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Teacher hopes Southeast's first LGBT school will be a haven

'School is not supposed to be a battleground,' says teacher who hopes to open Southeast's first LGBT school

Math teacher Christian Zsilavetz wants to work at a school where he can be himself — somewhere he can mention that he used to play girls basketball or was married to a man.

Last year, when he asked his then-principal at a private school whether he could come out as transgender to his elementary and middle school students, she told him that she thought it would cross the line between professional and personal.

But still, she encouraged him: Why don't you quit trying to fix other people's schools and start your own?

Zsilavetz hopes to open Pride School Atlanta this summer, the first school in the Southeast to focus on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex (born with both female and male characteristics) students.

If it opens in August, it will be one of the first LGBT schools in the nation to cater to students as early as pre-kindergarten. Zsilavetz, who has a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son, says the new school will be safe — not just for children, but for adults.

LGBT parents will no longer have to worry that their children might be teased for coming from an unconventional home. Teachers will be able to disclose whether they are gay, lesbian or transgender.

All students will be able to wear dresses or grow their hair, hold hands in the hallway or use whichever restroom they want without fear of harassment.

Many parents welcome the idea of a private LGBT school in Atlanta, the progressive hub of the Bible Belt and home to the largest gay and lesbian population in the Southeast. The question is whether enough will enroll their children so that the school can reach its modest goal of 10 to 15 students.

Although Georgia is one of 13 states with a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, many schools in Atlanta, and even in some suburban and rural areas, have made significant headway on LGBT issues.

Social attitudes are shifting across the state as students set up gay-straight alliances, take members of the same sex to prom, and petition for gender-neutral restrooms.

Unlike many other states, such as California and New York, Georgia has no statewide anti-bullying or nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBT students. Yet in recent years, 20 counties — covering 58% of the state's public students — have introduced policies that prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to Georgia Equality, the state's largest gay rights group.

Still, tensions remain.

According to a 2013 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which surveyed nearly 8,000 U.S. middle and high school students, more than a third of Georgia students reported being physically harassed and nearly a fifth reported being physically assaulted in the last year because of their sexual orientation.

Nearly all heard "gay" used in a negative way and 9 out of 10 heard homophobic slurs.

Across the U.S., more than half of LGBT students reported experiencing discriminatory practices, such as being disciplined for public displays of affection or prevented from using a preferred name or pronoun.

Faith Yewdall, 33, an Atlanta home schooler, cannot afford Pride's annual tuition of $12,000, but she hopes to sign up her 6-year-old son, Ziya, for some classes.

Last year, when she enrolled Ziya at a pre-kindergarten charter school, he was verbally and physically harassed by his classmates for having shoulder-length hair and carrying a My Little Pony backpack.

Administrators and teachers were supportive — the principal even wore Ziya's purple glasses to inspire tolerance — but the harassment continued. After two weeks, Ziya suggested that he cut his hair and buy a new backpack.

Yewdall pulled him out of school. "He shouldn't have to change to fit in," she said.

If Pride opens this year, it will join a handful of LGBT schools across the country. Many of these schools, like their students, face challenges.

The nation's first private gay high school, Walt Whitman Community School in Dallas, closed in 2004 after struggling with funding and accreditation. Harvey Milk High School in New York opened to much fanfare a decade ago as the first public LGBT school, but enrollment has plummeted in recent years from 100 students to 52.

Last year, the Alliance School in Milwaukee, a public charter that set up the first LGBT middle school in 2008, discontinued its sixth- through eighth-grade programs after state budget cuts.

Some experts are uneasy about the idea of separate LGBT schools.

"In general, I'm not in favor of separate but equal," said Ritch Savin-Williams, a developmental psychology professor and director of the Sex & Gender Lab at Cornell University.

In an ideal world, he argued, students would be integrating, negotiating friendships and learning how to resolve differences. "I don't want to sacrifice kids to make a political point," he said. "I just hate to let public schools off the hook. That's the dilemma."

In Atlanta, many parents balk at the idea of an LGBT elementary and middle school. For some, the issue is cost or the school's lack of accreditation. Others say they have not experienced significant setbacks or prefer to strive for wider acceptance in the public system.

"Sending them to a LGBT school is not really setting them up for the real world," said Kevin Payne-Owens, 38, a gay Atlanta hair stylist whose 12-year-old daughter, Marissa, attends a charter school. "I want her to be exposed to everything."

So far, Payne-Owens had encountered only one problem: In pre-kindergarten, a classmate told Marissa that her family was not a family in the biblical sense. Other than that, everyone had been accepting.

Separate schools raise questions about how students resolve differences and develop resilience, said Emily Brown, a field officer for Georgia Equality. She welcomes Pride as a temporary option rather than a permanent solution to prejudice and discrimination in public schools.

Although the South gets a bad rap, problems are rarely caused by hate or mean-spiritedness, Brown said. Some issues, such as gender-neutral restrooms, are so new that administrators are unsure how to respond.

Still, there is disagreement on how far schools should go to enforce tolerance. Most experts agree that students who physically harass or assault others should be reprimanded, but some question how much teachers and administrators should police language in playgrounds, locker rooms and hallways.

"We're never going to get rid of the word 'fatty,'" Savin-Williams said. "'That's so gay' is still there in kids' lexicon. Cruel words are thrown out, but it's not the same thing as being physically assaulted or threatened."

Although schools should work to create a more open and tolerant environment, no school is 100% safe, and children can learn to distinguish between discomfort and danger, Savin-Williams argued. Even in the most supportive environment there will be conflict.

Zsilavetz, however, is tired of feeling that he enables a broken system. He wants to make sure his own children never feel uncomfortable because they come from an atypical family. By offering an accepting space to an underserved, harassed population, he hopes students can take comfort from those with similar experiences.

"School is not supposed to be a battleground or full representation of the real world," he said. "There's a reason why schools lock their doors and keep strangers out."

nation@latimes.com

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