Byline: LAUREN MILNE HENDERSON
FROM the street, it could be just another anonymous Manhattan office block, flanked by bookstores, a Gap clothes store and coffee shops.
But step past the uniformed security guards into the freshly painted halls of Harvey Milk High and you can tell instantly that this is no ordinary innercity school.
It is the students - aged 14 to 19 - that mark the school out as different. Even among exuberant New Yorkers, they are loud, flamboyant and confident, their gestures extravagant and theatrical. One boy with strings of beads round his neck is posturing for a Russian TV crew, sinking into a deep curtsy and flirting with the interviewer.
These could be the Kids From Fame but they are no showbusiness wannabes.
Harvey Milk is the world's first publicly funded high school for gay and lesbian teenagers - and is at the centre of a raging controversy that has split the people of New York.
The decision to pour [pounds sterling]2 million of taxpayers' money into the project has caused fury among America's so-called 'Religious Right'. But New York liberals are concerned also that Harvey Milk may be setting a precedent for a form of sexual apartheid, alarmingly similar to the race bar in Southern schools that sparked the civil rights movement in the Sixties.
Campaign groups often gather outside the school. Supporters throw rainbow-coloured confetti, hold up signs that read You're Our Role Models or Safe Education For All and chant Gay Pride slogans.
Opponents scream that the school is unutterably evil, a shameless violation of Christian morals and the American ideal of one big melting pot.
Their placards say: Sodomy - It's To Die For and Death Penalty For Fags.
The antigay protesters are led by Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister from Kansas and an unashamed hater of homosexuals. His slogan is 'God Hates Fags', and his followers shout it with gusto.
Ruben Israel, a construction worker from Los Angeles, travelled all the way to New York to protest against the school. 'This is a historical moment and this school is a blemish on our society,' he says. But students at Harvey Milk, named after an openly homosexual San Francisco politician who was gunned down in 1978, see the school as a refuge from the horrors of bullying, ridicule and even rape that they have endured at other schools.
One 17-year-old boy in a chunky, silver necklace and tight red T-shirt, who didn't want to be named, said he'd been beaten up at his last school almost every day. He said: 'They'd push me into lockers and call me faggot and queer. I was scared of going to the bathroom because they'd follow me and threaten to rape me.' Other youngsters say they were thrown down staircases and had their heads pushed down toilets, with little or no protection from teaching staff.
Kelly Howell, 18, said: 'I came here because I wanted to be round others who were like me. A lot of us were bullied and here we feel at home and comfortable.' Some …