A Haven for L.G.B.T.Q. Students in the Heart of Alabama

The Magic City Acceptance Academy, a public charter school, finally opened last year after several attempts. Students there have watched state legislators debate their future in real time.

HOMEWOOD, Ala. — Since a brand-new charter school opened its doors in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., last fall, there have been a few disturbances along the periphery.

Some cars slowly passed by, with indecipherable shouts from rolled-down windows. A woman used her phone to film the campus. Strangers left threatening voice mail messages.

The episodes were vaguely menacing — they became subjects of gossip in the school hallways, and one made it into a police report — but it takes a lot to deeply rattle the students enrolled at the school, the Magic City Acceptance Academy in Homewood. Many said they have already been through a lot.

Tyler, a 17-year-old senior and a member of the transgender community, said that for years, he had lived in fear of violence and performed social roles that never quite fit. “I’m having to unlearn those things,” he said. “Coming here, it’s very different.”

The public charter school, where about 240 students are enrolled in grades six through 12, aims to be a welcoming place for students who are gay, straight, nonbinary, cisgender or transgender. That makes it a lonely institution in a state that recently passed a law that would make it a felony to provide what doctors call gender-affirming surgery or hormone therapy to people under 19.

The law also would not allow educators to “encourage or coerce” students to withhold from their parents “the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with the minor’s sex.” It was set to go into effect on Sunday, though it is being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department.

Michael Wilson, the principal of the academy, worried that the law could be used to target the school. “It just puts another layer of responsibility on teachers that they shouldn’t have,” he said, adding that conversations about gender identity “are meant to be between a child and parent when the time is right.”

Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

The school has sought to be a refuge from the ongoing culture debate. Hallways at the academy are festooned with rainbows and affirmations. “You are beautiful,” posters say. “You are loved.” But the laws being pushed by conservative politicians in Alabama and elsewhere have left some L.G.B.T.Q. youth feeling isolated, and the academy itself has been singled out by a Republican candidate for governor who calls the institution a “transgender public school.”

In fact, the school is open to students of all backgrounds. In interviews, some students said they had enrolled to escape racism or bullying at their old schools. Others wanted a place to be openly gay, transgender or nonbinary. Some appreciated the school’s mask mandate, which is still in place.

And many said they simply wanted to learn in peace.

“We shouldn’t have to come here and have to put up signs everywhere to let us know that we are loved,” said Juniper, a 14-year-old eighth grader. “We shouldn’t have to do that. We’re just a normal school.”

Peyton Fulford for The New York Times
Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

Temperance, a 13-year-old seventh grader, agreed. “I’m really happy that we have a place to express yourself,” she added. “I know there’s a lot of stuff that’s making this more of a political school, which is ——”

“Really, really stupid,” interjected Juniper, one of several students who are being identified by first names only to protect their privacy.

Magic City Acceptance Academy fought hard to exist. Its charter was denied by the city of Birmingham more than two years ago, prompting a move to Homewood, just outside Birmingham city lines. That application was also denied, this time by the state, but the school finally gained approval in November 2020, opening its doors in August. (Magic City, an old nickname for Birmingham, refers to the city’s rapid growth as a steel town around 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 L.G.B.T.Q. patients, including some whose treatment involves hormone therapy.

After signing the law restricting health care for transgender teenagers, Kay Ivey, the governor of Alabama, said in a statement that children should be protected from “radical, life-altering drugs and surgeries when they are at such a vulnerable stage in life.”

Karen Musgrove, the chief executive of Birmingham AIDS Outreach, said that giving children and teenagers the help they need — whether it be medical care, mental health services or community support — could drive down the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts that affect the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

She recalled that on the academy’s first day of school last year, the students were eerily quiet. “They were just so scared, and they were so beat 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 light chimes of a xylophone broadcast over the loudspeaker. And they do not have to worry about restrictive restroom laws: Each bathroom is gender-neutral, single-occupancy and handicap accessible.

Rory, 17, a high school junior who is transgender, enrolled here after enduring years of harassment at other schools and stretches of deep despair.

“If I wasn’t so optimistic about my future,” he said, “I don’t know if I would still be alive.”

The transgender health care law made for 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 slipping further away.

“It’s like all of this progress that I’ve made has just been put on hold,” he said.

In the classroom that day, some students shouted. Others cried. “We had to get real and put aside the lesson plan for a minute because it was real emotion,” Mr. Evans said. “And fear.”

The students, he added, leaned on one another to absorb the news. “I guess the only silver lining is that at least they were here,” he said.

Educators said that many students came to the academy with long histories of bullying, harassment or family estrangement.

Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

“They’re coming to us with so much trauma that we have to start peeling back the layers of their onion, Day 1,” Nikki Matthews, the vice principal, said. “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 said they felt safe among their teachers and classmates, some have also experienced a new kind of vulnerability. Sometimes, when many L.G.B.T.Q. people gather in one place, Rory said, “it feels like the target that’s on my back every day just gets, like, 500 times bigger.”

In recent weeks, the school has been a constant talking point for Tim James, a Republican candidate for governor who is running to the right of the incumbent, Ms. Ivey. (She has shifted to the right herself, and polls suggest that she is likely to win.) His political ads, which used photos that had appeared on the school’s public Facebook page, highlighted a drag show that the school held to raise money for a national history bee.

The sporadic heckling at the academy happened not long after the ads were televised, 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 pictures anymore,” he added.

In an emailed response to questions, Mr. James said that the drag show was an example of “exploitation and at best emotional child abuse,” adding that the school itself was “an indication that the cultural war between common sense and crazy has come to Alabama.”

Students at the school talked about Mr. James’s campaign with a mix of defiance — many rolled their eyes — and fear. “It makes me scared to come to school,” said Temperance, the seventh grader.

Amid roiling political storms, Magic City Acceptance Academy also faces the more prosaic challenge of preparing students academically as the school’s first year comes to an end this month. It plans to add Mandarin courses next academic year to complement this year’s Spanish and French, and could later offer Advanced Placement classes, too. According to Dr. Wilson, the student body is expected to grow to about 350 next fall.

That will include Rory, who is keeping his grades up and thinking about college. He wants to study agriculture to perhaps become a beekeeper — even if moving on will mean leaving the first school environment where he has ever felt safe being himself.

“It’s a really strong community,” he said. “Even though it can be scary, I’m still optimistic that things will be OK.”

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