Coming Out as a Catholic School Teacher
In an article about maturity they contributed to Robert Nugent’s book A Challenge to Love (1983), the psychologists James and Evelyn Whitehead use the metaphor of journey or passage to explain the loss and gain or peril and possibility that accompany significant moments in life. At the death of a parent, for example, we lose our beginning and our security; but if we travel well through this passage, we gain a deeper appreciation of our father/mother and move on to a new level of independence.
Employing this metaphor, the Whiteheads suggest that there are three passages for a person who is coming to grips with his or her homosexual orientation:
Interior passage: when one realizes and accepts the self-knowledge of one’s homosexual orientation. This passage takes place within an individual and is fundamental to the next two passages.
Passage of intimacy: when one shares one’s homosexual orientation with a trusted other or others: e.g., one’s parents. At this stage, one is hoping to be known and loved by the trusted other for who one is.
Public passage: when one takes the further step to be publicly known as a homosexual. This passage is normally called coming out, and the homosexual usually takes on the designation of gay or lesbian.
This is a helpful metaphor but calls for certain moral and pastoral comments.
Progression from one stage to another is not simply automatic, but necessitates a careful process of integration and self-assessment. It also necessitates guidance from others who have progressed through the stages and have reached a healthy understanding of their own sexual orientation. Just as heterosexual adolescents learn from their parents and other role models how to integrate their sexuality, homosexual adolescents need to move through this same learning process, a very difficult move in today’s climate.
The temptation to jump to the public passage is likely an attempt to hasten the process of the interior and intimacy passages. Since heterosexuals grow up in an environment that continually endorses and validates their sexuality, the first two passages take shape from an early age and the completion of the public passage (i.e., dating, marriage and sexual relationship) normally follows the pattern of the threefold passages. For homosexuals, however, this affirming environment does not usually exist at home, school or work; and homosexuals then almost inevitably face various forms of ignorance and prejudice from others.
While the process of movement from one level to the next should not be interpreted as endorsing homosexual activity, it is, one hopes, an attempt to see one’s sexual orientation as one component of who one is, rather than a secret that keeps one feeling isolated, lonely and ashamed.
For homosexuals, progression into the third level should be an exercise in prudence, guided by respected friends and confidants. This public step also requires the completion of the first two levels and a clear understanding of one’s personal motives for going public. Attempting to complete the first two levels by jumping into the third level is perilous and psychologically damaging. Only the most weighty reason justifies a move into the public passage. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is one such example. Within the program certain meetings have specific designations. A gay/lesbian A.A. meeting is an example that meets all of the requirements for a healthy public passage. In this public passage one feels a part of a group, can work toward ending feelings of isolation, loneliness and shame and can help newcomers to these meetings to work through the first two passages.
In light of this understanding of passages for homosexuals, I would like to offer advice to homosexual teachers in a Catholic school. While school policy might be informed by these suggestions, my primary concern here is for the homosexual teacher.
The Catholic Church strongly affirms the dignity of every homosexual person. The 1976 statement of the U.S. bishops, To Live in Christ Jesus, exemplifies this teaching well: Some persons find themselves through no fault of their own to have a homosexual orientation. Homosexuals, like every one else, should not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect, friendship and justice (No. 4).
A Catholic school and its teachers bear the ecclesiological responsibility of upholding the church’s teachings on the dignity of every homosexual and the wrongness of homosexual activity. Even if this obligation might create for a homosexual teacher a certain tension between personal belief and church teaching, it is the church’s teaching, and not personal beliefs, that must be imparted in a Catholic school.
While in theory it might be appropriate for a homosexual teacher to go public if he/she (1) has successfully transitioned the interior passage and the passage of intimacy, (2) publicly accepts the teaching of the church and (3) desires to give witness to the fact that a homosexual can happily and successfully live the teaching of the church, one wonders how frequently all of these factors coexist.
A teacher who feels the need to make public his/her homosexual orientation in a school setting is probably (a) trying to complete the first two passages by jumping into the third level, and (b) failing to recognize the inappropriateness of seeking support from students who probably do not understand the teacher’s struggles or have the tools to offer necessary support. This does not mean that young people are not capable of being caring and loving toward homosexuals, but that they should not be put into the position of having a dual relationship with their teacher: i.e., as teacher and as homosexual. I would suggest that a homosexual teacher who has a personal or psychological need to announce his/her sexual orientation to students should for this very reason not be teaching in a Catholic school at all. This assertion does not pertain, however, to the case of a mature, stable homosexual who publicly accepts and practices the church’s teachings and who does not feel the need to announce his/her homosexuality.
We live in an ethos that identifies a gay or lesbian as one who is sexually active. Statistically there is evidence to support this, as there is evidence to support the statement that single heterosexuals are sexually active. While this presumption might be untrue, unjust and unfair in many cases, it is a perception in today’s society, so I agree with the Whiteheads: One cannot enter the public passage simply because it is the thing to do’ or because others have made it. Those committed to a celibate life in the church and those who hold positions of authority in the church should not enter the public passage because this step will almost inevitably have a negative impact on their credibility as public representatives of the church. They will become victims of their own personal revelation and cut off from others in the community who uphold the church’s teachings about homosexuality. Such individuals then lose their effectiveness as public witnesses to celibacy or as teachers in a Catholic school, and this result will only reinforce negative feelings about their own homosexuality.
When a Catholic school teacher moves into the public passage, he/she will likely meet a variety of reactionsfrom indifference to homophobia to support to angerand will be presumed to be sexually active. This stereotyping amounts to reducing the homosexual to his/her sexual orientation, which is clearly a form of injustice and prejudice and is contrary to the church’s teaching that all homosexuals be treated with respect, friendship and justice. Students have the right to be educated about the church’s teachings on homosexuality, and they must be taught that they also bear the responsibility to treat homosexuals with respect, understanding and fairness. If Catholic schools cannot teach students to treat homosexuals with the respect, friendship and justice required by the bishops, then we have a more serious problem than that of a few teachers coming out.
Students have a right to learn from their teachers. Teachers are significant role models. Students learn from teachers they admire because of the teacher’s knowledge, ability to teach, empathy, care and interest. It is these qualities in a teacher that a student admires and seeks to imitate.
Students do not need to know a teacher’s sexual orientation. The teacher who publicly reveals this information is forcing a student into a dual acceptance of him/herself as a teacher and as a homosexual person, thus pushing the student and the Catholic school into a tenuous and unfair position. Students are not in school to hear about or support a teacher’s orientation or lifestyle.
If a student is struggling with his or her own interior passage, the student should be discussing this self-perception with his/her parents and a school counselor who is equipped to carefully process these types of inner feelings. At this point in a young person’s life, he or she needs careful and student-centered advice and guidance, not more confusion in sorting through a teacher’s homosexuality.
The Right Place
Publicly announcing one’s sexual orientation in a Catholic school is misguided, pedagogically and psychologically flawed and does nothing to further the church’s authentic teachings about the dignity of every homosexual person. Homosexuals deserve respect and dignity and the freedom to share their sexual journey. However, I do not believe that this sharing should take place in a Catholic school by a teacher, administrator or staff member.