The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 29, 2010

CCHS educators share their “coming-out” experiences


Spectrum, a gay-straight alliance organization at CCHS, hosted a panel (left to right) included Amelie Atwater-Rhodes, Brian Miller, Johnny Woodnal,  Shelley Hull, Kevin Pennucci, Nancy Slocum and Peter Atlas. (Photo by Ben Kendall)

Acknowledging recent national reports of the high-risk for suicide among gay teens, a panel of seven teachers agreed to come forward and talk about their personal experiences at a meeting held at the Concord-Carlisle high school (CCHS) on Friday, October 21. The gathering in the Little Theatre was standing room only. The event was hosted by Spectrum, the gay-straight alliance organization at the school.

Spectrum, with about 12 members of all sexual orientations, meets weekly at the high school on Wednesday afternoons. The teens discuss current events and questions about sexual orientation, gender identity and being an ally. The group was founded in 1992, as a response to Governor William Weld’s Safe Schools initiative aimed at helping lesbian, gay and bi-sexual teens. Spectrum has sponsored film viewings, health-week programs and special events – such as this panel discussion – at the high school. Adult sponsors of the group include guidance counselor Kelli Kirstein and social studies teacher Ben Kendall – well known for his humor and who identified himself at the meeting as “mostly straight.”

The seven speakers included special educator Amelie Atwater-Rhodes, science teacher Brian Miller, English teacher John Woodnal, English teacher Shelley Hull, health and fitness educator Nancy Slocum, physics teacher Kevin Pennucci and math teacher Peter Atlas. Kendall introduced the panel, and said that they were seated from youngest to oldest. He noted that the panel members had agreed to share their personal stories about coming out as gay or lesbian to emphasize that their lives improved as a result. He limited each participant to five minutes, but the speakers – encouraged by applause from the audience after each individual talk – continued on for much longer. The event stretched to an hour and a half before the gathering broke up for pizza.

Atwater-Rhodes shared her terror and fear about coming out. She reported that because she seemed depressed and had trouble at school, her mother was actually relieved that she was gay because she had feared “something worse,” such as pregnancy or drugs.

Miller grew up as a multi-sport athlete and called a guy’s locker room “one of the most homophobic environments.”  He said that he grew up in a community similar to Concord and Carlisle, and did not come out until college at Brown. He said he was much happier after he could be himself, and thanked CCHS for providing such a “safe place.”

Woodnal grew up in California, and also did not come out until he was a freshman in college. He mentions to his students right at the start of a term that he has a husband and two kids. He emphasized the importance of an honest and supportive community, and for parents to let their children know that “I will love you no matter what.”

Hull, another varsity athlete, relates her loneliness before she came out in college as a senior and soccer team captain. She said she tried to date boys in high school, but that didn’t work. She recalled her mother asking her in her sophomore year about whether or not she was dating, and her fear in talking to her father. Her family rallied, and was present at her wedding 12 years ago. She related how much she appreciated support from her 95-year old grandmother, who, after learning that she was a lesbian, told her granddaughter that she was “always a good girl and still was.”

Pennucci shared his experiences growing up in Somerville in the ’80s. He revealed the toughest person to tell was his little brother in the Big Brother program, a child that he wanted to adopt. The boy immediately accepted the news, but Pennucci recalled the toughest thing about coming out was the “fear of rejection by people we love.” He cherishes his acceptance by his students at the high school who responded with a standing ovation when he decided to come out publicly. “After that point, it gets easy,” he said.

Slocum, also a soccer athlete, said that she knew she was different from most girls at the end of high school, but didn’t come out until she was well into her college years. She said she knew that “once you say it, you can’t take it back” and that fear held her back. She regrets now that she “wasted so much time.” She said that her brother did not come to her wedding 14 years ago, but that he had since apologized. She has been with her current partner 20 years and has a daughter. She hesitated about coming out at CCHS, but found that as a health teacher, it was the responsible thing to do. She felt justified when a colleague thanked her and said “you are saving lives.”

Atlas, the first teacher to come out at CCHS in 1992, spoke last at the Spectrum event. He reported feeling robbed of “nostalgia” – he had lost all his college friends to AIDS. As the eldest publicly gay man at the school, he recalled the name-calling and persecution of the past and the reticence of his family to accept him as gay. He recalled that in the sixties homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness. Despite the difficulties he experienced in coming forward as a gay man, he said, “My worst day out is better than my best day in the closet.” He praised his peers for coming forward to take part in the panel, and emphasized that, “It’s easier to hate ‘them’ versus ‘him’ or ‘her.’”

After the speakers on the panel had concluded, Kendall thanked them for their participation. He reminded students of the Spectrum meetings and welcomed all interested parties to participate, both gay individuals and straight “allies.” He stressed that the school’s counseling department was available for students with questions and that student privacy was protected and that no one would call parents. He acknowledged the faculty and community members also in the audience. Kendall concluded that we live in a very different world of “zero tolerance” for discrimination due to sexual orientation. ∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito