Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Sharon Gittleman
OAK PARK – Some people remember their school days with a blend of nostalgia and warmth. When Katie Werner thinks back to her middle school years, she recalls her straight classmates’ vicious taunts.
“Kids would run through the halls and yell names at me,” said the 22-year-old lesbian. “It was very hard for me. It affected my schooling.”
By the time Werner reached high school, the nasty comments had ended, but the damage had been done.
“I still faced issues, but most of them were internal,” she said.
Last Friday, Werner shared these memories at “Being Out at School,” a workshop sponsored by Educating our Community about Homosexuality through Outreach (ECHO), a program of the Michigan Jewish Aids Coalition.
Werner was part of a panel that also included educators Michael Chiumento, Marlowe B’Sheart and psychiatrist Don Spivak.
According to Werner, a principal reason for her survival of the school harassment was the assistance of a good friend.
“An openly gay teacher really helped me through it and became my mom away from mom,” she said.
Werner graduated on the honor roll and is now studying to be a teacher.
Chiumento, a teacher in the Plymouth-Canton district, was not always open about his sexual orientation.
“I was in deep denial until I was 30. There were times the loneliness was so bad, I thought of suicide,” he said. “I have to thank my Catholic faith, because suicide was worse than being gay.”
Then, in 1994, when a reporter called him for a story about the 1994 National Coming Out Day, Chiumento finally told his secret to the world.
“There on the front page on the second section was my picture,” he said. “I thought, “How long would it take for me to pick up every paper from the newsstands?'”
The story had unexpectedly positive consequences.
“It freed me completely,” he said. “The first thing I did was take my partner’s picture out and put it on my desk. I wanted my students to see we were just like everyone else.”
After she started a new job, Marlowe B’Sheart realized she wasn’t fooling her young students about the true identity of her “spouse.”
“As an English teacher, I spoke some of the most awkward sentences,” she said. “My students told me, as of day three, they staked out my car in the parking lot so they could see if there was a rainbow flag.”
Many LGBT people find themselves in a vicious circle, according to Spivak.
“If you keep your identity concealed, it leads to inner turmoil, but to disclose it leads to rejection,” he said. “However, studies have shown when somebody comes out, they feel an immediate sense of relief.”
Audience member and future teacher Jennifer Kalen said she wasn’t concerned about her students’ or colleagues’ reaction to her sexual orientation, but had some qualms about responses from the parents of the students.
Chiumento urged Kalen to proceed with caution.
“When I had my coming out experience in the newspaper, I had the protection of the teacher tenure act,” he said. “They can not dismiss you without just cause if you are tenured. You have to get the lay of the land where you’re teaching.”
Some of those who attended the meeting remained skeptical, afterward, about the safety of coming out at school.
“I’m not out at school. It might be a problem,” said a teacher in the audience who called herself Stacy. “I don’t know, but I’m afraid to find out. I’m not going to put myself out there.”
Stacy’s partner said she was sad about the situation.
“I don’t like it at all,” she said. “I would prefer she could be out at work, but I support her. … My philosophy is, it’s better for her to wait and be able to work then to be out and out of a job,” said the partner.