Milk is big man on campus -- and now they know why

Gay students who attend this cozy third-floor Greenwich Village high school did not live through the launch of the national gay rights movement, which unfolded a few blocks away, and until recently many knew little about the man their school was named after: Harvey Milk.

But the new movie “Milk,” on the life of one of the first openly gay politicians to hold office in the United States, has given students at the nation’s first public school dedicated to teaching gay, lesbian and transgender youths a glimpse into the leader’s legacy, connecting them to a history many never knew.

“When it finished, I just felt so proud that I go to his school,” said Matthew “Matty” Agostini, 18, who watched an advance screening with classmates from Harvey Milk High School. “After he died, when they showed the people marching and there was a long line of people holding candles, I remember thinking if I was there, I would have been walking too.”


Orville Bell, a teacher at the school, said after watching the movie, “I almost felt like screaming into the audience, ‘I teach at that school!’ ”

Harvey Milk High School opened more than two decades ago as a privately funded program. In 2003, the New York City Board of Education expanded public funding to the campus and doubled its enrollment. Nearly 100 students now attend, including a few straight students, although most are gay and transferred from campuses where they faced discrimination and harassment because of their sexuality.

Harvey Milk was born and raised in New York. He was elected a San Francisco supervisor in 1977 and is widely known for his successful battle against Proposition 6, a statewide measure that would have banned gays from teaching in California public schools. Milk was assassinated in 1978 at San Francisco City Hall by another supervisor who had resigned, Dan White.

“I’m glad the film has come now for students to see the man and what he fought for,” Bell said. “It really showed a man who sacrificed for me, and for them.”

Bell, a teacher in public schools for 30 years, recalled the 1970s and ‘80s, when he worked in Maryland and did not feel safe enough to reveal to colleagues that he was gay. “I remember very clearly playing the game, saying, ‘Yes, I had a girlfriend, and we were planning to get married.’ It was all a sham.”

The current generation of gays, he said, does not face the same stigmas. They see gay leaders holding public offices, widely portrayed in the media and working in the political and corporate worlds. It may be hard for them to realize there was a time when people could get arrested or fired from their jobs for being gay.

The Stonewall riots, widely considered the birth of the gay rights movement, erupted not far from Milk High in the summer of 1969. When police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, the patrons fought back.

Although students may feel more comfortable coming out today, the battle lines over gay rights have grown more ferocious, according to Tanya Koifman, a social worker at the school.

“Of course things have changed since the 1970s,” Koifman said. “But there is a major civil rights struggle we are living through right now. [Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] people do not have the same rights in terms of marriage, in terms of adoption. We have a very long way to go.”

Even with strides, remnants of the discrimination that people like Milk and Bell faced still linger, school officials say, and that is why they need safe and supportive environments.

Last year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network unveiled its National School Climate Survey. Of the 6,209 gay middle and high school students polled, about 90% said they had been harassed and 60% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

Although other cities have considered models similar to the Harvey Milk campus, there has been resistance to the idea.

Last month the Chicago Board of Education dropped plans to open the city’s first public high school for gay and lesbian students after Mayor Richard M. Daley questioned whether it would isolate children.

But Hannah Devane, 17, a student at Harvey Milk, said mainstream schools failed her. She felt alienated and became so depressed, Devane said, she didn’t get out of bed in the mornings. She stopped attending classes.

When Devane was 13, she heard about the Harvey Milk school in the news and decided to ask her counselor to help her transfer.

“Coming here changed my life,” she said. “Now, I’m an A student.”

Christopher Vega, 18, transferred to the school two years ago after feeling he didn’t fit in at his old campus. His grades had plummeted, and he didn’t know whether he would make it to graduation. His counselor recommended Harvey Milk High. Now, he’s on track to graduate and attend college.

Recently he went to see the film, curious about the individual behind his school’s name.

“Sitting in the audience, I felt like I was there, and now I’m living through what he fought for,” Vega said. “He’s like our Martin Luther King.”