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By Carol Tanis
When the ongoing story of gay music teacher Gerry Crane was in the media back in 1995, it had a chilling effect on gays and lesbians in West Michigan. Then when Crane died of a heart attack, six months after being forced from his career as music teacher and band director at Byron Center High School, many in the LGBT community went even deeper into the closet, fearing for their jobs as teachers.
Nearly two decades later, in many Michigan school districts and beyond, gay teachers remain at risk, which is largely why a Grand Rapids attorney is writing a book about Gerry Crane titled, “Gay Teacher, A Story About Love, Hate & Lessons Yet to be Learned.”
“I want to tell Gerry’s story to honor him and his struggle, one that is representative of generations of people who have lost their families, housing, jobs, careers, health and lives for merely choosing to live an authentic life,” said Christine Yared. “I also want to tell his story so that at the least Gerry’s death from discrimination will provide the impetus for change.”
Crane knew at a young age that all he ever wanted to do in life was to be a music educator. In 1995 he had been teaching music at Byron Center High School for three years and was credited for leading the music program into excellence; the band won a regional award and the music program in general was receiving other accolades. “The High School Principal described him as ‘the teacher who built their music program,'” said Yared.
After being together more than three years, Crane and his partner Randy Block decided to have a private commitment ceremony in 1995. It was led by a minister and held at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, and though it was for invited guests only, Yared says word got out about the ceremony.
“Gerry had called different people when he and Randy were searching for musicians to play at their commitment ceremony,” she said. “Through the process of who they called, someone found out the reason for their musician search and called school officials. A student sneaked in and left with a program, which was turned over to school officials.”
The Monday following the ceremony, Yared said, Crane was called into the administration office and questioned. “From that day on, his whole life and career changed overnight,” Yared said.
School board meetings were held that fall and the board issued a pronouncement that being both gay and a teacher were not compatible. During the rest of that school year he was watched carefully and called into the office for various issues.
In addition, notices about Crane being a gay teacher in the school district were put on car windshields parked outside Byron Center church parking lots on Sunday. But perhaps most harmful was a video and a book produced by the Colorado-based organization Focus on the Family, which was mailed to parents of students in the district. The video included scenes of men dancing at a gay pride event. “The film and book highlighted the extreme; the book highlighted extreme pictures, false information and myths about gay people. It basically said, ‘This is what gay people are all about and you don’t want gay people around your kids,'” said Yared.
Meanwhile, some parents began pulling their kids from Crane’s music classes and the other teachers were mostly silent about his situation. When Crane walked into the teachers’ lounge, the room became quiet.
“So he was alone — very much alone,” Yared said. “He went to work everyday in this environment that was just horrible. They were always at him, coming up with something that he did or said, making something of nothing. He had a horrible experience the rest of that school year.”
Having had enough of the harassment, Crane resigned that June and signed a severance agreement for a year’s pay. In late December of that year, Crane passed out and, suffering a heart attack, was admitted to a local hospital. Days later he went into a coma and was removed from life support. He was 32 years old.
Yared said an autopsy was done and the medical examiner concluded that Crane’s premature death was due in part to emotional stress.
She began thinking of writing a book about Crane as far back as around the year 2000, but had to keep putting it off because of her practice as an attorney. Yet through the years, when she had time, she researched Crane’s story and interviewed people who were connected to the tragedy.
“This story has to be told. It’s such an important example of what’s wrong with our legal system and the way that society treats people,” Yared said. “We say we care about kids and we had this great teacher, and everyone agreed he was a great teacher, and then he was treated this way in front of students. And of course some of those students were also gay and struggling with their own sexuality. I just can’t imagine what it would be like as a young kid going through your own coming out process witnessing this. It also had a huge impact on other gay teachers.”
When Gerry Crane’s story was being reported in the media, Rev. Doug Van Doren — pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids — and another local pastor wanted to provide support for the minister who performed Gerry and Randy’s commitment service. Their efforts grew quickly, and soon a group of local pastors was formed called “Concerned Clergy.” They wanted to tell the community they were in favor of LGBT individuals being a full part of the church and community. So they took out a nearly full-page ad in the Grand Rapids Press stating as such, and it was signed by more than 60 other ministers.
Van Doren said he’s glad that Yared is telling Crane’s story. “The story of Gerry Crane is so important and poignant,” he said. “It exposed both deep bigotry and self-righteousness, as well as compassion and solidarity. His story, and ultimately his death, became a turning point in the struggle for justice and affirmation of LGBT persons. Kudos to Christine Yared for making sure this story is told and the lessons learned so that we continue to move forward.”
Yared has been unsuccessful in finding a publisher interested in printing a book about Crane, she said, in part because it is viewed as an “old story.” Gay marriage has eclipsed employment and housing discrimination, which many LGBT individuals still encounter. So she is self-publishing her book and hopes to both finish and have it available before the end of this year. She feels strongly that, particularly in Michigan and in some places across the country, Gerry Crane’s story is not an “old story,” but a current story that is still being replayed.
“It is so relevant today, and it’s very sad that it’s relevant today,” she said. “If Gerry were to return, I think it would be hard for many people to look at him. We’d have to say, ‘We recognize you died because of discrimination,’ and here we are almost two decades later and teachers are still losing their jobs just for being gay or lesbian or transgender. In Michigan it’s still legal to fire someone or discriminate in employment based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Most states and our country do not have employment protections for gay people, and our federal government has not passed a discrimination law in this regard.”
She added that through researching Gerry Crane’s story, she has learned that it’s not just teachers who fear for their jobs, but she’s struck also by how many LGBT individuals, who may have a conservative boss or may work for a conservative company, remain in the closet. “Gerry’s story really struck fear in many people and understandably so,” she said.
When interviewing people for the book, Yared was impressed by how many people talked of what a gentle and good man he was. His wish was not to be an LGBT activist; he just wanted to be a teacher.
“Over and over people have had so many wonderful things to say about him. He was a very humble person and his principles were important to him. I want to tell not just what he went through, but how he handled it. What he did and didn’t do. He was a wonderful person, trying to do the best he could for his students.”
In the wake of Crane’s death, several positive things have occurred in West Michigan, including the formation of a local chapter of GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network and a music scholarship established in Crane’s memory. The Gerald M. Crane Memorial Scholarship for high school music students in Kent and Ottawa Counties is managed by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Since 1999, 46 scholarships have been awarded totaling more than $21,000.