Magic City Acceptance Academy Opens its Affirming Doors
“Don’t say gay.” “Homosexuality is a choice.”
These phrases are commonplace slang in the LGBTQ+ community used to reference states which have laws prohibiting positive affirming representation of LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 schools.
Alabama is one of them.
Today there are only five states remaining that have yet to repeal such laws despite numerous attempts to do so.
Alabama State Code § 16-40A-2(c)(8) stipulates teacher “must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
But it is not state code, or the acknowledgment of the state being “don’t say gay,” that encouraged the founders of Magic Center Acceptance Academy, the state’s first LGBTQ+ affirming school, to open its doors.
Seven years ago Birmingham AIDS Outreach, Alabama’s first AIDS service organization, began seeing an uptick in student-aged youth seeking counsel in a safe, affirming environment which led to the creation of the Magic City Acceptance Center. The center provides LGBTQ+ youth a space to gather with alike students. It also provides necessary resources such as counselors, medical services, social workers and most importantly, adults who could be seen as allies. In the past five years the center has aided more than 1,500 children and teenagers and is now seeing more than 200 kids a month, engaging students from across the state.
But despite their best efforts the center could only do so much and its students were still facing the reality of what it’s like to be different in schools that are often not equipped to help.
“Through the center we began to see students with high levels of anxiety,” future principal of Magic City Acceptance Academy Michael Wilson said. “In discussions we were repeatedly hearing students share how they felt school was not a safe space for them, we listened to stories of bullying in the classroom and the fear that comes with the absence of an adult ally.”
More than 70% of students reported receiving some form of verbal harassment, 78 percent reported their schools for having discriminatory policies or practices at their school, and only four percent attended a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that included specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression
In 2019 GLSEN, formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, released their findings from a state-wide survey detailing the school climate for LGBTQ+ students in Alabama.
The opening line revealed “Alabama schools were not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) secondary school students. In addition, many LGBTQ students in Alabama did not have access to important school resources, such as Gender and Sexuality Alliances/Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) or similar student clubs, and were not protected by supportive and inclusive school policies.”
“We realized so many kids had been bullied and what they really needed was a diverse community that was affirming to everyone,” Wilson said. “So we sought out to create a new school education concept focused on providing an affirming environment for LGBTQ students and their allies.”
School organizers submitted their first application in January of 2020. It was denied by the Alabama Public Charter School Commision, as was the subsequent appeal, which was also heard by the committee but differed due to outside counsel. Six months later a second submission was denied in absentia when four of the eight members chose not to vote, effectively killing the initiative.
On November 4, 2020 Magic City Acceptance Center was given approval to open its doors to more than 250 students in Homewood, Ala beginning in August of 2021. Commissioners voted 7-2 in support of the appeal.
Homewood City Councilman Carlos Aleman, who oversees the part of town the school will be located in, described the school as a welcome opportunity to be able “to serve people from all over the region.”
MCAC purchased a building across Green Springs Highway on the west side of Homewood where they recently began renovations to turn the building into a full fledged school that can accommodate upwards of 600 students.
“Homewood is an inclusive and diverse city,” Aleman said. “The school further demonstrates and reflects the (city’s) commitment to welcome folks from different backgrounds.”
Unlike other schools, Magic City Acceptance Academy will provide resources beyond those commonly found in an academic setting, including social workers, physicians and counselors. Most importantly all staff will receive training on social and restorative justice and trauma-informed interaction between staff and students.
“This is not about putting them (students) out of school, rather it is about keeping them in,” Wilson shared on why these initiatives are so imperative to the school. “Studies have shown that on average students encounter some kind of disparaging bullying at least once a day, and that bullying is trauma and should be treated as such. LGBTQ students are four times more likely to commit sucide than their counterparts, which is why this training is crucial to the success of our school.”
Since opening up their online application in late 2020, the school has nearly reached its original goal of 250 students with several months to go. Anticipation is that a lottery system will need to be used to determine who gets to be a part of this unique and inclusive learning environment.
With new applications pouring in each day comments from both parents and students reaffirm the need for the school, sharing stories of contemplated suicide, or dropping out, but MCAC provides something these children and teens may have not yet had in an academic setting – hope.
“I keep hearing that we are giving parents and students alike hope,” Wilson said. “That is our only goal, to show kids they have a place in society, a role to play and they ultimately belong.
But there is still a long way to go.
The University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Law Williams Institute released their annual data on race and sexual orientation in 2020, which was then compiled by the nonprofit Movement Advancement Project. Alabama received the lowest LGBTQ equality profile, achieving a -5.5 tally out of a possible 38.5 points.
Wilson and his staff recognize this overarching issue and the historic systems and laws which need to be dismantled, but perhaps the school can be a jumping off point to great change.
“I don’t want to be a politician, but maybe the school can be an example of how we can all get along and support one another,” Wilson said. “It is my hope and dream to have the wider community see our culture, see what it can be and have it become a talking point for how we as Alabamians, Americans and humans alike can be better.”