say they are financially stable even though they are collecting only a fraction of the tuition expected.
Becky Thompson, who is a lesbian, co-founded the school with Pamala Stone, who is straight. Thompson had been a teacher at a private high school in a Dallas suburb for 12 years, and Stone had been at the same school for about 20 years. They were both ready for something different.
“Pamala said something about a school for gays and lesbians and I kind of chuckled,” Thompson said.
When they researched the situation and found how many lesbian and gay teens are badly treated in school, Thompson knew she had to do something.
Stone’s first comment about starting the school was in May. She and Thompson announced in July that classes would begin in the fall.
“If I had that to do over again, I’d do that very differently,” Thompson said. She and Stone could have spent the summer looking for grants and other funding, Thompson said.
When they announced the $7,000 per semester tuition rate at Walt Whitman, they knew not all students would have parents who could pay the full amount, but they said they thought some would. They also expected some to acquire the tuition from outside sources.
“I don’t think we assumed this was an easy thing, but I don’t think we went into this as business people,” Thompson said.
On September 2, Walt Whitman Community School opened with seven students. By the following Monday, there were eight. Before the semester ended, the student count reached fourteen.
Not one of the students pays full tuition.
Stone and Thompson found that few of the students had the encouragement of their parents, but the ones who did still could not provide the full tuition.
The school has raised money through one very successful fundraiser as well as by collecting private monetary donations. Textbooks for some classes have been donated, and they also received donated supplies like paper and pencils.
Cathedral of Hope, the largest predominately lesbian and gay church in the world, provides their meeting center to the school for free every school day.
Because of the free rent and donated supplies the school is surviving, but a large percentage of the school’s resources come from donations. (A similar school in New York and one in Los Angeles — the only other lesbian and gay high schools in the country — are publicly funded.) Walt Whitman still needs more help.
Thompson said monetary donations are not only a financial necessity, but they provide some validation — proof that some in the community support the school. That is a message she said she does not always hear clearly.
“I feel there’s support and yet I feel there’s caution in the support,” she said. “A lot of things have come and gone in the lesbian and gay community and I think we’ll have to exist for a while before people trust that we will indeed be here for a while.”
Mickey Roby, a bisexual whose mother is a lesbian, was one of the first students to enroll at Walt Whitman. She suggested it to her mother.
“I was sort of scared about it in the beginning because I didn’t know if the school would fly, but I wanted to be there if it did,” Roby said. “It’s flying high now.”
Robert Headrick said he likes the school because of the diversity and the self-paced classes.
“You have friends all around you — different types of people,” he said. “And you mainly work at your own level, which is good for some of us.”
Headrick, a 16 year-old freshman, is Walt Whitman’s only straight student. Like Roby, his mother is a lesbian. When students at his previous school found out about his mother, he got into fights and suffered other forms of abuse.
“I support my mom, but I don’t want that type of punishment for what she is,” Headrick said.
He also said that at traditional schools, teachers didn’t offer enough help for him. “Teachers are too busy helping someone else or just not even caring,” he said.
In addition to the individual attention the school offers its students, Roby and Headrick said the school allows them to be individuals.
“We have freedom to say what we want and do what we want without being worried about what the teachers are going to say or if we’re going to get in trouble,” Roby said.
The school’s founders say they have created a school that works by valuing the students and their education — and by offering a school that doesn’t chastise students for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or for having a gay parent.
And perhaps just as importantly, the school is successful because the students like it.
“They like it as an alternative to where they’ve been or what they’ve been avoiding,” Thompson said.