By the time Mary Helen Phelps made the call, she was in a crisis. Her 15-year-old daughter, Angel Collie, was so unhappy that her mother was certain she would drop out of school. Angel was boyish-looking, with short hair and piercings in her face that made her stand out from the crowd at Bunn High, a public school of 800 students, tucked in the tobacco country of Franklin County.
Angel had always been a tomboy. By eighth grade, with the support of an understanding counselor, she had come out as a lesbian. But high school was different. Her mother says Angel didn’t find support from the administration. In fact, she says teachers admitted that they were unable to stop classmates from picking on her, so they sent Angel to in-school suspension. “She was even hot-glued to her desk one day. But they could not remove the whole class. So they had to remove Angel,” Phelps recalls.
Her grades began to slip. She hated school. “It was a fight every morning. She went to school crying and I went to work crying, because she hated it, because she was out,” Phelps says at the dinner table as Angel sits quietly, listening. “She’d sit up all night long on the computer because it was her only friends, on the computer.”
Every high school student has a cross to bear. For some, it’s acne; for others, it’s trouble with physics. Angel’s cross is heavier–she’s a transgender kid who’s into body modification, someone at the far edge of the culture. But Phelps talks about her daughter’s troubles and accomplishments with the same proud or indignant tones that any mother uses. This country-bred, God-fearing woman from the tiny tobacco town of Bunn has adapted to parenting her way-out daughter just as if the biggest problem they faced together was trouble getting on the cheerleading squad. This attitude seems to give Angel strength and let her know she’s fine. Her mom loves her and is helping her through her complicated teen years just as all good parents do.
A petite woman with long hair, Phelps wears rings on her fingers and silver bracelets on both of her long, slender arms and pink polish on her fingernails. She’s the perfect contrast to her child, who wears baggy clothes, a ring in her nose and discs that stretch the holes in her earlobes. This single mom and her only child comprise a tight-knit family. Their two-bedroom house is decorated with Victorian-style furniture, embroidered pillows and pictures of angels. There are neat stacks of sodas in the fridge. The TV is off during dinner.
Angel says she had two female classmates who identified as bisexual. “They never got picked on because it was ‘hot,’ but I was so butch and boyish that I got picked on.” Her piercings didn’t help either. But, not one to suffer in silence, Angel spoke up for herself. She tried unsuccessfully to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at the school, and brought flyers that promoted tolerance toward gays and lesbians.
That was a topic that no one at the school wanted to address, her mother says. “I could never get them to admit that the problem was that Angel was gay. They were saying she brought her problems on herself. They were making her look like she was a bad student.” One day Angel was sent home for wearing a Teletubbies T-shirt that said “Tinky Winky made me do it.” “I was like, can you tell me what Tinky Winky made her do?” Phelps laughs. “They would not say it.”
As the tension rose, Angel’s mom became concerned for her safety. “I was always worried, was she going to get hurt? Was it safe for her to walk around Bunn?” Once at a football game, Angel was cornered in the bathroom by three older girls who pushed her against a stall until she managed to slip away. Because Angel had such a tough image (she was the only girl on the football team), “I knew if somebody would have jumped her it wouldn’t be just one.”
The last straw was a meeting with Principal George Kelly at the beginning of her sophomore year. “He told Angel, ‘I can’t come to school Baptist and you can’t come to school queer,’” Phelps recalls.
“What I said was, I had to come to school and be the principal and she had to come to school and be the student and learn,” Kelly said, admiting that he could not remember the exact words he used at the time, but characterized the conversation differently. He said there are gay students at Bunn High now, but no GSA. “We don’t have students that their feelings cause them to be disruptive in school and not follow school rules.” He would not say whether that was the case with Angel.
Angel had already been kicked out of the same Baptist church that she and her mother had grown up in, for “making a mockery of the church,” says Phelps, who has stopped attending any church where her daughter is not welcome. Now she was being pushed out of the same school where her mother had been a cheerleader. “You’ve got to send your child to school. I didn’t know what to do.”
Faced with a crisis, Phelps turned to a book about gay issues where she found one line about a high school in Dallas for gay and lesbian students. She looked online and found the phone number.
Becky Thompson, principal of Walt Whitman Community School, remembers that the call sounded like many she receives from parents. “She was very frantic. It’s a very complicated decision. As a parent, you’re saying, ‘I’ve got to get my daughter out of here. I’ve got to do the right thing for her.’ What is that?”
Walt Whitman was founded in 1997 and has been supported through the efforts of the gay and lesbian community in Dallas. The school is a nonprofit with no religious affiliation, but its offices are housed at the gay-friendly White Rock Community Church. There are five classrooms where kids study all the standard subjects and take electives such as art and psychology. Enrollment has fluctuated from as few as eight to as many as 26, and tends to change throughout the year as new kids flee their public schools, while a few of those enrolled find their personal problems too daunting to continue school.
Earlier the day of the call, Thompson met a lesbian couple who wanted to host a student. With no dorms at the school, out-of-town students must rely on Walt Whitman’s host family program. So Phelps sent her salary information and bills to Thompson, who determined the tuition based on a sliding scale. Most families pay only a fraction of the $7,000 tuition; the difference is made up with grants and fundraising. It all happened quickly, and no one was convinced yet that it would work. Thompson said, “Let’s try it for a month.”
Less than two weeks after Phelps made the call, she and her daughter were on a plane to Dallas.
“It sucked at first, being that far away,” Angel says. It took about a month to adjust. With a new group of classmates–including a gay boy from Texarkana named Michael and a pre-op transsexual named Angela–she went from shy and depressed to outgoing and popular. Her relationship with her host family was one of the best in the school’s history. She excelled in English and started a bowling league at the school. In May, she won the title of Prom King.
“The thing about Walt Whitman,” Angel says, “it’s not an issue of who you are anymore like it is in public school. It doesn’t matter. Everybody accepts everyone. It’s just about learning, which is pretty cool. And if it is about who you are, it’s just about learning how to be together, which is good,” she continues. “The teachers would do anything for any of us if we needed it. We call them by their first names.”
Now 17, she’s graduated and plans to attend college in Dallas in the fall to become a pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay-friendly Christian denomination that she first discovered at Imani MCC in Durham. In spite of the rejection she faced from the Baptist church she was raised in, Angel hasn’t given up her faith.
To some, the idea of a gay high school may seem like an absurd voluntary form of segregation, particularly when Gay Straight Alliances are flourishing in high schools across the country, including several in the Triangle. But in Franklin County, things are slower to change.
Mary Helen Phelps’ house is in a cozy, wooded neighborhood near tobacco fields and surrounded by churches. She gets along with her neighbors, but their kids don’t play at her house. As she smokes an after-dinner cigarette on the back porch, the crickets chirp in the early dark. She has always lived in Franklin County and so has her family. She sees her parents nearly every day. This is her home.
“I had a lot of people come up and preach to me. ‘Why are you letting her go to hell?’ For a long time, I wouldn’t tell people at work, I wouldn’t tell family and friends.” Rumors were circulating around her office that some kid at the high school was causing problems–no one realized at first that they were talking about Phelps’ child. “I guess I sort of had to come out myself in some ways before I could finally say, ‘My child’s gay and what would you do? What kind of parent are you? Would you disown your child?’ As soon as I said, ‘My child’s queer and I’m 100 percent supportive,’ that stops the preaching right there.”
Phelps has learned a lot from her daughter, not only what it’s like to be gay, but about transgender issues, too. And she’s learned about controversies within the gay community over transgender identity. She’s seen other parents come and go at the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group that she and a friend started in Rocky Mount.
Not many parents at Walt Whitman are like Phelps, Thompson says. Many agree to send their child there in order to keep them from dropping out, but that doesn’t mean they want to get involved.
Because it is struggling for funding, the school is also still struggling for accreditation–right now, students can receive only a GED. Thompson hopes that increased enrollment and more grant support from corporations like Texas Instruments will help get the school in the black so it can offer a more valuable diploma.
While there are two other gay high schools in the country–in the public school systems of New York and Los Angeles–Thompson says she was mostly inspired by her experience as director of Walden Prep School in Dallas, a school that offers emotionally troubled kids an environment where they can concentrate on school.
“I didn’t really see myself as much of an activist before this,” says Thompson, who had worked at Walden for 13 years. “I’m just a schoolteacher who kept finding a different group of people who I really got drawn to. Those alternative kids, I really enjoyed working with them.”
The year Walt Whitman was founded was the same year Ellen DeGeneres made history by coming out on national television. Cultural awareness of gay issues seemed to be getting better and better. It was unclear how much need there might be for a gay high school. “Most kids at that time I knew were coming out in college, or that’s what I believed.” She was surprised to find that, once open, the school they had envisioned as serving just the Dallas-Fort Worth area started getting calls from out of state.
Calls don’t just come from parents or kids, either. “I often have teachers calling me from the Dallas area saying, well I’ve got this kid and I know he’s gay, but he doesn’t know it yet.” Many teachers can tell from an early age–fifth and sixth grade, usually–that a kid is somehow different. That child might not yet have sexual feelings, but gender identity is already an issue. “Usually I get those calls from teachers who know the parents are not approachable on the subject. My best advice a lot of times is just to watch their back.”
Gay kids tend to grow up fast, especially the ones who were faced with their differences at the age of 12 or 13. “They’re living very adult lives and yet are very naive about other kinds of things,” Thompson says. The part of childhood that’s gotten lost will often resurface at Walt Whitman, “so we have this very elementary school atmosphere at times and yet very adult other times. There’s high drama, high everything. The volume is turned up on every aspect of their lives.”
Adding to the drama was a documentary crew from MTV who made a film about Walt Whitman for the “True Life” series the year Angel started there. School’s Out premiered in Durham at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The movie feels more like a reality TV feature than a documentary, and it played up the melodrama among the kids. When one student found out he was HIV positive, the cameras were there, and they were there after he was caught having unprotected sex with a younger boy in the school bathroom. Thompson took heat for not expelling the boy–she’s used to dealing with troubled kids, and doesn’t take the zero tolerance approach. Angel figures prominently in the film and says everyone involved is ultimately proud of it. But there is some concern that viewers will get a slanted view of the school and its students.
Angel’s bedroom is a study in teenage contrasts. The walls are covered with posters of the Duke women’s basketball team and there’s a hoop in the corner that she uses to practice. The top bunk of her bed is packed with stuffed animals. There’s a Butchies poster on her closet door, bowling trophies and a pet snake. Pictures of her girlfriend and her friends are all over the room.
The computer is always on, and her desktop picture is a photo of her recent “suspension”–a practice in the body modification subculture whereby hooks are placed into the skin of the back and the person is suspended from them. “It didn’t hurt,” she says nonchalantly. She shows off the vial of testosterone that she’s just begun taking. “I’ve been ill already,” she says a little proudly. “It just makes you kind of angrier.” A moment later, she jumps up and offers to make a glass of milk with Incredible Hulk green chocolate syrup.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about her taking T,” her mother says. “Probably the only reason I agreed to it is, I know Angel could have got it on the street a long time ago, but she didn’t do that.” So she took Angel to a doctor. “Of course, we made an agreement that the holes in her ears don’t go any bigger and no more body modification.” Angel only smiles in response.
Like a lot of single parents, Phelps has drawn support from many sources as she raised her daughter. And when Angel came out, Phelps relied on PFLAG, a group called the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network and the Imani church in Durham. As it turns out, a member of the congregation is a former classmate of Phelps’ from Bunn High. Angel jokingly refers to her as “Dad.” She and her partner have encouraged Angel to finish high school and go to college. “The have backed me one hundred percent,” Phelps says.
“I can still have my dream wedding,” the mother muses. “Angel just won’t be wearing a white dress. And she’s gonna find a way to get me some grandbabies,” she says pointedly at Angel, who looks at her mom and holds up the vial of testosterone. “I don’t care how you do it,” her mom says.
This is a crucial year for Walt Whitman. Thompson says she’s gotten about 30 calls since the documentary aired on MTV in April, including some from North Carolina. “I’ll be really interested to see how many students we open with in September.”
Are the public schools getting better for gay and lesbian kids? That’s the biggest question in Thompson’s mind. “We always joke that if we could work ourselves out of a job, that would be great,” she laughs. “That is our goal, that there wouldn’t be a need for Walt Whitman.”
Angel will be packing up to go back to Dallas soon. Her mother will stay in Bunn, keep working, and keep attending her PFLAG meetings. Even with Angel happy and going to college, her mother still replays the Bunn High principal’s words in her mind. “Sometimes I feel bad for not taking more action than what I did. But at the time my main priority was getting Angel somewhere and getting Angel happy, getting her educated. I still feel sorry for other children that’s there. God knows they’d never come out.”
She’s sad that she had to send Angel all the way to Dallas to get an education. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And it’s still hard on me. But I have a happy child. That’s what you sacrifice in order to have a happy child.”