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New York Daily News Sports logo

Harvey Milk students parade with placards
Harvey Milk, the nation's first gay high school, is the subject of support and the object of protest. But the East Village school is not backing down on trying to offer sports to its students
© 2003, New York Daily News, NYC, USA

September 27, 2003

Gay high school
eyes level field

By MICHAEL O'KEEFFE
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Harvey Milk wants to establish sports teams
in PSAL by next year

Like thousands of New York City kids, Kimberly Howard loves basketball and dreams of playing on her high school team. The softspoken 17-year-old sips on a Sprite in a downtown Starbucks and talks about practicing with her brothers and sister on the court next to her Queens home.
       "I played on teams when I was younger," says Howard. "But I've never had a chance to play on a high school team."
       Howard acknowledges she's not just a typical kid obsessed with hoops. Born male, Howard takes hormones to become female, which, as she points out, raises a unique question:
       "Will transgender students be able to play on the girls' teams?"
       PSAL officials might have to answer that question soon: Howard's school, Harvey Milk High, the nation's first state-accredited school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, hopes to field teams in the city's Public Schools Athletic League as soon as September 2004, according to assistant principal Alan Nolan.
       "Eventually we need to be part of the PSAL," says Nolan, who is just getting a physical education program started at Harvey Milk. "There's a great interest from the students in competing in basketball, volleyball and other sports."
       Gay advocates cheer Harvey Milk's decision and say the school's sports teams will help do for homosexual high school kids what Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans 50 years ago - break down barriers.
       "What a great lesson it would be for a Harvey Milk kid to turn around and hit a three-point shot at the buzzer," says Cyd Zeigler of Outsports.com, a gay-oriented sports website. "Once you get on the field and you see someone kick a field goal or make a great catch, nothing else matters. Other kids will learn they're a lot more like them than they thought."
       "When you see a bunch of kids playing basketball, it doesn't matter if they are black or white," agrees author and activist Billy Bean, who came out after playing outfield and first base with the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres from 1987 to 1995. "If you can play, you're accepted."
       Nolan says Harvey Milk officials aren't interested in pushing gay pride or any other agenda; they simply want to give their students the same opportunities available to other city school kids, including offering a supportive environment to learn the teamwork, discipline and sense of achievement that sports can teach.
       Nolan welcomes the interest; he says the school will need help with funding, coaching and facilities. "There's a lot of goodwill outside the school we will tap into," he says. "I'm confident we'll get the help we will need."
       Like Jackie Robinson, the athletes at the nation's first openly gay high school will have to be thick-skinned - gay-bashing protesters came from as far away as California for Harvey Milk's first day of classes - and Cardozo basketball coach Ron Naclerio foresees parent protests and thinks some teams might even choose to forfeit games with a gay team.
       "They better have good security," adds basketball recruiting expert Tom Konchalski. "They will take a tremendous amount of abuse from fans."
       But other high school sports officials predict the controversy will fade quickly - and perhaps, they add, turn into acceptance, or at least a reluctant respect.
       "All children, regardless of orientation, should be able to participate in athletics," says Martin Jacobson, the athletic director at Manhattan's Martin Luther King High School. "I would hope that a coach would use a game against a team from a gay high school as an opportunity to teach tolerance."
       Harvey Milk High, founded in 1985 by the non-profit Hetrick-Martin Institute, received $3.2 million from the city Department of Education this summer to fund its transformation from a two-room program with 50 students to a full-fledged high school that will ultimately accommodate 170 kids. Nolan says 107 students are currently enrolled.
       Hetrick-Martin spokeswoman Lenette Dorman declined to discuss plans for sports teams with the Daily News, saying school officials have been overwhelmed by the intensive press scrutiny and are wary of critical coverage.
       But Nolan, in his first year as assistant principal at the East Village school, agreed to discuss the physical education curriculum he's developed and future plans for athletics.
       Now that it's a state-accredited school, Harvey Milk students are required to pass health and physical education classes, Nolan says. School officials hope to use another downtown high school or college gym for volleyball and hoops; until then, they'll continue to clear the furniture from a class room where they'll conduct aerobics, yoga and martial arts classes.
       "Right now, we're adapting to the fact there is no gym," Nolan says.
       Harvey Milk caters to students who have been emotionally or physically abused at other schools, where locker rooms and gyms are prime real estate for bullies. For many Harvey Milk kids, gym was a class to cut. Howard says the phys ed teacher at her old school told her she didn't have to come to class. "It was like, 'We'll excuse you because you're gay,'" Howard says. "'You don't even have to show up.'"
       As a result, many of Harvey Milk's students were gasping for air during their first phys ed classes, and Nolan says his students still complain that he's too hard on them. But he's delighted that those same kids are walking with a newfound swagger. "Their level of fitness has increased tremendously in three weeks," he says. "They have strength and flexibility they never had before. They're very proud of it."
       A student advisory group has urged administrators to expand the curriculum to include outdoor activities such as camping, orienteering and kayaking, Nolan says. The students also want intramural sports, and eventually hope to field teams that will compete against other schools. According to Dorman, several students have expressed interest in attending Harvey Milk but were reluctant to leave the sports teams they currently play on.
       Like any other school petitioning the PSAL to compete in a new sport, Harvey Milk administrators will have to line up coaches, practice and playing facilities, and funding for uniforms and other gear. They'll also need to prove they have enough interested and eligible students to field a team.
       First-year squads in the PSAL start out as "developmental" teams that play abbreviated schedules. If there are no major problems at the end of the first season - forfeited games or financial problems, for example - they're permitted to join the PSAL conference as a full member the following season.
       But while Harvey Milk may be ready for sports, it's still unclear whether sports is ready for Harvey Milk. Homosexuality is a non-issue for many people in business, entertainment, and politics - even mainstream churches have accepted gays into leadership positions.
       And a handful of pro teams - including the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA - openly welcome gay fans, and there are many gay athletes competing in individual sports. But in many other ways, there is no room in the wide world of sports for gay athletes.
       Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and the NHL have never had an openly gay player, and there is a long list of sports figures - Jeremy Shockey, John Rocker, Todd Jones, Reggie White, Sterling Sharpe and Garrison Hearst, to name a few - who have embarrassed their leagues and teams with anti-gay comments. Slurs get passed around clubhouses and practice fields like bottles of Gatorade.
       "My coach once said 'You all played like faggots, except for Esera," says Esera Tuaolo, the former NFL defensive tackle who made his sexual orientation public last fall. "I thought, 'If only you knew.' The further I went into the closet, the further I fell into depression."
       Homophobia is especially prevalent at the high school level, says Dan Woog, the soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., and the author of several books about gay issues in sports. Kids want to fit in with the crowd; they don't want to be ostracized for being different, he says, and athletes who have gay feelings or are not sure of their own sexuality are often the biggest homophobes.
       "The number of gay athletes in high school sports is thought to be low, but I've always thought it was 10%, just like in other parts of life," says Woog.
       The pressure is tremendous: Gay students are three times more likely to attempt suicide than other kids, according to the National Mental Health Association, and have much higher dropout rates. The pressure to stay in the closet, Woog says, contributes to substance abuse and emotional turmoil.
       "You live in two worlds, and you can't be fully part of either one," he says. "You're not the best athlete you can be. You're not the best human you can be."
       Nolan hopes Harvey Milk sports will offer a small refuge from all that. "Why can't we offer the same opportunities to everyone?" he asks. "When will we do away with our sense of drama. We have to rise above this for the sake of these children.
       "It's time we in America opened up our minds and hearts."