An inside look at the first year of LGBTQ+ student celebration at an Alabama school

Find out more about the Alabama Education Lab and how we covered it here. Before his senior prom, Tyler met up with his classmates at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for some pictures. High school students from all over the Birmingham metropolitan area flocked to the garden and quickly staked

Find out more about the Alabama Education Lab and how we covered it here.

Before his senior prom, Tyler met up with his classmates at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for some pictures.

High school students from all over the Birmingham metropolitan area flocked to the garden and quickly staked their claim to flower beds and vine-covered arches.

Tyler's date wore a long, pink dress with roses pinned all over it, so he wore a tuxedo with a pink waistcoat to complement her ensemble. Until he tried to pay, his tuxedo rental trip was going swimmingly. He showed the cashier his ID, and she looked at him funny before she finally called him "ma'am" and his old name.

transgender person Tyler said, "I was so close to her not realizing." Just my dumb license," I said. ”

Trying to get away from the crowds, Tyler found the Japanese gardens to be the perfect location for his photo shoot. While he was on his way to school, he received a text that stated, "They didn't want to get out of the car." He was referring to his Magic City Acceptance Academy classmates.

Some of the transgender seniors felt unsafe in a dress in such a crowded place that they stopped doing so. The plan was for them to meet him in the school cafeteria instead.

Because Tyler cared more about his friends' well-being than he did about getting a good photo, he refused to pose with And he would still get to see the elaborate costumes and makeup they had put together weeks in advance to fit the unofficial "Enchanted Forest" theme: fairy wings, elf ears, freshly dyed purple hair, and a papier-mâché mushroom costume.

Twelve high school seniors from Magic City Acceptance Academy, the South's first LGBTQ-affirming charter school, attended the school's first-ever prom. For many of them, including Tyler, it was the first time they felt safe enough to attend a dance of this sort.

He described the evening as a time when he could "be myself" and "watch so many of my friends finally let go and not have to worry about the outside world."

In August, Magic City began classes for its first graduating class, which will be held in May. Despite advertising itself as an LGBTQ-affirming school, it is open to students of all identities as a public charter school.

Despite the many outsiders who directed hate at them, the event was a chance to celebrate the community that teachers and students had carefully created. Republicans across the country have passed laws and used campaign rhetoric that specifically targets LGBTQ youth, especially in settings like schools and healthcare facilities. Some students in Magic City were impacted by Alabama's April ban on gender-affirming medical treatments for minors. A federal judge halted the implementation of some of that law on Friday night.

A gubernatorial candidate in Alabama released a campaign ad in the hours before the dance, calling into question why there is a "transgender school" in the state, adding fuel to an election debate that has threatened Magic City's hard-fought existence.

New student orientation day

The school, which serves grades six through 12, opened in Homewood, Alabama, in August, after a long process of gaining a charter from state officials. On the first day of school, the hallways were “the quietest I’ve ever heard in my decades as an educator,” Michael Wilson, the founding principal, said students wearing hoodies or wrapped in comforters, carrying stuffed animals, and looking visibly uneasy as they walked down the halls is a common image.

Because of the bullying and harassment they experienced in their previous schools, the graduating seniors decided to transfer to Magic City for their final year.

As an example, Tyler would always take a friend or a pair of scissors with him into the bathroom at his old school because he was afraid that he would be attacked again and told that he didn't belong there.

Former classmates at Brookwood High School, where a gay student was denied permission to attend prom with a same-sex date in 2012, "would never leave me alone," he said.

A white man wearing a gray suit and a blue tie sits on stairs. The risers are brightly-painted in the colors of the rainbow.

On April 29, 2022, Mike Wilson, principal of Magic City Acceptance Academy, relaxes on the rainbow-colored stairs in advance of the annual prom. The Magic City Acceptance Academy is the first openly gay and lesbian-friendly public charter school in the state of Alabama. Andi Rice for AL's Photographs com

Each of Magic City's 240 students, according to school administrators, has faced discrimination or the difficulties of online education at a previous institution. Spending the first two weeks solely on relationship-building, they aimed to give students a sense of "mental, emotional, and social safety" before diving into academic instruction.

Charity Jackson, chief academic officer at Magic City Acceptance Academy, reflected on how the school's early emphasis on community and collaboration had a lasting impact on students throughout the year.

Teachers were taught the students' pronouns and were granted forgiveness for their occasional blunders. The students in each class worked together to create a set of guidelines for behavior and accountability that they called "community norms."

Tyler, Clover, Lyn, Sydney, Emily, Loki, Tully, Cedric, Soup, Gwen, Matt, and Landon, all seniors, were able to establish rapport with teachers and classmates by following these procedures.

The majority of the graduating class of 12 blame their previous educational settings for their academic failures, mental health problems, and acts of self-harm and suicide.

Nearly 80% of LGBTQ students in public and private schools in Alabama reported experiencing at least one form of discrimination during the school year, per a 2019 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national advocacy organization.

Officials from the Alabama State Department of Education told AL that the state does not have any policies or protections in place to aid LGBTQ students. com, and they don't provide any specialized training for educators who would like to help these students.

Clover, who transferred schools because the bully was never punished, remarked, "Now I'm here and I can be safe."

No one would ever steal from the school, but if they did, they wouldn't get off with a warning. The situation would be addressed. Thus, I find great solace in that. ”

As a result, the administration at Magic City High School was concerned that they wouldn't have a graduating class in their first year.

However, it was with these students in mind that advocates fought so hard to establish the school; indeed, the school's construction required four visits to the state charter commission.

Exit from secondary education; "last shot"

Birmingham AIDS Outreach and its sister organizations, the Magic City Acceptance Center and the Magic City Wellness Center, are run by the school's founder, Karen Musgrove, who also serves as CEO. institutions in Alabama that are devoted to serving the mental and physical health care needs of the LGBTQ community

Youth who visited the Acceptance Center often felt safe enough to talk to staff about problems they were having in the classroom.

Musgrove argued that delaying the opening of the school by a year would have denied admission to graduating seniors. UTIs, being beaten up, not being able to eat in the cafeteria because of fear, and not being able to use the restroom were all issues they discussed. Sadly, no upbeat, affirming stories were emerging from classrooms. ”

The stress they felt during their time at Mountain Brook High School, according to Lyn, nearly drove them to despair.

I was a frequent target of bullying. After a rough patch in middle school, I was ready for a clean slate in high school. There was no fresh start here. People from the same groups showed up. Lyn was blunt in his assessment, saying, "Nothing has changed." The decline in my academic performance was dramatic, and it seemed as though everything in my life was circling the drain. Getting into that school was literally my last chance. ”

Magic City Acceptance Academy

On April 29, 2022, students of Magic City Acceptance Academy will celebrate their school's formal evening with a dance. After months of preparation, the first public, charter school in the South that welcomes students who identify as LGBTQ finally opened its doors in August. Andi Rice for AL, photo by com

The Trevor Project, a national organization aimed at preventing suicide among LGBTQ youth, reports that the region of the country with the highest concentration of LGBTQ youth is the South. However, LGBTQ youth in the South are more likely to have attempted suicide than their counterparts in any other region of the United States due to the region's high rates of stigma and limited availability of affirming spaces.

Psychiatric Intake Response Center Director at Children's of Alabama, Cynthia Jones, said, "[LGBTQ] youth are at high risk for a lot of stress, anxiety, and trauma because of bullying." "It's a lot harder to feel accepted and affirmed in this extremely conservative region of the country than it is in more liberal areas." ”

According to the most recent youth risk behavior survey conducted in Alabama, LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their peers and twice as likely to skip school because they feel unsafe or have experienced violence on campus.

According to Myeshia Price, senior research scientist for the Trevor Project, "LGBTQ youth in the South with at least one in-person LGBTQ-affirming space, such as a school, had more than 40% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year."

The Magic City high school seniors have spent the past year throwing their first parties, complete with sleepovers and trips to Walmart after school to stock up on food, drinks, and decorations.

Kimberly Fasking, a parent of a high school senior, has this to say about her child's class: "My daughter describes the senior class as one big friend group." "She has a sense of community and participation in the world around her for the first time in her life." Before recently, she never once texted me to ask to visit a friend after school. ”

The students and faculty have developed close bonds.

When Daniel Evans was assisting a transgender eighth grade friend in her search for a welcoming high school, she settled on Magic City.

During his interview, Evans learned that the school would be implementing project-based learning with a social justice focus; this convinced him that he belonged there as a teacher.

To teach history in its historical context, he said, "that made me want to come not just for the fact that what the school represents, how open and accepting it is."

Evans, a history professor, has pictures of Marsha P. Johnson and other Stonewall activists framed on his wall so that his students can learn about the movement. Two prominent figures in the fight for gay rights, Johnson and Malcolm X

Most seniors attribute their improved academic performance to the positive relationships they've built with teachers and other faculty members, who they say have helped them feel valued and accepted.

Sydney went from being a junior-year dropout to submitting applications to universities offering aerospace engineering degrees.

Sydney claimed, "At my old school, I was always in the back of the classroom, never raising my hand, so my teachers never learned my name." But I feel safe enough to take part here. ”

Some students even go so far as to describe their friendships as "like family." ”

Evans predicted that in ten years, a group of senior citizens would visit his home to celebrate Thanksgiving.

It's time to relax and enjoy yourself.

In light of the omicron variant, the second month of the school year was spent entirely online.

The administration made an effort to keep things as normal and social as possible If a student at the school needed help with their mental health, the school's counselor or social worker would be available online during office hours. For students to have a place to congregate and chat during lunch, their teachers hosted popular Zoom community hours.

Older students kept in touch with one another by FaceTime and shared homemade TikToks with their peers. Tyler carried an Airpod with him throughout the day so he could stay in constant contact with his partner, a junior he had met at school.

Wilson gushes about the "wonderful sound" of students filing back into the building in February, after being away for so long.

Magic City Acceptance Academy

Handmade signs were hung up by parents and supporters of the Magic City Acceptance Academy in support of the school's gay, nonbinary, and transgender students. This is the first Southern public charter school to openly welcome students who identify as members of the LGBTQ community. Andi Rice for AL's Photographs com

For many [LGBTQ] youth, school is one of the few places where they can communicate and feel like themselves, as many don't have that ability at home due to the isolation of the pandemic, as stated by Dr. Jr., Jesse Martinez , an employee at Children's Hospital in Alabama That was lost when they were cut off from their social networks, including school and friends. ”

In order to raise money for the Quiz Bowl team to attend a tournament in Washington, D.C., students got together and planned a drag show to commemorate the return to school. C Wilson stated that the students had decided on the theme of the event, just as they had done so for previous fundraisers, such as a "pie the teacher" event.

Community events give students a taste of the traditional public school environment while allowing the school to recognize them for more than just their academic achievements.

During the first semester, Wilson saw the school's potential at events like the open mic night and art show.

There was beauty in "everyone coming together to make it happen," he said, because "the kids wanted a platform to perform."

The pupils voted for their educators to take the stage in the drag show.

Evans was to be outfitted in a Mardi Gras theme, so Lyn, Clover, Soup, Tyler, and Tully broke out the sketchbooks to plan out his new look.

Lyn designed a strapless dress that featured a white top, purple skirt, and gold fringe. In a white wig, Clover styled space buns by adding bangs and glitter. Tyler assisted with the fitting of the costume, which was a joint effort between Soup and Tully.

With his family in the audience, Evans would assume the guise of BB Queen and perform "Almost There" from Princess and the Frog.

The day of the show, five high school seniors scurried around Evans' classroom, gluing on eyebrows and dousing him in body glitter.

Tyler tried to reassure them, saying, "It's ok." "This is just for fun; that's the whole point." ”

Discourse on the Political System

A candidate for governor in Alabama, Tim James, released a TV ad on April 1 that featured photos from the school's Facebook page of the drag show, some of which showed the faces of individual students.

The advertisement claimed that "right here in Alabama we've chartered the first transgender public school in the South, using millions of your tax dollars," labeling the drag show as "exploitation." ”

Photo of a group of drag-acting teachers is one of the final pictures. It was snapped right before the show ended and the crowd chanted for an encore of "Hey Now" from the crowd-voted winning film Lizzie McGuire

One of Tyler's "happiest moments" from the school year was the performance.

However, the school reported that after the advertisement aired, it began to experience security issues, such as random people showing up to film students and shout Bible verses at them. In order to avoid being harassed, students stopped eating their lunches outside. reported at the time that the campaign had issued a statement along these lines: "We find it unconscionable to use the concept of protecting kids as an opportunity to expose them to drag queen shows and normalize perversion." A second request for comment from the James campaign was not met with any additional information.

James has said on the campaign trail and on social media that he will close the school and "eliminate the LGBTQ agenda from the classroom" if he is elected. ”

Wilson said of the students' reactions to the advertisement, "It brought up a old sense of trauma and more anxiety." He's making us out to be something we're not; we're not a transgender-friendly institution." Even though he has never set foot inside the school, he has already assigned that label to the entire school community. ”

In accordance with Alabama law, public charter schools like Magic City must enroll all students who apply. According to Wilson, the school receives the same per-student state funding from the state's foundation program but gets no money from local taxes, instead relying heavily on donations from nonprofits and philanthropists.

Wilson and Musgrove worried that their school and other charters would lose funding if the ads continued to air because of the candidates' campaign stump speeches.

According to Musgrove, "all of a sudden, the Magic City Acceptance Academy is at the forefront of all the chatter in Montgomery, and we just became a burden to the other charter schools."

There was a $2 reduction in state funding. Five days after the ad's release, 9 million dollars were set aside for charter schools. There was no specific use for the funds, so they were allocated to the Education Department.

In addition to the budget discussion, Republicans in the Alabama State House and across the country have passed laws restricting LGBTQ youth's access to basic necessities like health care, public restrooms, and organized sports.

In Alabama, Governor On April 11th, Kay Ivey signed two bills that prohibit gender-affirming care for minors, mandate that schools notify parents if a student is struggling with their gender identity, and forbid the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. and mandate that all students use the bathroom corresponding to their gender marker on their birth certificate. This legislation follows legislation from 2021 that forbids transgender students from engaging in gender-affirming activities such as school sports.

They're out to get us, literally." As Evans's sixth-grade class debated the bill, Clover chimed in.

That day, Tyler, Soup, Lyn, and Tully sat on the floor of Evans' classroom, cross-legged, trying to make sense of the new regulations. On their laps, cuddled up with their stuffed animals for comfort in times of emotional need.

Ivey said, "There are very real challenges facing our young people, especially with today's societal pressures and modern culture," as she signed the bills into law. If the Lord created you as a male, you are a male; if he created you as a female, you are a female. ”

Soup, however, heard nothing but "another adult who doesn't want to talk to us, doesn't care to learn," in the governor's words. ”

Soup: "It's like protecting the children, except they forget we're the children."

"Worth the struggle"

In April, after the laws were passed, as students drove up the hill to the school, they were greeted by signs along the road that read, "We love you." , "Trans is Beautiful," "You Belong Here," and "You Belong Here" ”

One parent rallied the members of an online support group to send encouraging messages from all over the world, which were then posted all over the school.

"Always be you Even though it may seem impossible at the moment, you are worth persevering for. This mother in Tampa, Florida, adores you. ”

The front door of the Magic City Acceptance Academy, with an MCAA sign on the wall.

In Homewood, Alabama, there is a charter school called the Magic City Acceptance Academy that is pioneering LGBTQ acceptance. A.L. Ruth Serven Smith com

A doctor at Children's of Alabama in Birmingham said there was a "big uptick" in suicide attempts in the emergency room in the 48 hours after the bills were passed.

Concern among these young people "increases with these bills and is synergized with the baseline epidemic of mental health challenges for youth today and the pandemic," as Dr. Doctor Morissa Ladinsky of Children's Hospital in Alabama "When you add all of these factors together, the challenges and risks faced by LGBTQ youth, especially trans and nonbinary youth, in areas such as anxiety, difficulty thinking clearly, academic success, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, become exponentially greater." ”

Magic City High School's pupils were absorbed in their mobile devices, reading and responding to online discussions about the ad and the school.

Evans, who was featured in the ad as a drag show contestant, was also curious about how things were going for him, but he opted to steer class discussions toward safety measures that students could take.

''The most important thing for a school to do is to make its students feel safe,'' he said. They don't have to change themselves, but they can change the society in which they exist, and you help them do that by being open and accepting of who they are while teaching them the skills they need. ”

Evans drove his minivan around the back of the school during second period and announced to the seniors that he would demonstrate how to change a tire.

Looking at Loki, a Black trans woman, he said, "What I'm worried about is if you're driving home at 8:30 at night and you're pulled over on the side of the road in Kimberly and have to walk two miles to the nearest gas station." Human Rights Campaign data shows that transgender women of color, particularly Black and Latinx trans women, are disproportionately affected by fatal violence.

I can rest easy knowing you know how to change a tire." ”

Evans brought his own beach towels from home, stitching his children's names into them, so that the students wouldn't have to sit on the asphalt.

What y'all were going to gripe about, I tried to think about," he said.

Each person took a turn removing the tire, rotating the lug nuts, removing the tire, and reinstalling the nuts in the opposite direction of the other person, ensuring the tire remained secure.

As they rounded the bend, he cautioned, "Don't put all your weight into tightening the lug nuts because that's the energy you'll have to use to loosen them."

At the conclusion of the activity, when Landon lowered the jack, the students applauded, glad to get back inside where it was warm. Evans expressed appreciation for their involvement.

His response was, "It means a lot to me."

This time, you're staying

Similarly toned ads were released by Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Trump ambassador Lindy Blanchard on senior prom night in April, though she did not specifically target Magic City like James did.

The ad questioned why Ivey had spent state funds on a "transgender school" rather than on bettering education, increasing access to mental health services, and other statewide initiatives.

Our inquiry to the campaign was met with silence.

Due to the new advertisement, the school has hired a Homewood police officer to patrol the prom's entrance. A member of staff had to grant admission before a student, friend, or parent could enter.

Musgrove remarked, "In retrospect, it was such a brilliant move by us to put the school next to a police station."

A teenager wears a shimmering dress, a purple wig, gray animal ears and a silver tiara after being crowned during a school dance.

Prom dress designer Clover, a student at Magic City Acceptance Academy, was inspired by fantasy. On April29, 2022, there was a dance. Andi Rice for AL's Photographs com

Once inside, however, students largely ignored the ad and returned to their phones.

There were purple balloons, shiny silver backdrops, two disco balls, and a "GAAAY" banner at the school's entrance in the cafeteria. ” fans

Initially, the students merely surrounded the dance floor.

Tully, dressed in a blue off-the-shoulder gown, stood next to a table and said, "I don't know how to act."

When Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" came on, however, the dance floor quickly filled with students jumping around and singing to one another.

The ballroom portion of the prom, dubbed "Expressions Ball," was an homage to the 1980s queer Black and Latino New York subculture that is still celebrated in popular culture today thanks to shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race." ”

A confident Loki in a blue and black ball gown, waving their "GAAAAY" banner, kicked off the show. Students chanted "Icon! Icon!" as one student twirled a fan and dove to the ground. Icon ”

Young people danced fiercely to the music of Diana Ross and Madonna, sometimes striking so many poses that it appeared they might topple over before recovering and continuing.

Guests entered the ceremony in a variety of ways, some holding hands and others doing cartwheels.

The judges deliberated each category while shielding their faces with huge fans.

Clover and her theater teacher took first place in the student-teacher catwalk competition.

As the saying goes, "Shantay, you stay." The host announced that the pair's synchronized poses to Fergie's "Glamorous" were worthy of a prize.

On their way to the dancefloor after being crowned, Clover held hands with Lyn. Both wore identical makeup, and they are rarely seen apart. They hope to establish a commune after they graduate. Maybe they should just get an Airstream and see where it takes them.

They both laughed and spun around in tandem.

Clover exclaimed, "It's great to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to dance!" All of this is a dream." ”

The Alabama Education Lab at AL has a member named Savannah Tryens-Fernandes. com Collaboration with Report for America has helped her financially. Check it out and see how you can help the team out by clicking here.

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