The taunting started four years ago, when Dylan Huegerich was 10. Back then, he didn't know what being gay meant, and even today the soft-spoken teenager isn't sure where he fits on the spectrum of sexual orientation. He knows he's different. He knows that his sense of style — his chin-length hair, his dabbling with makeup — caught the eyes of school bullies in Saukville, Wis. In seventh grade he was pelted with snowballs and shoved into lockers. Everywhere he went on campus, students shouted anti-gay slurs and pointed and stared. "It hurt so bad," he says. "I hated my life. I hated everything."
His mother Amy tried to intervene. She says she was told it was her son's fault for standing out and that he should cut his hair or try to act "more manly," allegations the principal declined to comment on. Dylan's mother considered volunteering in his classroom or the cafeteria, but that wouldn't protect him the rest of the time. Every morning, she says, "I knew I was driving him back to this place where he was hurting. Oh, they beat you up? Here, go there again. My heart broke every time he got out of the car."
When the time came to register Dylan for eighth grade, she decided against re-enrollment. "I felt like if I turned in those forms, I was giving him some kind of a sentence," she says. So instead of sending Dylan back to a school that was a 10-minute drive from his house, his mother opted for the publicly funded Alliance School, an hour and a half away in downtown Milwaukee.
The only overtly gay-friendly charter school in the U.S. to accept students as early as the sixth grade, Alliance has several boys who, with their painted nails and longer hairstyles, look like Dylan. But more important, it has many students who say they know how Dylan feels. While only about half of Alliance's 165-member student body identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), nearly all were bullied or harassed at their previous schools. The hallways are filled with masculine girls, effeminate boys, punks, goths, runts, the overweight and the ultra-nerds. Alliance art teacher Jill Engel affectionately calls the school "the island of misfit toys." ...