As a gay man who came out at a young age—14, to be exact—photographer Ryan Pfluger was both excited and anxious about photographing the students at Milwaukee’s Alliance School, the only gay-friendly charter school in the U.S. that starts enrolling students in sixth grade. During this assignment, Pfluger, who says he grew up as “the only gay kid in a macho Italian suburb” of New York City, kept thinking about whether as a teenager he would have preferred to attend a school like Alliance, where about half the students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, but nearly all have been bullied or harassed at their previous schools. “I would have loved this at age 12 or 13 when I felt uncomfortable with who I was. I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t have people who understood me,” he says. “But looking back on it now as an adult — those experiences I had in high school shaped me to be who I am now. They made me the headstrong person I am now.”
Pfluger raises a point that is the central question surrounding Alliance and other schools like it: Is it better to let gay students self-segregate in a cocoon of tolerance, or have them suffer as mainstream schools struggle to reduce bullying? “I worry that this school is a Band-Aid for them and the reality of life is going to hit them when they leave,” Pfluger says. “That was the hardest part for me. This stuff they’re feeling isn’t going to change because they are in a special school — it’s only better when you make it better.”
Still, for some bullying victims, the school is nothing short of a lifeline. Pfluger says he could see the benefits of attending a school like Alliance most vividly when he took a photo of eleventh grader, Robbie Moore, holding hands with Jayde LaPorte, a transgendered ninth grader. “Those two were bonded in a way that was really special,” he says. “I could tell immediately how safe they felt with each other.”
That kind of support — and inclusiveness — is the goal at Alliance. Instead of being tormented, Jayde and Robbie can walk tall, in heels or whatever else they feel like wearing. Says Alliance’s founder and lead teacher, Tina Owen: “I always felt like these kids could survive in other places, but they could thrive here.”
Ryan Pfluger is a Brooklyn-based photographer. See more of his work here.
MORE: Read the full story on the Alliance School in TIME Magazine here.