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Tyler arrived at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens expecting to take pictures with his fellow high school seniors before their first prom.
The garden was filled with young people from high schools all over the Birmingham metro area who’d already claimed flower patches and vined archways as backdrops.
Tyler wore a tuxedo with a pink waistcoat to match his date’s dress – long with roses pinned throughout. His trip to rent a tuxedo was a near success until it came time to pay. He handed the cashier his license and she began to look at him curiously – soon calling him “ma’am” and by his former name.
“I was so close to her not realizing,” Tyler, who is transgender, said. “It was just my stupid license.”
Tyler decided to take pictures in the Japanese gardens – a more secluded space away from the crowd. On the walk over he got a text: “They didn’t want to get out of the car,” he said about his Magic City Acceptance Academy classmates.
A few of the transgender seniors no longer felt safe wearing a dress in front of so many people. They would instead meet him later at the school cafeteria.
Tyler knew his friends’ safety was more important than a good picture. And he would still get to see their outfits and makeup – which included fairy wings, elf ears, newly-dyed purple hair and a papier-mache mushroom costume, all crafted weeks in advance to fit the unofficial “Enchanted Forest” theme.
For Tyler and many of the 11 other seniors at the Magic City Acceptance Academy, the South’s first LGBTQ-affirming charter school, this prom was their first time feeling safe enough to go to a dance.
“I [get] to be myself and…watch so many of my friends finally let go and not have to worry about the outside world,” he said about the night.
Magic City opened in August and will graduate its first class in May. While it markets itself as LGBTQ-affirming, as a public, charter school, it accepts students of all backgrounds.
The event was a chance to celebrate the community that educators and students had carefully created, despite the many people in the outside world who directed hate at them. Nationwide, Republicans have passed legislation and campaigned on rhetoric that targets LGBTQ kids, especially in schools and healthcare settings. In April, Alabama banned certain gender-affirming medical treatments for minors, which impacted some Magic City students. A federal judge Friday night blocked aspects of that law.
Even in the hours leading up to the dance, a gubernatorial candidate released a campaign ad questioning why there is a “transgender school” in Alabama – further fueling an election debate that has threatened Magic City’s hard-fought existence.
First day at a new school
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, describing students walking down the halls with hoodies on or wrapped in comforters, clutching stuffed animals and anxious about being in a new place.
The seniors made the decision to transfer in their last year because of the bullying and harassment they faced in previous schools – some saying Magic City was their only chance at a positive high school experience.
That was the case for Tyler, who used to bring a friend or scissors as protection with him to his old school’s bathroom out of fear that someone would attack him again, telling him he didn’t belong there.
“They would never leave me alone,” he said of his old classmates at Brookwood high school – where staff in 2012 wouln’t let a gay student go to prom with a same sex date.
Magic City administrators said each of their 240 students had experienced either discrimination or the challenges of virtual learning in previous schools. They wanted to provide students with a foundation of “mental, emotional and social safety” before starting academic instruction, spending the first two weeks only on relationship-building.
“We took that time to build community and collaboration, and honing in on it and making it a priority in the beginning has helped it continue throughout the school year,” said Charity Jackson, chief academic officer at Magic City Acceptance Academy.
Teachers learned students’ pronouns and asked for grace when they sometimes made a mistake. Each classroom built “community norms” together to determine how they’d conduct themselves and hold one another accountable.
For the seniors – Tyler, Clover, Lyn, Sydney, Emily, Loki, Tully, Cedric, Soup, Gwen, Matt and Landon – these steps allowed them to build trust with the staff and one another.
Most of the 12 seniors describe their old school environments as causing them to fail academically, suffer from mental health issues or engage in suicidal ideations or self-harm.
According to a 2019 Alabama School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national advocacy organization, nearly 80% of LGBTQ students in public and private schools in the state said they’d faced at least one form of discrimination during the school year.
The Alabama State Department of Education does not have any policies or protections in place to specifically support LGBTQ students, officials told AL.com, nor do they offer specific professional development opportunities for teachers who want to support those students.
“Now I’m here and I can be safe,” said Clover, who left their old school because the boy who bullied them was never held accountable.
“Not that anybody would ever do that here but if they did, the school wouldn’t just give them a slap on the wrist and send them on their way. Something would be done about it. So I take comfort in that a lot.”
Magic City administrators didn’t think they’d have a senior class in their inaugural year, fearing students would choose the familiarity of where they were over the uncertainty of a new school.
But this was the group of students advocates had in mind while fighting so hard to build the school – a fight that brought them in front of the state charter commission four times before getting approved.
‘Last shot’ at high school
Karen Musgrove, founder of the school, works with teens and young adults as the CEO of Birmingham AIDS Outreach and its sister organizations, the Magic City Acceptance Center and Magic City Wellness Center, centers in Alabama dedicated to providing inclusive spaces and mental and physical health care for the LGBTQ community.
When youth came into the Acceptance Center, they’d confide in the staff about their negative experiences at school.
“We couldn’t wait another year for this school because the seniors that were about to graduate would not have had the opportunity to come here,” Musgrove said. “They were talking about the fact that they couldn’t use the restroom and had UTIs, they’d been beaten up, they couldn’t eat because they were afraid to go to the cafeteria. There were just not any happy, affirming stories that were coming out of the schools.”
Lyn said experiences at Mountain Brook high school pushed them to a breaking point.
“I got bullied a lot. And then I got to high school and I was like, OK, new start. It was not a new start. All the same people were there. Nothing improved,” Lyn said. “My grades were dropping a lot…and felt like my entire life was going down the drain. When the school opened up, it was basically my last shot.”
According to the Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ youth advocacy and suicide prevention organization, the South is home to the largest proportion of the country’s LGBTQ young people. But because of the stigma and lack of access to affirming spaces in the region, LGBTQ youth in the South are more likely to have attempted suicide than anywhere else in the U.S.
“[LGBTQ youth] are at high risk for a lot of stress, anxiety and trauma because of bullying,” said Cynthia Jones, director of the Psychiatric Intake Response Center at Children’s of Alabama. “Being able to feel accepted and affirmed in this very conservative part of the country is a lot more difficult than in other parts of the country.”
In Alabama, LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their peers, and twice as likely to not go to school because they felt unsafe or experienced violence on campus, according to the state’s most recent youth risk behavior survey.
Trevor Project researchers found that “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,” said Myeshia Price, senior research scientist.
During the past year, the Magic City seniors have had their first sleepovers and have gone to their first parties, making trips to Walmart together after class to buy food, drinks and decorations.
“My daughter describes the senior class as one big friend group,” said Kimberly Fasking, the mom of a senior student. “She finally feels like she belongs and wants to be a part of what’s happening. She never used to text me before and ask to go to a friend’s house after school.”
Students have also built close relationships with the staff.
Daniel Evans first heard of the school while helping a family friend, an eighth-grader who is transgender, look for a safe high school – eventually deciding on Magic City.
Evans knew he wanted to teach there after an interview with the school where he learned they’d implement project-based learning and a social justice focus.
“That made me want to come not just for the fact of what the school represents, how open and accepting it is, but just the education itself and being able to teach history as it happened,” he said.
Evans, a social studies teacher, teaches students about the Stonewall riots and hangs pictures on his wall of Marsha P. Johnson, a gay-rights advocate, and Malcolm X.
Seniors said their relationships with staff members have made them feel respected and comfortable enough to participate in class and be involved in the school community, resulting in higher grades for most of them.
Sydney went from failing her junior year to applying to aerospace engineering programs at colleges.
“Teachers at my old school never knew my name because I was in the back of the class not participating,” Sydney said. “But I can participate here because I feel safe doing so.”
Many of the students even say their relationships are “like family.”
“Ten years from now that group of seniors is going to be showing up to my house for Thanksgiving dinner,” Evans said.
The school’s second semester started with a month-long shift to virtual school in response to the omicron variant.
Administrators tried to maintain a sense of normalcy and connectedness. The school’s counselor and social worker kept virtual office hours for any student who needed mental health services. Teachers provided well-attended community hours on Zoom during lunch break so students could have a space to gather and talk.
The seniors FaceTimed each other and made TikToks for their friends to see. Tyler kept an Airpod in his ear at all times so he could talk to his partner, a junior who he met at school, as he went through the day.
When students finally did return to the building in February, it was “a wonderful sound,” says Wilson, describing students filling the hallways and reconnecting after so long apart.
“Some of the things that we do notice with the isolation of the pandemic is that for [LGBTQ youth], going to school sometimes is one of the only places where they are able to communicate and feel like themselves because many don’t have that ability at home,” said Dr. Jesse Martinez Jr., a psychiatrist at Children’s of Alabama. “They lost that when they were not able to go to school or be with peer groups or friends.”
Students began planning a drag show to celebrate a return to school and to raise money for the Quiz Bowl team to compete at a tournament in Washington, D.C. Wilson said the students picked the event theme, just as they had brainstormed ideas for other fundraisers, like a “pie the teacher” event.
Community events allow the school to celebrate students for more than their academics and provide aspects of the traditional public school experience.
For Wilson, the school’s events during the first semester, like an open mic night and art show, were when he knew the school would succeed.
“The kids wanted a platform to perform, and there was a beauty in…everyone coming together to make it happen,” he said.
For the drag show, the students decided the teachers would be the performers.
Lyn, Clover, Soup, Tyler and Tully took to their sketch pads to draw out a look for Evans, who would be styled in a Mardi Gras theme.
Lyn made a sleeveless dress with a white top, purple skirt and gold fringe. Clover worked a white wig into space buns with bangs and glitter. Soup and Tully were responsible for the makeup and Tyler helped fit the costume.
Evans would go by the name of BB Queen and walk into “Almost There” from Princess and the Frog as his family watched from the audience.
On the day of the show, the five seniors frantically moved around Evans’ classroom getting his look ready, gluing on eyebrows and dousing him in body glitter at the last minute.
“It’s ok,” Tyler said, trying to calm them. “The whole goal of this is to have fun.”
On April 1, a week after the drag show, Tim James, a candidate for governor in Alabama, put out a TV ad using pictures of the event, some showing students’ faces, taken from the school’s Facebook page.
“Now, right here in Alabama, we’ve chartered the first transgender public school in the South, using millions of your tax dollars,” the ad said, calling the drag show “exploitation.”
One of the last images is of teachers who performed in drag posing together for a photo. It was taken as the show came to a close and students screamed for a performance of “Hey Now!” from the Lizzie McGuire movie, which won by a crowdsourced vote.
Tyler called the show “one of my happiest moments” of the school year.
But after the ad aired, the school said it began facing security issues, including strangers who showed up at the school to film students and shout Bible verses at them. Students stopped eating lunch outside, wary of the potential harassment.
The campaign told AL.com in a statement at the time: “We find it unconscionable to use the concept of protecting kids as an opportunity to expose them to drag queen shows and normalize perversion.” James’ campaign did not respond to an additional request for comment for this article.
On the campaign trail and in social media, James has vowed to shut down the school if he’s elected and “eliminate the LGBTQ agenda from the classroom.”
“It brought up an old sense of trauma and more anxiety,” Wilson said of the students’ reactions to the ad. “He’s misrepresenting us, and calling us a transgender school, which we’re not. He’s putting that label on the whole school community and he has never stepped foot in the school.”
Public charter schools in Alabama must accept all students who apply, which Magic City does. The school gets the foundation program funding that every school gets per student from the state, Wilson said, but it does not receive local tax dollars, relying heavily instead on money from charitable organizations and private donors.
As the ads continued to air, Wilson and Musgrove feared the stump speeches would jeopardize funding for their school and other charters.
“All of a sudden, the Magic City Acceptance Academy is on the front line of all the chatter in Montgomery, and we just became a burden to the other charter schools,” Musgrove said.
The state cut $2.9 million dollars earmarked for charter schools five days after the ad was released. The money instead went unearmarked to the department of education.
The budget debate came amid other discussions about LGBTQ children in the Alabama State House, and nationally, as Republicans legislated the group’s access to medical care, bathrooms and sports teams.
In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey signed two bills into law on April 11 that ban gender-affirming care for minors, require school personnel to report to parents if a student is questioning their gender identity, prohibit classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity, and require students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender on their birth certificate. The laws come after a 2021 law that bans transgender youth from participating in school sports that align with their gender identity.
“They’re trying to kill us!” said Clover in Evans’ class as they discussed the legislation.
That day, Tyler, Soup, Lyn and Tully sat cross-legged on Evans’ classroom rug trying to process the impact of the laws. Their emotional-support stuffed animals perched on their laps.
When signing the bills into law, Ivey said “there are very real challenges facing our young people, especially with today’s societal pressures and modern culture. I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”
But all Soup heard in the governor’s rhetoric is “another adult who doesn’t want to talk to us, doesn’t care to learn.”
“It’s like protect the children, but they forget we are the children,” said Soup.
‘Worth fighting for’
As they drove up the hill to the school in April, after the laws were passed, students were greeted by signs along the road that read “We love you!” and “Trans is Beautiful” and “You Belong here.”
One parent got people from an online group to send in messages of support from around the world, which they posted throughout the walls of the school:
“Be you always! Things may be hard right now but you are worth fighting for. You are loved by this mom from Tampa, FL!”
In the 48 hours after the bills were passed, the emergency room at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham saw a “big uptick” in suicide attempts, according to a doctor at the hospital.
“With these bills, the anxiety experienced by these youth increases and is synergized by the baseline epidemic of mental health challenges for youth today and the pandemic,” said Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, a pediatrician at Children’s of Alabama. “You put those forces together, and the levels of anxiety, difficulty thinking clearly, succeeding academically, and staying healthy for LGBTQ youth, especially trans and nonbinary youth, now have an exponentially higher level of challenge and risk.”
The students at Magic City were glued to their phones, checking social media to see what people said about the school in response to the ad and sometimes commenting in its defense.
They also wanted to know how Evans, who was featured in the ad as a drag show contestant, was doing – but he decided to focus on ways the students could protect themselves in his lesson plans.
“The biggest role of this school is to make students feel safe,” he said. “You do that by being open and accepting of who they are while teaching them the skills they need…so they don’t have to change themselves, but can change the society in which they exist.”
During second period, Evans pulled his minivan around to the back of the school and told the senior class that he’d teach them how to change a tire.
“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,” he said, looking at Loki, a Black, trans woman. The Human Rights Campaign has found that Black and Latinx transgender women are disproportionate targets of fatal violence.
“I’ll sleep better at night knowing you know how to change a tire.”
Evans put down beach towels he brought from home, embroidered with his children’s names, so students don’t have to sit directly on the blacktop.
“I tried to anticipate what y’all were going to complain about,” he said.
They all took turns rotating the lug nuts, pulling off the tire, putting it back on and screwing the nuts back in, each one put in directly opposite of the other so the tire stayed stable.
“Don’t put all your weight into tightening the lug nuts because that’s the energy you’ll have to use to loosen them,” he advised as they turned.
When Landon finally lowered the jack at the end of the exercise, the class clapped, eager to return inside with the towels wrapped around them for warmth. Evans thanked them for participating.
“It means a lot to me,” he said.
On the day of senior prom in April, Lindy Blanchard, a former Trump ambassador and another Republican gubernatorial candidate, also put out an ad similar to James’, though she did not directly name Magic City.
In the ad, the candidate asked why Ivey had used taxpayer dollars to pay for a “transgender school,” when the money could have been spent on improving education, access to mental health and other programs across the state.
The campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The new ad prompted the school to get a Homewood police officer to guard the door of the prom. Staff had to approve students, friends and parents before they could enter.
“It was such a genius move by us in hindsight to put the school next to a police station,” said Musgrove.
But once inside the students didn’t talk about the ad and stayed off their phones.
The school’s cafeteria space was covered in purple balloons, shiny, silver backdrops, two disco balls and a banner at the entrance where students posed with “GAAAY!” fans.
At first, students stood around the perimeter of the dance floor.
“I don’t know how to act,” Tully said, standing next to a table in a blue, off-the-shoulder gown.
But soon “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift came on, and the dance floor began to fill with students jumping up and down, singing to one another.
The “Expressions Ball,” as the prom was officially titled, featured a ballroom portion – an ode to the subculture popular among queer Black and Latin New Yorkers in the 1980s that’s still celebrated in pop culture today in shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Loki opened the show, strutting forcefully in a blue and black ball gown, waving their “GAAAAY!” fan, twirling and dipping to the ground as other students chanted “Icon! Icon!”
Students performed their fiercest walks to Diana Ross and Madonna – sometimes doing so many poses they looked like they may fall before catching themselves and moving forward.
Some walked hand-and-hand down the aisle together while others cartwheeled.
With their faces hidden behind the large fans, the judges deliberated each category.
Clover and their theater teacher were announced as the winners of the student-teacher runway walk.
“Shantay, you stay!” declared the emcee, rewarding the duo’s synchronized poses to “Glamorous” by Fergie.
As Clover made their way to the dancefloor after being crowned, they linked arms with Lyn. The two had on matching makeup and are rarely seen apart. After graduation, they plan to start a commune together. Or maybe buy an Airstream trailer and simply see where they end up.
Together they spun in circles, laughing.
“It’s so nice to be confident enough to dance,” Clover said. “This is just a dream.”
Savannah Tryens-Fernandes is a member of The Alabama Education Lab team at AL.com. She is supported through a partnership with Report for America. Learn more here and contribute to support the team here.