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HOMEWOOD, Ala. — Since a brand new charter school opened in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., last fall, there has been some disruption along the outskirts.
A few cars passed slowly, with indecipherable cries of rolled windows. A woman used her phone to film the campus. Strangers left threatening voicemails.
The episodes were vaguely menacing — they became gossip in school hallways, and one was the subject of a police report — but it takes a lot to shake people to their core. students enrolled in school, the Magic City Acceptance Academy in Homewood. Many said they had already been through a lot.
Tyler, a 17-year-old senior and member of the transgender community, said for years he lived in fear of violence and played social roles that never quite fit. “I have to unlearn these things,” he says. “Coming here is very different.”
The public charter school, where approximately 240 students are enrolled in grades six through 12, aims to be a welcoming place for gay, straight, non-binary, cisgender or transgender students. That makes it an isolated institution in a state that recently passed a law that would make it a crime to provide what doctors call gender-affirming surgery or hormone therapy to people under 19.
Nor would the law allow educators to “encourage or coerce” students to conceal from their parents “the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is incompatible with the minor’s sex.” . It was due to go into effect on Sunday, although it is being challenged by the US Department of Justice.
Michael Wilson, the head of the academy, feared the law would be used to target the school. “It just puts another level of responsibility on teachers that they shouldn’t have,” he said, adding that conversations about gender identity “are meant to take place between a child and a parent when the time is right”.
The school sought to be a refuge from the ongoing cultural debate. The halls of the academy are adorned with rainbows and affirmations. “You are beautiful”, say the posters. “You are loved.” But laws imposed by conservative politicians in Alabama and elsewhere have left some LGBTQ young people feeling isolated, and the academy itself has come under fire from a Republican gubernatorial candidate who calls the institution a “school transgender public”.
Indeed, the school is open to students from all walks of life. In interviews, some students said they enrolled to escape racism or bullying at their former schools. Others wanted a place that was openly gay, transgender or non-binary. Some appreciated the school’s mask mandate, which is still in place.
And many said they just wanted to learn in peace.
“We shouldn’t have to come here and put up signs everywhere to let us know we’re loved,” said Juniper, a 14-year-old eighth grader. “We shouldn’t have to do this. We are just a normal school.
Temperance, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, agreed. “I’m really happy that we have a place to express you,” she added. “I know there are a lot of things that make it more of a political school, that is…”
Being transgender in America
“Really, really dumb,” quipped Juniper, one of many students who are identified by their first names only to protect their privacy.
Magic City Acceptance Academy fought to exist. Its charter was refused by the City of Birmingham over two years ago, prompting a move to Homewood, just outside Birmingham city limits. This request was also denied, this time by the state, but the school eventually gained approval in November 2020, opening in August. (Magic City, an old nickname for Birmingham, refers to the city’s rapid growth as a steel town at the turn of the 20th century.)
The school operates under the umbrella of an organization called Birmingham AIDS Outreach, which also runs a medical center that serves many LGBTQ patients, including some whose treatment involves hormone therapy.
After signing into law restricting health care for transgender teens, Kay Ivey, Governor of Alabama, said in a statement that children should be protected from “drastic, life-changing drugs and surgeries when they’re at such a vulnerable stage of life.”
Karen Musgrove, chief executive of Birmingham AIDS Outreach, said giving children and young people the help they need – whether it’s medical care, mental health services or community support – could lower the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts that affect the LGBTQ community.
She recalled that on the academy’s first day of school last year, the students were eerily quiet. “They were so scared and they were so down,” she said. “Now they have friends.”
Students quickly discovered that there were no lockers, no physical textbooks, and no bell. They learn on laptops provided by the school. They know class is over when they hear the faint chimes of a xylophone playing over the speaker. And they don’t have to worry about restrictive restroom laws: every bathroom is gender-neutral, single-occupancy, and handicap-accessible.
Rory, 17, a transgender high school student, enrolled here after enduring years of harassment at other schools and periods of deep despair.
“If I weren’t so optimistic about my future,” he said, “I don’t know if I would still be alive.”
The Transgender Health Care Act has been a painful civics lesson. Rory’s history teacher, Daniel Evans, set up a projector so students could follow the legislative process in real time. As Rory watched state lawmakers debate his future, he realized that his goal of pursuing hormone therapy was drifting further and further away.
“It’s like all this progress I’ve made has just been put on hold,” he said.
In the classroom that day, some students shouted. Others cried. “We had to be realistic and put the lesson plan aside for a minute because it was such a thrill,” Mr Evans said. “And fear.”
The students, he added, leaned on each other to absorb the news. “I guess the only silver lining is that at least they were here,” he said.
Educators said many students have come to the academy with long histories of bullying, harassment or estrangement from family.
“They come to us with so much trauma that we have to start peeling back the layers of their onion, day 1,” said Nikki Matthews, the assistant manager. “As we build on that foundation of their social and emotional strength, and who they are, the education is going to come.”
While many students reported feeling safe among their teachers and classmates, some also experienced a new kind of vulnerability. Sometimes when lots of LGBTQ people gather in one place, Rory said, “I feel like the target that’s on my back every day is getting 500 times bigger.”
In recent weeks, school has been a constant talking point for Tim James, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who is running to the right of incumbent Ms Ivey. (She herself has moved to the right and polls suggest she is likely to win.) Her political ads, which used photos that appeared on the school’s public Facebook page, featured a drag show that the school was organizing to raise money for a national history bee.
The sporadic rowdiness at the academy occurred shortly after the adverts aired, Dr Wilson said, prompting the school to increase its security staff. “I mean, I guess we learned a lesson that we don’t post a lot of photos anymore,” he added.
In an email response to questions, Mr James said the drag show was an example of ‘exploitation and emotional abuse of children at best’, adding that the school itself was ‘an indication that the culture war between common sense and madness has come to Alabama.”
Pupils at the school spoke of Mr James’ campaign with a mixture of defiance – many rolled their eyes – and fear. “It scares me to come to school,” said seventh-grade Temperance.
Amid turbulent political storms, Magic City Acceptance Academy also faces the more prosaic challenge of preparing students academically as the school’s freshman year wraps up this month. It plans to add Mandarin classes next academic year to complement this year’s Spanish and French, and may also offer advanced-level classes later. According to Dr. Wilson, the number of students should reach about 350 next fall.
This will include Rory, who is maintaining her grades and thinking about college. He wants to study agriculture to maybe become a beekeeper – although moving on will mean leaving the first school environment where he felt safe being himself.
“It’s a very strong community,” he says. “Even though it may be scary, I’m still optimistic that everything will be fine.”
Sound produced by Adrian Hurst.