Does the South Need an LGBT School?

One Atlanta educator is trying to start a school for LGBT students, teachers, and families.

02.24.15 10:25 AM ET

When transgender school teacher Christian Zsilavetz moved to Atlanta a few years ago, he was nervous about his career prospects despite the city’s reputation as an LGBT oasis in the South.

“It was really daunting moving to Georgia as a trans guy,” Zsilavetz tells me. “I can’t afford to be dropped into some random school, not having any idea what’s going to happen if I’m outed or choose to be out.”

Before coming to Atlanta—and before his transition—Zsilavetz worked as a middle and high school teacher in Seattle. In 2006, he temporarily quit teaching and transitioned to male in the more clandestine occupation of limousine driver. Two years later, after testosterone had done its work, he returned to the classroom and largely left his past out of his profession.

But now, Zsilavetz is spearheading an effort to create Pride School Atlanta (PSA), the first school in the area for LGBT and allied students, teachers, and families. Zsilavetz hopes to launch the small nonprofit school in August with full-time tuition set at around $12,000, with lower price points available for part-time homeschoolers. The mission statement promises “a safe and fun learning environment, free of homophobia and transphobia—a place that honors [students’] identities so they can be themselves.”

If it launches as planned, PSA would join a mere handful of schools in the U.S. designed to be safe spaces for LGBT students, including Harvey Milk High School in New York and The Alliance School in Milwaukee. And if it proves to be successful, PSA could become the first school of its kind to thrive in the South—Walt Whitman Community School in Dallas only managed to stay open from 1997 to 2004 before its funding was withdrawn. Unlike these other schools, PSA will launch with a focus on children in grades Pre-K to 8 with an eye toward expansion.

In fact, it was Zsilavetz’s youngest family members that motivated him to take up the task of launching an LGBT school. Now a married man with two children, ages 6 and 3, Zsilavetz realizes the importance of placing them in a school “where it’s OK for their dad to be trans.” When he told his supervisor at a private school in Atlanta that he would like to come out to the students before his 5-year-old outed him, she reportedly replied: “I’d rather it didn’t come from you.” In the ensuing conversation, she suggested he start his own school if he wanted to be out on the job. And that’s precisely how he got the idea to start PSA.

With same-sex marriage bans falling like dominoes, the establishment of a separate school for the LGBT community might seem like an extreme measure to take in a rapidly changing climate. But the speed with which marriage battles are being won in the judiciary is radically out of step with the lackluster pace of LGBT acceptance on a cultural level. And nowhere is this disjuncture felt more acutely than within the U.S. school system. In the movement for LGBT equality, the gap between legal protection and social acceptance is only getting wider and children are the ones falling through the cracks. It’s an auspicious time to be an LGBT adult but it’s still a miserable moment to be a gay kid.

Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population live in a state where same-sex marriage licenses are available but a similar proportion of LGBT youth are still experiencing severe levels of bullying in school. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, the majority of LGBT middle and high school students in the U.S. regularly heard homophobic remarks at school that year, sometimes even from school staff. Eighty-five percent of LGBT students reported experiencing verbal harassment at school and nearly a third said they had missed school sometime in the last month out of concern for their own safety or comfort. Students who experienced the most discrimination had lower GPAs, lower self-esteem, and were less likely to plan on attending college.

But the potential consequences of bullying are often more tragic than a bad report card. The 2013 survey also notes that nearly 40 percent of LGBT students had been physically harassed in the last year and nearly 20 percent had been assaulted. LGBT youth have to deal with the full spectrum of violence in school—sticks, stones, words and all. In this context, it is sadly not surprising that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth and that nearly a quarter of transgender youth report having attempted suicide.

Set against this backdrop, too, the ubiquitous “It Gets Better” slogan—initially intended as a message of hope for LGBT youth—reveals a certain attitude of passive defeatism toward the problems these children face in the present. While the mainstream LGBT movement has been busy playing the marriage equality game, LGBT youth and children of LGBT parents have been fighting their own battles during recess, homeroom, and soccer practice—struggles that often pass unnoticed as same-sex marriage continues to dominate the headlines.

Over the course of fundraising for PSA, Zsilavetz has been told that “people will talk more about what you’re up to” once the marriage debate starts to die down. But he doesn’t want to wait that long to, as he prefers to say, “make it better” for LGBT families.

“What happens when kids [of same-sex parents] go to school and they talk about how their parents got married?” he asks.

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As Zsilavetz points out in our interview, too, perceived regional differences in LGBT acceptance are flattened in the space of the high school hallway. The school climate in Georgia, for example, is frighteningly similar to the school climate in California, which is often reputed to be the most LGBT-friendly state. In both of these states, over 80 percent of LGBT middle and high school students felt excluded by their peers, over half regularly heard disparaging remarks about transgender people, and around 40 percent had their property stolen or damaged. The situation is the same in Washington, Oregon, and Connecticut—all destinations for LGBT adults.

For anyone over the age of 20, there may be a world of difference between being out in San Francisco and being out in Stone Mountain. But when it comes to creating safe spaces for LGBT youth, schools on the Left Coast and the Deep South are just as likely to post a failing grade.

“There’s still no school where two boys can hold hands in the hallways,” says Zsilavetz.

When we say that education is the great equalizer, that isn’t what we should mean.

As uncontroversial as an inclusive private school might seem, the conservative media is already starting to attack PSA. Eric Owens of The Daily Caller describes the school with the politically charged language of segregation and ghettoization—calculated terms that carry a special weight in the heart of the Jim Crow South. But conservative scare tactics aside, the idea of separating LGBT students from straight and non-transgender students could be worrying if only for the reason that friendships between LGBT and non-LGBT people have been central to social change over the last 40 years. If more parents withdrew their LGBT children—and LGBT parents took their straight children elsewhere, too—would public schools simply be left to marinate in their own bigotry? Is PSA taking the socially conservative demand to “keep it out of our schools” too literally?

For Zsilavetz—as for many parents—the answers to these questions may be less important than the immediate welfare of one’s own children.

“Why do we have to wait for them to fix the whole system?” he asks. “Why should my kids have to wait for the whole system to change?”

Indeed, as schools become the next ideological battleground in the battle over LGBT rights, it might make sense to craft temporary havens for children who are likely to be caught in the crossfire, especially transgender students. This month, Kentucky lawmakers tried and failed to force transgender students to use restrooms that match their assigned sex at birth. Utah pulled a similar stunt last year. California also debated the bathroom question in 2014 before landing on the side of transgender students. But while transphobic adults deploy baseless fear-mongering to start these legislative spats, transgender children in these states cannot even use the restroom without fear of bullying and physical violence.

“If you have to fight to get the right to use the bathroom,” Zsilavetz says, “there’s got to be something better.”

A school like PSA will be more of a stopgap than a permanent solution, especially when barriers of cost, transportation, and funding are considered. LGBT private schools are not viable substitutes for the affirming public schools that LGBT students so desperately need. But in the current absence of these schools, initiatives like PSA could prove to be life saving as culture plays catch up with the law of the land. A private school like PSA isn’t a luxury—it’s a warning that LGBT youth need help that they’re not getting.