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Photo by Jeanne RiceMichael is only in his midteens, but his display of manners is impeccable and genuine as he answers the security buzzer, unlocks the plate-glass door and welcomes you to OASIS, the continuation high school program for gay and lesbian students in Long Beach. Then he spots your bracelet. "Oh, I love this," he says. "Can I try it on?"
Extending his arm straight ahead and rotating his hand to get a better sense of the silver bauble, Michael is barely considering the stairs as he leads you toward a second-floor classroom. When he finally drops his arm to his side and begins to make new conversation, you wonder uncomfortably whether he's forgotten your property is still on his wrist.
Turns out that's the reaction he was hoping for. Michael chuckles at his unspoken joke as he removes the bracelet and hands it back.
"Really," he says in a conciliatory tone, just in case you need one. "It's very nice."
Today there are only two other students at OASIS (Out Adolescents Staying In School) because it's still the summer session, so attendance is optional. The program is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, but it rents space in a downtown Long Beach church complex and uses inter-district transfers to include students from Orange County. When the regular schedule resumes in September, enrollment will be about two dozen. That would seem to max out OASIS' current resources—one classroom, one teacher, one assistant and a couple of adjacent offices. But that lone teacher, Sandy Miller, is still playing up outreach and inclusion.
"So many students and parents and schools don't even know we exist," he says. "And a lot of kids end up taking their lives because they don't know there's a place like this."
Adrian and Marcos, who have voluntarily come in for tutoring today, had all but dropped out of their high schools before they transferred to the OASIS program. "I was ditching every day," says Adrian, "because I was having trouble with some of the other students, and nobody at the school was helpful."
For Marcos, OASIS' appeal was pretty basic. "I knew they couldn't be calling me 'faggot,'" he says—and everyone in the room is starting to laugh as they realize where this is going—"because they're faggots, too."
Although OASIS' mission is the schooling of gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgendered and questioning students, it has straight students, too. "Usually they're kids who have dropped out of school and hear about this place from their gay friends," says Miller. "As long as they maintain a safe and trusting environment, we'll work with them."
In one way or another, all the students at OASIS are refugees. "They've been hassled, harassed and sometimes even bashed," says Miller. "They've had stuff thrown at them, from objects to slurs. Some have supportive families, but others are throwaways by parents who have no interest in them because of their sexual orientation. And these kids have said, 'I've had enough of this. I'm outta here.'"
Most don't come immediately to OASIS. "Some students have been out of school for a long time," says Miller. "I've had 18- and 19-year-olds arrive with no high school credits at all. They either bombed out of every class they ever took, or they just didn't go to school at all. Others come with very high skills and near graduation. But they are the lucky ones. Just making it here is a miracle because lots of gay teens don't find a reason to go on."
Michael was living with his grandmother when he informed his family that he wanted to transfer to OASIS. Now he's living with an aunt. "My grandmother told me if I went to OASIS, I would have to leave her house," he explains. "There was all this drama from my family: 'Oh, my gosh! A gay school? All the teachers are faggots,' and this and that. But I said, What about my safety? Here I am going to school in a pretty bad neighborhood—a ghetto, okay?—where everybody's worried about wearing the right gang colors and getting beat up and stuff like that, and here I am just flaming out there. You can imagine with the reputation that place already had, what it was like for an out, homosexual boy. I kinda had it hard."
Michael and Marcos have gotten their studies back on track since they arrived at OASIS. In addition to Adrian's high school work, he has completed two community-college courses while working full-time as the manager of a video store and is considering a career in architecture. Miller brags about an OASIS alum who was accepted at UC Berkeley and is currently attending UCLA. But sometimes the conversation turns to what OASIS can't provide. "I miss lots of stuff about my old school, even though it was pretty bad," Michael admits. "I like going to football games and pep rallies. I miss all the people, the clubs and the gossip and the cliques and the crowds. I enjoyed all of that. My auntie asked me, don't I feel like I'm missing out on my childhood? And I told her that even though I do miss it, I don't think I'll trade away OASIS. With all the criticism I go through every day, with people tearing you down all the time, it restores me to come here with people who care about me. It's like OASIS is my family."
But is such segregation, however comforting at the moment, really the answer? "We hear that question all the time," says Adrian. "People ask if it's going to be more difficult for us to deal with problems in the future if we don't deal with them now. But going to school at OASIS teaches us better ways of dealing with our problems, rather than not dealing with them at all, like we did before. And it's not as though we're here 24 hours a day. We have to go out the door every afternoon at 1:30—and the real world and all its problems are right there waiting for us."