In an unassuming office building toting ombré shades of concrete in lower Manhattan, one of the city’s little known gems is hiding coyly. When you enter the building, a doorman will ask kindly but firmly what your business is here. Once you’ve answered, you’ll head up to the third floor where the elevator doors slide noiselessly open to reveal a world of color and energy thanks to the kaleidoscopic murals covering the walls. In between them sits three inspirational posters: one with pictures of famous LGBTQ figures in history (James Baldwin, Harvey Milk, Audre Lorde), one emblazoned with the words RESPECT FOR ALL, and a third that simply has the word BULLY in big red letters crossed out with a thick red line. Tall, rainbow letters above the elevators spell the words “Harvey Milk High School.”
The Harvey Milk High School (HMHS) is not, contrary to popular wisdom, a school only for LGBTQ kids. It’s a transfer school, one of many that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) sustains across the five boroughs. According to the DOE’s website, these schools aim to “re-engage students who have dropped out or fallen behind in credits.” Still, HMHS is different. While the school has cis-hetero students, it is by and large a place for LGBTQ students who have been unsuccessful in traditional frameworks as a result of homophobia, transphobia, or other forms of aggression and bullying. It’s a haven that specializes in maintaining a safe space for marginalized students—a silver lining to what can seem like an endless dark cloud.
“We’re open to all students,” Ashley Graffeo, HMHS’s history teacher, tells GO, “but typically we’re well known for how we work with our LGBTQ students.”
HMHS began operating as part of the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), an after-school program geared at uplifting and furthering the education of disempowered youth, back in 1985. For nearly two decades, it ran as a small, two classroom program with a dozen or so students. In 2002, it finally became fully accredited as part of the NYC school system. Since then, HMHS has expanded its ranks, although it remains a relatively small and intimate framework. It shares classrooms with HMI and is home to 80 or so students from across the city who want a chance to study in a safe place.
These numbers allow the students and faculty to get to know one another well and to support one another to a large degree.
“I think something that’s super cool about our school and unique about our community is that we all really like each other,” Graffeo tells GO. “All of us are different teachers, all of us are different educators, [but] every single one of us has the same goal in mind and […] it might sound cheesy, but we’re family here.”
Natalie Velazquez, Graffeo’s colleague who teaches Social Studies, chimed in, “If you’re an ally, you’re cool.”
This isn’t to say that the HMHS world is without challenges. The teachers are tasked with creating a stimulating and safe environment for a student body that is marginalized in a plethora of continuously intersecting ways. A whopping 91% of the students are people of color. They are also overwhelmingly LGBTQ identified. Many live in poverty, some are in foster care. They’ve all experienced severe discrimination that has restricted their learning thus far.
Graffeo says that she remembers “students that if you looked at their attendance records they maybe went to school ten days out of the year and then they came here and they went every single day.”
And that’s not just the view of one teacher; the statistics show that this is, indeed, the case. According to the DOE, 94% of students at HMHS “know that their teacher wants them to learn,” as opposed to the citywide average of 88%, and 92% of students say that they “learn a lot from feedback on their work,” while the citywide average in this category is only 80%.
On a floor-to-ceiling poster in the hallway, seniors had posted their post-graduation aspirations. “I’ll be going to college to make my mom proud,” says one. “I would like to work in a daycare helping children,” says another. “I’m planning to major in business so someday I can own a successful business,” says a third.
These achievements aren’t attained by magic or luck; teachers, administrators, social workers, counselors, and students all work together to create a reality rife with opportunity. Velazquez and Graffeo spoke at length of Principal Daphne Perrini’s vision for and dedication to the students at HMHS.
“Part of our school mission is that we want to provide kids with a rigorous academic setting, and that was one of the big focuses that Daphne ushered in,” Graffeo tells GO, adding that the faculty are “making an experience where students who have traditionally not been successful in other schools are gonna come here and find success and fun is, I think, a big part of that. They should enjoy their time while they’re here.”
Creating an ambitious academic environment while maintaining a sense of fun can be a hard thing to do. To this end, the entire faculty engages in bi-weekly enrichment sessions. Perrini encourages teachers to step outside of their comfort zones and to regularly check in with students about their learning experience, both in terms of methodology and curriculum material.
“I think that Ashley and I, in particular, have a challenge in front of us in that we have to prepare the kids for the state exams,” says Velazquez. “There are no questions on the state exams about LGBTQ history. So we have to make some hard decisions about where we’re gonna spend our time. Ashley is looking for ways where she can include LGBTQ history, but the main focus is probably something else and LGBTQ is kind of tacked on.”
Graffeo nodded in agreement, adding, “I mean, the only time that it’s in our curriculum would be the Holocaust. That’s the only time that we would specifically identify gay people being targeted. Stonewall. The ’60s and ’70s. The AIDS crisis in the ’80s. I mean, it’s not touched on in the curriculum whatsoever.”
Both teachers said that they know of plans to make changes in the DOE’s curriculum outlines, but these have not yet been implemented. For now, adding material about people of color, LGBTQ history, or anything non-eurocentric is in the hands of individual educators. At HMHS, this can mean including discussions about Supreme Court cases that pertain to LGBTQ history, like the Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission or Snyder v. Phelps.
It also means supporting student-led initiatives. According to Graffeo and Velazquez, as long as the students can find an adult to facilitate their plan, the staff will find a way to make it happen.
“We did the AIDS walk because they kids wanted to do that!” says Velazquez. Graffeo jumps in, adding, “We’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”
Other initiatives include book clubs, gaming clubs, and Music Monday, a weekly tradition of playing music chosen by students in place of the regular school bells.
Angelica Torres is an actress, model, and proud graduate of the Harvey Milk High School. She lives in Brooklyn and works on productions across NYC, most recently on the second season of Pose, FX’s popular drama series that explores the world of ballroom culture in 1980’s New York. Torres told me that she was born and raised in Harlem “in a household that was just not prepared or willing to accept that they had a trans child.” She attended Catholic school for grades 1-8 but was unable to be a good student because of the incessant bullying, harassment, and physical peril she endured due to being male presenting and effeminate. When she was 13, with no other solution in sight, she attempted suicide for the first time. The doctor assigned to her case in the hospital told her about the Harvey Milk High School and, with support from her biological family, she applied and was accepted.
“It was a blessing in disguise really,” she tells GO, choking back tears. “I’m just very grateful. Even though the gift came with a lot of baggage and a lot of pain, it led me to my bigger purpose in life. And it led me to my community. And it inspired me to be an advocate and an ally for my community.”
Beginning studies at HMHS didn’t solve everything, of course. Torres would endure years of rejection from her biological family who told her frequently “that I was embarrassing them being who I was.” She would go through periods of homelessness and fear and pain. But, throughout all of these trials, the staff at HMHS and HMI provided support, advice, and resources. The second time she was homeless, her case manager referred her to a non-profit called The Reciprocity Foundation, where she was able to form a community of all kinds of people (cis, trans, lesbians, gay men, etc).
“The two co-founders, Adam and Taz, I call them my surrogate parents because they’ve always been there for me,” says Torres.
She would go on to excel in school—so much so that she graduated a year early when she was 17 years old before going to college. These days, Torres is active on the programming committee at Harvey Milk High School and is a vocal advocate for the trans and queer community. She bubbles with passion about supporting those who may need guidance, assistance, or just someone to speak on their behalf. It’s also an opportunity to give back to a framework that, she says, “really saved my life. They were some of the first people that told me, ‘You know, you have a voice.’”
The Harvey Milk High School has not always been widely popular. In 2003, the New York Times wrote that, “The city should never suggest that the solution to problems of discrimination and persecution of students who are perceived as different is to segregate them from the rest of the population.” This claim, that the HMHS is a way of sweeping a discrimination problem under the rug, still proved popular among cisgendered, heterosexual people who I told about this piece.
Around the same time, the school was subject to horrific protests and a massive lawsuit from right-wing evangelical leaders. The lawsuit aimed to dismantle the whole framework on the grounds that, by creating a space geared towards LGBTQ students, it was violating sexual bias laws. Basically, they were claiming that school was discriminating against cis-hetero kids.
When I asked Velazquez and Graffeo about these criticisms, they immediately became animated in their responses.
“I feel like this school has been a beacon of light if you will,” says Velazquez, “and, because we know their names and because we know their stories, they’re able to go out and share their stories with other schools. It’s not like those schools don’t have to deal with it now ‘cause we’re gonna house all of this population in one building. That’s not it.”
Graffeo nodded emphatically. “Listen,” she says, “I think in a perfect world you don’t need a school that is a safe space, because every place should be safe for all students to learn in an equitable way. But, in our reality, that’s not always true, and so we’re here for our students.”
Torres agrees. “They’re coming from a place of privilege,” she says when I asked her about the backlash. “They do not know what it is like for a young trans person to go to your average everyday high school and to walk in and you feel like you are the odd person out. You feel like you’re a thorn in a sea of roses. You have no idea how much of a blessing it is to have a place like Harvey Milk to go to, to be comfortable and just to get an education and feel safe at the same time.”
In a world that remains stubbornly imperfect, the Harvey Milk High School is a breath of fresh air. A space where obstacles are recognized for what they are: barriers that can be overcome with enough teamwork, love, support, and innovation. Maybe one day all schools will be safe spaces for kids of all kinds. Until then, we have Harvey Milk High School.