School's Out

New York's Harvey Milk High School, named after the slain politician, is the first LBGT educational institution. Felipe Tewes meets this year's graduating class.

It is not every high school graduation that each and every keynote speaker breaks into tears at the podium. The ceremony for the Harvey Milk High School class of 2008 was a truly emotional experience for the two hundred and fifty crowding the McGraw-Hill auditorium in midtown Manhattan. As the eighteen students from the school’s fifth graduating class strutted across the stage—beauty pageant wave expertly executed –everyone present was keenly aware of the great struggle both the students and the school have endured. The Harvey Milk High School (HMHS) was originally a small GED retrieval school founded in 1985 by the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a gay-rights youth advocacy group. Rumor has it that the students themselves chose to name it after the slain San Francisco city supervisor. Upon its expansion in 2002 into a four-year accredited NYC Department of Education high school, the school faced criticism for being an exclusively “gay high school” – in reality it was, and remains, a safe space for students regardless of sexual orientation. Five years later, out of the spotlight, the school persists as a safe haven for youth at risk shut out of their home communities, and draws a population primarily from low-income and minority backgrounds (44% of the population at Hetrick-Martin and HMHS is African-American, and 52% Hispanic; almost all live at or below the poverty line; 9% of the students are transgender). On-site facilities include a heavily used pantry stocked with toiletries and donated clothes, and a hot meal is provided each evening (a number of the over 1,000 youth Hetrick-Martin serves are homeless or in transitory housing, including foster care and group homes). Due to the special needs of its students, the school and institute, which share a symbiotic relationship, pay great attention to non-academic factors that affect student performance. Issues of bullying, emotional and mental health, family, and finances are all taken very seriously.

It takes one look at the eighteen urban African-American and Latino youth lined up across the stage to grasp the scope and ripple effect of Harvey Milk’s legacy. The San Francisco youth gathered in Milk’s photo shop in the Castro district would surely not have envisioned the popular biweekly “voguing” competitions hosted in the cafeteria of his namesake high school. Behind the playful moments –the closing performance of Hairpsray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” a high-octane instance –everyone is quick to recognize that these students would not have reached graduation without Hetrick-Martin and HMHS. Evidence of the bold decisions these young students faced lies in the multiple families not present at the ceremony. Thomas Krever, Executive Director of Hetrick-Martin, praised the students’ courage in transferring to HMHS when “[they] thought society had given up on [them].” Graduation speaker Ryan De Los Reyes echoed this sentiment that this was his and fellow classmates’ “last chance at high school” as they “did not feel comfortable” at their previous schools and could not be themselves. A testament to the students’ atypical open-mindedness and appreciation for individuality, De Los Reyes caps his speech with an a cappella rendering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and it is greeted by a standing ovation.

Harvey Milk’s message of self-empowerment in the face of adversity, in particular for youth, was loud and clear at the graduation. Former principal Daniel Rossi expressed a very personal message to the class, encouraging them to find the “seed” inside themselves and “let it grow.” Even William F. Oldsey, EVP of McGraw-Hill Education, became emotional as he asked students to trust their instincts and avoid an “over-reliance on advice.” He asked the class to challenge thoughts typically expressed at graduation – that life is not fair, that it will only get more difficult – offering instead, as Milk did so famously, an inspired message of hope, that “life can be wonderful” and that the students should take pride in what they have accomplished. Perhaps the truest homage to Milk’s legacy at the school was the insistence on the students’ ability and responsibility to bring about social change. The students’ post-graduation aspirations vary from social work to the arts, but they all stepped out of the auditorium, degree clutched tightly, empowered and boldly themselves. It is this courageous visibility in the face of hardship, which Milk called for, that marks the Harvey Milk High School’s students’ first step towards empowering others to follow.

Meet the Harvey Milk High School Class of 2008

Bronx native Carlos Diaz, awarded the HMHS Perseverance Award, was handed a flyer on Harvey Milk High School by administration during difficult times at his former school and at home. In his new environment, Diaz slowly grew “comfortable with himself,” giving much credit to his English professor for his growth. HMHS and Hetrick-Martin have allowed him to maintain self-motivation, and the staff and his classmates “are a constant source of inspiration.” When asked what he associates with the historical figure of Harvey Milk, Carlos describes him as “powerful” and “motivated.” People, he says, “believed they could get rid of him, but now he has a high school named after him,” noting Milk’s legacy in spite of – or perhaps due to – opposition. Inspired by the resources offered to him and the difficulty he has seen those around him face, Carlos hopes to eventually create a full service housing facility for homeless youth. “Everyone can make a difference in society,” Carlos states. “It just takes time, because people grow and change.”

Described by her advisors as curious and dynamic, Marta Nolasco found herself unexpectedly at Harvey Milk High School.  Due to a difficult circumstance with an ex-boyfriend at school, Marta’s father encouraged her to request a “safety transfer” out of her Brooklyn school to HMHS. Marta does not identify as LGBT and dedicates her free time to her church and its activities, declaring that God is her greatest influence. While other students at the school may fall far from Marta on the religious spectrum, she describes the school as a “free environment” and notes that classmates have always respected her beliefs, such as praying before each meal at the school cafeteria. Due to their experiences, she suggests, perhaps her fellow HMHS students are acutely aware of allowing everyone to be himself or herself. Harvey Milk himself, Marta says, “accepted who he was, regardless of whether others accepted him,” and as a result remained always a “strong person who tried to achieve his goals.” Marta expresses her own hope in today’s youth and in their power to have an impact. After graduation, she will continue volunteering with her church, including on missions abroad.

Self-described “Nuyorican” Rafael Torres was lured to HMHS by the promise of an open environment, though he does not describe his home school environment as harmful – he simply felt like the “token gay,” with no exposure to “gay culture.” He recognizes that other classmates were “beat up” and “picked on” at their home schools, but everyone “was looking for a chance to get a new start so they could succeed in life.” Faced with having to repeat grades at his home school, Torres was lured by HMHS’s flexible program of half-credits and school credit for jobs and internships, designed to facilitate obtaining a high school degree for students that are at risk of dropping out. Once at HMHS, he admits he “grew a lot more comfortable with [him]self.” Whereas he now describes himself as “very feminine,” at his old school he felt the need to act “butch-y” and have a “goth” look and a “hate life perspective.” Rafael now even experiments with drag, excitedly sharing photos of him as “Lilith,” for which he won the Realness award during Trans Week at Hetrick-Martin. At HMHS and Hetrick-Martin, he has experienced firsthand, “people can be who they are without fear of criticism,” and are “empowered” as a result. Torres’ grades slowly improved and he became an active student leader, serving on the Hetrick-Martin Youth Advisory Board and performing in the Pop Arts theatre group. Torres sees Milk’s message as well as the Hetrick-Martin and HMHS’s (where there are now “a lot of straight kids”) missions as broader than LGBT issues, describing Milk as a “gay MLK” who “[did not] want any discrimination.” Torres hopes to develop a career in digital music production and would like to create a “musically-oriented” Hetrick-Martin that “finds kids that have talent and gives them the resources.” Ultimately, he “knows how lucky [he] is” and is “very proud” of his time at HMHS, stating “I do not think I would be same person if I hadn’t come here.”

To find out more about the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Harvey Milk High School, visit Hetrick-Martin offers programs open to the public ranging from arts and culture (performance groups, events), academic (GED preparation, tutoring), job readiness (resume-building), to health and wellness (on-site HIV testing, sexual education).