Coming Out

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Mehlville, Mo.

On Tuesday, March 22, Rodney Wilson returned to his teaching job at Mehlville (Mo.) High School from a two-day trip to Washington, where he had visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, he had bought a poster depicting the various id patches concentration-camp inmates were compelled to wear, and he brought it with him that day to his junior history class. Pulling a chair to the front of the classroom, the 28-year-old teacher sat down and told his students he was gay. Wilson pointed to the pink triangle on the poster and said, "If I had been in Europe during World War II, I would have been forced to wear this pink triangle, and I would have been gassed to death."

To Wilson, it seemed an auspicious time to reveal his homosexuality, although he admits he was not certain he would do it until the very last moment. Pedagogically, it made good sense: His students were studying the events of World War II and had just finished watching the movie "Escape from Sobibor," an account of the only successful mass escape from a Nazi death camp. His mention of his homosexuality and the extermination of homosexuals was made in the context of the larger genocide.

There had been rumors around school that Wilson was gay--rumors that began to proliferate in January, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a letter from Wilson supporting a column that advocated same-sex marriage. He cited biblical passages to argue his case. "Many among the faculty were very, very upset," Wilson recalls. He was told that one teacher who always thought highly of him cried because of the letter. The person was outraged, Wilson says, "that I could be so arrogant as to use the Bible to support gay-lesbian marriage." He also heard that a male faculty member got down on his knees in the school office to propose to another, making fun of what Wilson had written.

But addressing the rumors was the least of Wilson's reasons for coming out. Much more important was his conviction that students needed to see, as he puts it, "a human face behind the 'evil' word 'homosexual.'" This conviction had been intensifying since the fall of 1991, his second year of teaching in Mehlville, a St. Louis suburb, when his students debated whether a lesbian couple should be allowed to adopt children. The answer was a belligerent "no." In fact, some of Wilson's students said they would burn down the house of any lesbian couple who moved near them.

Wilson is a compulsive writer, fastidiously documenting events and offering provocative analyses of them. In a single-spaced, five-page account of the events of March 22, Wilson makes an analogy that had been gestating since the discussion of the lesbian couple. "If I were black in 1956 Montgomery, Ala.," he writes, "teaching blind students who were white, and I discovered that the students hated blacks (not knowing I was black), as a teacher I would have to reveal my blackness in an attempt to help them overcome their bigotry. Similarly, I needed to reveal my gayness to my students."

Both Wilson and his students agree that his disclosure met with an overwhelmingly sympathetic response. One student, and then another, praised his courage. And as they began to applaud, the others joined in. Wilson told the class that what he had done was risky, that he could suffer "on-the-job discrimination as a result." His students asked questions: "Do your parents know?" "How did you know you were gay?" "How did your being gay affect your growing up?" Wilson replied that he knew he was gay from the age of 7 and that his parents, whom he informed three years ago, were accepting. Three girls, overcome by the emotion in the room, began to cry.

Encouraged by this response, Wilson decided to make the same disclosure to his next class. Here, the reaction was much more prosaic. After one or two cursory questions, students asked: "Are we getting our tests back?" By the end of the day, the news had traveled through much of the 2,000-student school. Wilson's students supported him unreservedly; they said they would file petitions, organize marches, or do whatever was necessary to protect him should he face any harassment. Most students had little reaction at all, although the ensuing gossip, which exhausted itself within a week or two, was a temporary diversion from the everyday routine. Occasionally, students dropped by to offer encouragement; others strode into his classroom and peered at him, apparently wanting to see what a gay person actually looked like.

Wilson concludes his document on the events of March 22 this way: "I could write a thousand pages and speak a million words in support of what I have done. If necessary, I will do just that. In the meantime, may God bless my beloved students for their righteousness and bring into existence a world in which their opinions dominate."

In making his disclosure, Wilson was taking some serious professional risks. He is eligible for tenure at the end of the 1994-95 school year, his fifth year of teaching, and many of his colleagues believe his actions have jeopardized his chances. "This won't blow over," says one teacher, who asks to remain anonymous. "Of course, they won't fire him because he acknowledged to his students that he was gay. That would cause them all kinds of legal and political problems. But next year, he'd better watch his step because they may be looking to nab him on some pretense."

At the time, Wilson was relatively unconcerned. His teaching record was impeccable. The evaluations he had received from Assistant Principal John Brandenburg and social-studies department chairman Don Dulin praised him for everything from "staying on lesson objectives" to establishing "a 'safe zone' for differing viewpoints." Several of his students say they have learned more from him than anyone else. And many of his fellow teachers--even those who are wary of gays and gay rights--applaud his work and integrity. Veteran math teacher Bill Henchel, who had been Wilson's mentor during his first year at Mehlville High, claims that "Wilson is one of the finest young teachers I've ever seen. Intelligent, caring, committed. I've learned a lot from him and have tried to emulate some of the things he does in the classroom."

But there are, according to Henchel, "a lot of c.y.a."--cover your ass--"people in our administration. If anything comes up out of the ordinary, they take some action so they can say, 'We took this action, so you can't do anything to us.' They were anticipating a lot of problems and were shocked when there were none."

Wilson is the antithesis of the kind of wild-eyed iconoclast who strikes fear into the hearts of administrators. He grew up in a conservative Missouri town and is a former member of the Assemblies of God, a fundamentalistok here.--gb. Christian church. He remembers his father once saying, "I don't want a queer within a mile of this house." Wilson disparages moral relativism--what he calls the "you-do-your-thing-and-I'll-do-mine philosophy"--and is pro-life, though he doesn't share this information with his students. "I don't want to stifle debate," he says. A teetotaler and nonsmoker who has hung perhaps 50 "Proud To Be Drug-Free" ribbons from the light fixtures in his classroom, he headed a "Students Against Drinking and Driving" group at the school for three years.

Still a Christian (if no longer a fundamentalist), he says he is saddened by the fact that so much of the antagonism toward gays and lesbians is rooted in the church. He greatly resents that some Christians are taught to associate homosexuality and immorality. Hate, he says, is the ultimate evil.

Wilson, then, was not fearful on March 24, when, in the midst of a lesson, he was summoned from his classroom to Principal Ron Jones's office. Jones and and his assistant principal, Brandenburg, were waiting for him there.

"Is this about the gay issue?" Wilson asked.

"Yes," Brandenburg said.

Wilson agreed to give them an account of what happened on March 22, but first he asked that Gail Egleston, a Mehlville High English teacher and the school's union representative, be permitted to sit in. It was, Egleston says, one of the gentlest meetings she has ever attended. Wilson talked and the administrators took notes. During the meeting, Brandenburg praised Wilson's "articulateness and intellect," acknowledging that he was an outstanding teacher. He did regret, however, that Wilson had not immediately informed him of what had occurred in class; he and other administrators had felt "blind-sided." They had heard, for instance, that Wilson had cried in class (which had not happened) and were concerned about his emotional state. They had also heard a rumor that Wilson had told his class he would be fired.

Finally, Brandenburg expressed concern about the impact such personal information and viewpoints--here he referred to the letter Wilson had written to the Post-Dispatch--could have on the school community. Did Wilson think individual rights were more important than institutional rights?

Two weeks later, Jones called Wilson back into his office and told him that he would soon be receiving a memorandum, written by Assistant Superintendent Maureen Spence and a lawyer for the Mehlville district, asking that homosexuality not be a topic of discussion in the classroom unless the issue had "relevance to the curriculum." According to Wilson, Jones tried to disassociate himself from the memorandum--even though the principal's name would appear on it--by saying, "I have no problem with you" and "You have broken no policy."

The two-paragraph memorandum, which Wilson received on April 14, is a masterwork of bureaucratic evasiveness. In essence, it's a reprimand that wants to be something other than a reprimand, a spanking that doesn't want to be perceived as a threat. The memo begins, "Mehlville School District considers it inappropriate conduct for a teacher to discuss facts and beliefs of a personal nature, regardless of the nature of those beliefs, in the classroom." After emphasizing that the memorandum is not an attempt to "suppress your personal viewpoint," it stipulates that district policy "requires a teacher to employ appropriate instructional methods and to accept suggestions from principals and supervisors to improve educational practice. Your primary responsibility is to teach the curriculum as outlined by the Mehlville School District."

This last point apparently is crucial to the administration, for it is reiterated in the last paragraph, along with the reminder that "viewpoints on facts of a personal nature [should be left] outside the classroom." Not once in the memorandum do the words "gay" or "homosexual" appear.

Wilson immediately construed the memo as a gag order. "The more I read it, the more disturbed I became," he says. "What they were saying to me, in effect, was that I can't bear witness to the Holocaust. They say it's inappropriate to discuss facts of a personal nature. But how can it be wrong to say that I, as a homosexual, would have died had I then been living in Europe? To accuse me of inappropriate behavior is blatantly discriminatory. Thirty years from now people will look back on such a memo with disbelief."

While Wilson believes teachers must not proselytize and insists that he does not advocate gay rights to his students, he just as adamantly insists that he be permitted to exercise the same rights as heterosexual teachers.

"My third-period class wondered about me because I would occasionally make reference to gay and lesbian people," he says. "But heterosexual people announce their heterosexuality on many occasions. I'll talk to someone barely five minutes when he tells me he's heterosexual in a billion different ways. We must be given the same freedom. If a heterosexual teacher is allowed to put a picture of his wife and child on his desk, then a homosexual teacher can't be told not to do that. Of course, they don't allow us to marry in this state. But if I am in my heart married to someone, I'll put his picture on my desk. If heterosexuals do it, I'll do it, too."

From the day Wilson received the memorandum, he has indefatigably worked to have the administration remove it from his file. "They can redeem themselves by rescinding the memo," he says. "It belongs in the dustbin of history. We young people just aren't going to hide anymore. We must live above ground, not in parks and dark places."

Wilson responded to the district memorandum with a 29-page document of his own. It is a document that ostensibly asks Jones for clarification but that is, in effect, a polemic, remarkable for its thoroughness, breadth, and tone of barely contained rage. Largely, it consists of questions with a vituperative edge. He begins by asking if heterosexual teachers are also subject to the memorandum and are, therefore, being advised, among other things, not to wear wedding rings or to talk about their children, as these things constitute a disclosure of personal facts.

Then he goes after the administration's assertion that teachers should refrain from voicing personal views. He asks if the following classroom statements, which parallel his own about the Holocaust, would be violations of school policy: "As a Jew, I would have been gassed to death." "As a Jehovah's Witness, I would have been forced to renounce my religion or face execution." If these statements would have been acceptable, he asks, then why not his own?

Clearly prodding district administrators to acknowledge that they don't truly object to an espousal of personal views, as long as they're conventional views, Wilson continues with his questioning: "Is it a violation to tell students that drug use is a vice?" "May teachers voice their support of civil rights?" Finally, after asking the administration to define a "personal fact," Wilson asks: "Is the fact that one is a vegetarian a 'fact of a personal nature'? Is the fact that one has been to Rome a 'fact of a personal nature'?"

One particular question seems to contain the others, addressing just how far teachers must go to separate their personal lives from their professional lives. "If a teacher is unable to speak from personal experience, I must ask, are we teachers simply robots whose life is activated at 7:35 A.M. and deactivated at 2:10 P.M.?"

Even before Wilson received the memorandum and composed his response, he was planning to step up coverage in his classes of gay and lesbian history, which he considers woefully inadequate. Wilson points to his history textbook and shakes his head with disdain. "Eight hundred pages," he says, "and not a word about gays and lesbians. You wouldn't even know we existed--that's how buried our history is. I don't want to be pushy, but I do want to be true to history. History is sacred."

Wanting to know if the memorandum would affect his plans to explore gay and lesbian history with his students, Wilson asked that it be rescinded or clarified within two weeks. Receiving no response, he repeated his request on May 2, saying he intended to mention the discrimination homosexuals suffered during the McCarthy era. Still receiving no response, he informed Jones on May 9 of a number of topics he hoped to cover that would entail mention or discussion of gays and lesbians. The administration continued its silence, and Wilson continued to press. He sent yet another written request and then followed it up with phone calls to the assistant superintendent's office.

Finally, on June 8, Wilson received a response in the form of a certified letter from the district's law firm, Kohn, Shands, Elbert & Giljum. The April 8 district memorandum, it stated, would not be retracted. The Mehlville School District remained fully convinced that Wilson's behavior was inappropriate. Because the outcome of his case is far from certain (it may end up in court), Wilson does not want the specific contents of the letter made public. But it is essentially a restatement of the original district memorandum. As a teacher, it says, Wilson's job is to present the curriculum and refrain from interjecting personal viewpoints. While it is appropriate for him to present a variety of viewpoints on different issues, and indeed he is encouraged to do so, he must not personally espouse any given position.

In what was becoming a cat-and-mouse game, Wilson responded with a nine-page letter of his own. In it, he agrees that the classroom must not become a forum for one's personal views, yet he strenuously argues that such a position carried to an extreme is both ludicrous and a violation of a teacher's right to free speech. Could a teacher, for example, not advocate for the equal rights of African-Americans and women? Must he, in discussing the status of African-Americans, present as reasonable the viewpoint of skinheads as well as the N.A.A.C.P.'s?

Having outlined the details of his position, the concluding paragraphs of Wilson's letter are both resolute and sorrowful: "It is self-evident to me that I am experiencing woes with the Mehlville School District. ... I have no doubt that the Mehlville School District does not want me to be granted tenure; therefore, they are at this time attempting to create the rope with which to hang me. ... I am of the opinion that this case involves a violation of my right to free speech and that of the 700 other teachers in the Mehlville School District. I am of the opinion, therefore, that the Mehlville School District must be stopped in its tracks."

Wilson says he has to "walk on eggshells" until he is granted or denied tenure, but he is determined to address in the classroom aspects of gay and lesbian history that he believes are important. Most notably, he is organizing a national movement to designate October 1994 as the first gay history/awareness month across the United States. He plans to celebrate the month in his classroom, just as he now celebrates Black History month and Women's History month.

"From now on," he says, "I'm going to exercise all the rights straight people have. I know some parents will probably go berserk. I don't mean to provoke. But if exercising my rights means provoking people, then I'm sorry. It's like Martin Luther King. He was a rabble-rouser, but he was only doing what was right. The country hadn't caught up with him yet because he was way ahead of the curve."

Wilson's actions raise difficult questions: How familiar with students should a teacher be? Does good teaching inevitably and necessarily involve an expression of self? Or should a teacher's single task be to impart only the skills and information contained in the curriculum? Does the teacher who expresses his or her viewpoint or makes a personal revelation guide students toward an opinion they have not yet formed on their own?

This last point was a principal concern of social-studies chairman Dulin, who in the past had given Wilson outstanding evaluations. "When it comes to contemporary issues," he says, "I think it's best to take a neutral position. Lead the discussion off with free inquiry and then get the students to explore different sides of the issue. The discussion should be free and open because the kids are more comfortable if they feel they can say anything."

While Dulin praises Wilson's teaching, he declines to offer an opinion on his particular case. (Neither Mehlville Superintendent of Schools Robert Rogers nor Assistant Superintendent Spence returned phone calls regarding the Wilson matter.) But Principal Ron Jones is forthright. "Personally, yes, I feel he made a mistake," he says. "The potential for using that information in a negative sense is enormous." The principal notes that if Wilson were to give a male student an F, the student could blackmail the teacher by saying that he tried to fondle him.

"Rodney had a 'Kodak moment' with the kids," Jones says, "one of those times when everything just seems to flow. But he should have kept it hidden."

Did that mean that Wilson should lie about his homosexuality?

"He shouldn't deny it," Jones says. "But he shouldn't admit it either."

Jones looks and sounds world-weary. He speaks sadly of the changes he has witnessed during his four decades in education--changes that have required teachers to be more and more impersonal. "I myself am a hugger, but I don't do it anymore," he says. "We've got to be careful about touching for legal reasons. It scares the death out of me. It used to be that when I came across a boy I knew, I'd give him a friendly little pop in the shoulder, but I don't even do that anymore. At one time, we used to take a kid home if he or she got sick, but those days are past."

Jones admires Wilson, saying he is a natural teacher who has a tremendous rapport with his students. He also acknowledges that teachers can't avoid talking about their personal lives but then asserts--seemingly reiterating the district memo--that "the teacher is there to present the facts the best he can." While he agrees that the memo could have been better phrased, he says its intent was "to make sure Wilson understood the parameters as far as the curriculum was concerned. If Rodney wants to teach facts as facts, as they pertain to the subject matter, people will accept it."

What of Wilson's decision to come out? According to Kevin Jennings, a history teacher at Concord Academy in Massachusetts and the author of One Teacher in 10: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories, teachers are always better off coming out. "Even people who experience some harassment still feel better after acknowledging their homosexuality universally," he says. "Fear of violence goes away, along with fear of job loss. When you're gay, you don't know where your support may be, and gay teachers inevitably find they have many straight allies. Having to be silent when confronted with homophobia is enormously degrading to teachers.

"More often than not, the fears don't come true--students, for instance, don't engage in name-calling. This generation grew up during a time when gay people became visible, and they're not as freaked about homosexuality," Jennings says. "Besides, young people are by nature idealistic, reacting with indignation to manifest unfairness. They're the biggest allies of gay teachers. When there is harassment, it's almost always from administrators."

In Wilson's case, there wasn't so much as a single complaint lodged by parents regarding Wilson's disclosure, as Principal Jones acknowledges. Why then did the administration take any action at all? Karen Harbeck, a Massachusetts lawyer specializing in the legal needs of lesbian and gay clients and the editor of a book titled Coming Out of the Classroom Closet, says a prudent employer wouldn't harass gay or lesbian educators since recent legal judgments have consistently gone against those who have.

Harbeck, who has corresponded with Wilson and followed his situation, surmises that the administration was anticipating trouble that never came. "We've found that administrations are typically swayed by the first phone calls that come in, which are typically hostile calls," she explains. "Yet, experience demonstrates that they're watching the wrong phone calls. The rights belong with the accused."

Harbeck is impatient with the notion that Wilson made a mistake in disclosing his homosexuality. "Teachers talk about their personal lives all the time," she says. "It's astounding how much goes on. I recently came across a situation in which a 4th-grade math teacher was talking in class about a leather watch that turns him on. The amount of heterosexism"--discrimination against homosexuals by heterosexuals--"in classrooms is amazing, right down to the wedding ring. So in the case of gay and lesbian teachers, it's, 'Oh, Lord, I don't want these hostile phone calls.' But if a phone call scares them, if they run because one person calls about Rodney Wilson, then why are they in education?"

While defending Wilson and the right of teachers to "come out," Harbeck emphasizes that teachers have no license, morally or legally, to expatiate upon their personal lives. Any mention of one's homosexuality had best be done within the context of a lesson, and even then it has to be approached with extreme caution. "I would bring in speakers--gays and lesbians from the community--rather than talk extensively about my personal life," Harbeck says. "I told that to Rodney in person. If he's invited to give a presentation to the faculty or to students, that's one thing. But to sit in class and talk about his struggles at age 12 is inappropriate for any educator. You're supposed to stay on course with the curriculum. Rodney can talk about Stonewall [the 1969 gay uprising in New York City] without going into his personal life. He can put it into a historical context without exposing himself directly.

"If I were Rodney Wilson, I would form a club, Harbeck says. "A gay-straight alliance of which I would offer to be a faculty adviser. It could meet after school like the ski club or anything else. Here's where I would talk to students one on one--not in the midst of coursework."

Harbeck believes that Wilson spent too much time generating documents when he should have been establishing an open dialogue with district administrators. Citing a 1989 report by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department estimating that almost one-third of teenage suicides are committed by homosexuals, she believes that Wilson should have emphasized the importance of being a positive role model for gay and lesbian students.

"Unfortunately, Rodney lost contact, and now he has a stalemate in which no one is really talking," she says. "He needs to create a larger educational context so that people know what it's all about. People say, 'Why does he have to talk about it?' There's an answer to that. We've been invisible for 300 years. The world is so heterosexist that we need to overbalance it until it comes out level. So what Rodney has done is incredibly important. But now he must work on the interpersonal level. You must be expansive instead of pedantic."

The Rodney Wilson case can perhaps be distilled into a single question: Just how much of themselves--their passions, their ideas, their personal histories--should teachers be expected to leave at the school door?

Most of the teachers interviewed for this story--both gay and straight--say they generally strive to maintain a "middle ground." While they reserve the right to make personal statements, they do so cautiously, not wanting to make themselves the center of attention. Interestingly enough, a number of gay teachers who have not disclosed their homosexuality to their students say they remain silent in the classroom for this very reason. As far as their teaching is concerned, they believe that their homosexuality is irrelevant, and public disclosure would place them in the limelight, where the students belong.

Gail Egleston, the Mehlville High English teacher and union representative, elaborates on the difference between giving an opinion and proselytizing. "If a student has a right to interpret an event," she says, "we have a right to interpret it, too. We do both ourselves and our students a disservice if we continually feign neutrality. If a student says, 'Want a steak?' I'll say, 'No, I'm a vegetarian' and explain why I think not eating meat is a good thing. But we don't present our views as gospel. We present them as opinions."

Wilson agrees with Egleston. Gesturing to the walls of his classroom, which are covered with pictures of everyone from movie stars to Ronald Reagan and George Bush to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he says he is primarily interested in celebrating diversity. Eclecticism is his modus operandi.

"When it comes to expressing your opinions, there are two lines of thought," he says. "One is that teachers should express their biases so that students can respond accordingly. The other is that teachers should not express bias. I generally lean toward not expressing my bias. For instance, if you ask my students if I'm pro-life or pro-choice, it would probably be a 50-50 vote. While I'm pro-life, they're not going to know that. My students are going to know, just by looking around the room, that I support African-American rights and that I believe African-Americans have been violated, abused. But I want to be careful with interjecting my opinions because you want your students to think on their own. You don't want to crush their ability to create ideas. I would be crossing the line at the point where I begin to impose my ideas in an inappropriate way upon my students."

It is perhaps too easy to think of Wilson's situation solely in terms of a teacher's right to free expression. Wilson insists that he has a right to say who he is, just as heterosexual teachers every day say who they are "in a billion different ways." But he also wants people to consider the impact his revelation could have on gay and lesbian students who, as members of a group disparaged by society, often endure a self-loathing that can be scarring and even fatal. His coming out of the closet, he says, has enabled him to work openly and honestly with gay and lesbian students who are sometimes perched on the edge of the abyss.

Sitting in Wilson's classroom after school are four such students--one girl and three boys. One of the boys says that from the time he was in elementary school he has always felt different, an oddity in what he has come to identify as a heterosexual world. He, like the other three students seated with him, endured taunting and the accompanying sense of shame throughout his childhood. Wilson's coming out, for him and his friends, was an event of enormous significance, he says, helping gay students move toward self-acceptance.

One of the other boys offers what may be the most important perspective on Rodney Wilson's disclosure that March day. Wilson, the boy says, saw him through a tumultuous period during which he was battling with his parents, who insisted that he was just "going through a phase." He decided he could no longer live at home. "I dropped out of school, but Mr. Wilson stayed in contact with me," he says. "He said I had to stay in school, so I finally went back. In my mind, he's a true teacher. Only when you can bring something of life from outside the building into the school can you call yourself a real teacher."

Vol. 14, Issue 03

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