This is Part 2. In Part 1, I discuss the recent firing of a gay pregnant teacher at my old high school, an all-girls Catholic institution in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Please read that part first, so you’ll understand the context in which I’m sharing my own personal experience as a gay teen at Marian High School.
[First, let me disclose that I was a very unhappy teenager: depressed and suicidal and struggling with intense feelings of shame, anger, and self-loathing common to LGBTQ youth. I was no picnic to be around, and many of my peers were ill-equipped to deal with what I was going through. What I really needed was a different environment and/or decade to grow up in, but in absence of that, I needed counseling. (Good counseling. I had bad counseling instead.) I just want to acknowledge all of that right from the start. It was a bad situation, and I was a handful. I am lucky that my wife, who met me when I was 16, has a selective memory.]
I first started to notice my attraction to women when I was about 11 or 12. I had crushes on girls in middle and high school. If I’d had crushes on boys, it could have been a healthy normal thing. I would have talked about it with my friends, laughed, enjoyed the solidarity of growing up and developing romantic feelings. I would have been rejected sometimes, but my friends and family would have supported me, and I would have moved on a little wiser.
Instead, it was all a very shameful secret. It wasn’t cute or exhilarating or romantic to have a crush on another girl. It meant I was a sicko and my feelings were disgusting betrayals of my friendships. Those ugly, sinful affections had to be hidden and destroyed. To add to this, the girls I had crushes on (whether they were aware of it or not) were not always very well-adjusted teenagers themselves, and their rejections were sometimes especially cruel. I wasn’t actually out (in middle or high school), and I didn’t really have people to support me through my angst and heartbreak, in part because I couldn’t even admit, to myself or to others, that those things were happening. For a long time, I told myself that these were standard “friend crushes.” Later, when this seemed less likely, I fought my feelings. I prayed. I researched organizations that claimed to be about to convert homosexuals. I MacGyvered aversion therapy. I fought hard to be straight.
On top of the isolation and rejection, there was the gossip. Not just among the other students, but among their parents as well. The mothers at my public middle school talked about me. Some even talked to school staff about me. When I enrolled at Marian, one of the girls I’d crushed on in middle school also went there, and her mother wasted no time in spreading the word to parents and some of the staff at my new school. Because the girl’s last name and mine were close in the alphabet, we’d have been in the same homeroom and had nearby lockers, but her mother got the school to separate us, to move me. I was made out to be a threat.
I was devastated to learn that my fresh start had already been ruined. And because she was an adult, I had no recourse. When I saw her or her daughter (as I often did), I had to make nice. When the mother would greet me, I had to respond politely, “Hello Mrs. P—” and smile like she wasn’t a bully. She was the first of many adults who made Marian a damaging, exhausting, and unhealthy environment for me.
As a freshman at Marian, I became increasingly depressed and reached out to a teacher who was kind and empathetic and had the best of intentions in reporting my situation to the school guidance department. My school counselor, Mr. D, was another story. His only strategy was damage control. His stated belief was that my depression was a contagion that would infect other students if they knew of it. Therefore, it had to be hidden. (Anecdotally, I understand that he took the same approach with eating disorders.)
Mr. D notified my parents (as was his obligation under the law) and required that I begin seeing a private counselor the school picked. Failure to continue treatment with this specific counselor would result in my expulsion. Unfortunately, the counselor was a bit of a dud, to put it kindly. But he was all I got. I was forbidden to talk with anyone else connected with the school about my feelings. Not the students, not the teachers, not any of the other school counselors, not even the school priest.
Mr. D provided a list of subjects I could discuss: schoolwork, sports, and boys. This last one was interesting. It is possible but unlikely that Mr. D was unaware at the time of my sexual orientation. (The other student from my middle school was also one of his counselees.) In any case, he instructed me that talking about anything else or upsetting any of the other students would result in my expulsion.
I’ll be honest. I was not very good at keeping my sadness to myself. After some missteps that landed me back in Mr. D’s office, I learned which students I could talk to, which students were unlikely to get upset or report me. I made some good friends who cared about me, even if I still wasn’t completely honest with them. In time, I also made a lot of friends from other high schools, friends who were beyond the reach of Mr. D. (Hey, E! Thanks for being my friend back when I was a mess!)
Mr. D was a poor counselor, but I don’t believe that his approach to “counseling” me was related to my sexual orientation. There was, however, an openly homophobic teacher at Marian who lobbied to have me expelled. (Pro-tip: when you turn 18, you can request to see your file.)
Two years ago, I wrote a letter to the president of Marian, lodging a formal complaint against that teacher. Here are some excerpts:
“I took two of TW’s classes (AP US History and AP US Government) and also participated in Model United Nations. TW regularly expressed anti-gay views in his classroom. Specifically, he repeatedly called homosexuality unnatural and immoral, stated that child molesters were most often gay men, and asserted on a number of occasions that gay people should not be permitted to teach in schools or hold any other position that would expose them to children. His classroom library also included several books on homosexuality as a disorder and the need and potential for homosexuals to ‘convert’ to a heterosexual lifestyle. The classroom environment TW created was one of moral absolutes in which gay students felt emotionally unsafe, as he consistently portrayed gay people as deviant, dangerous, and without value.
In US History class, these views were not connected in any way to the material we were studying, and in US Government class, TW brought up (and condemned) homosexuality as an example more frequently than any other current events topic, save possibly abortion.”
“TW repeatedly used his position of power and influence to promote prejudice and discrimination against an already stigmatized and at-risk minority group. His conduct was entirely inappropriate and counter to Marian’s stated goals of teaching students to value human diversity and supporting students as they develop intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. TW’s behavior went unchecked despite my efforts to bring it to the attention of the administration through the guidance department.”
I asked for written apologies from Mr. W and from the school, and further demanded that the administration make it clear to staff, students, and parents that “regardless of one’s personal views or the views of the Catholic Church, the propagation of prejudice, defamatory misinformation, and discrimination will not be tolerated at Marian High School.”
I cc’ed the Archdiocese of Detroit, the ACLU, and three local newspapers. The president of Marian met with me two weeks later. She expressed dismay at Mr. W’s behavior and assured me that I would receive an apology shortly. The apology never happened. I regret that I became distracted with E’s job search, our move to Singapore, and our wedding, and I never chased up the administration.
After high school, I got as far away as possible from all of this, moving to California, then New Zealand, and now Singapore. It did get better, for me anyway. I suspect that I’m chemically predisposed to depression, but it was, in large part, situational.
To be a gay teen in a Catholic high school like Marian is toxic. Apart from Mr. W’s largely off-topic anti-gay rants, there were also the religion textbooks that told us homosexuality (among other things) was wrong. There was a pervasive culture of homophobia, sex-shaming, conformism, and political conservatism that made anyone who was different in the way I was different feel dirty, isolated, and silenced. In addition, my time at Marian had the incidental cost of turning me deeply suspicious of religion and religious people. There’s an anger there that I may never shake.
A lot worse has been done to gay people. A lot worse.
But it’s also the small things that conspire to make a culture in which seriously horrific things can happen. So we have to talk about those small things, too. I couldn’t talk about high school while it was happening. I wasn’t allowed to and I wouldn’t allow myself to. But now I can.
I was a child. I was vulnerable. And I was treated variously as a sexual predator, a pathogen, and a deviant.
That’s not acceptable.
That’s not what we do to the children in our care.