Homosexual Teacher Here Is `Out,' but Scores Stay Closeted Gays, Lesbians Fear for Their Jobs, despite Union Support

Article excerpt

Homosexual teachers in the St. Louis area are disgusted when they hear gay jokes, but they say nothing. They get jittery when spotted marching for gay rights. They avoid questions about their personal life and talk to reporters about homosexuality only with anonymity.

Why? They fear losing their jobs.

Except for Rodney Wilson.

Wilson, a history and social studies teacher at Mehlville High School, told his teen-age students during a class discussion in March on the Holocaust that he was gay. Wilson, 29, told the class he would have died because Nazis killed homosexuals.

After he "came out," administrators sent Wilson a memo saying classroom discussion of "facts and belief of a personal nature" was "inappropriate conduct for a teacher."

Wilson challenged the district. He won support from the gay community, teachers, parents and students and, from behind the scenes, the National Education Association (NEA).

Gay and lesbian teachers find longstanding support from their unions, including the NEA. Since 1973, the NEA has offered free legal counsel to teachers harassed or discriminated against because of sexual orientation.

The NEA continues to support a resolution adopted almost a decade ago that states "all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, should be afforded equal opportunity within the public education system." The union also believes personnel policies and procedures must protect an individual's rights in relation to his or her sexual orientation.

On Thursday, the issue came before the Mehlville School Board after Wilson was featured in a cover story Aug. 3 in the Riverfront Times. About a dozen Mehlville residents on both sides of the issue spoke to the board.

"We have nothing against him being gay," said Debbie Povich, a parent. "We just don't want him to teach it to our kids."

Povich's husband, who spoke to the board, said afterward that he felt homosexuality was "a deviation. It's unnatural."

Another resident, Joan Ward, said homosexuals had shorter lifespans. "The body is not meant to be used in that way," she said.

But a few parents like Anne Kasal spoke in support of Wilson. Kasal said her son, Jason, now 20, is gay and graduated in 1992 from Mehlville High School.

"I really do feel he has the right to say he's gay," Kasal said in reference to Wilson.

Kasal said she knew a number of other gay teachers in Mehlville schools, "and they're wonderful teachers," she said.

Both Mehlville Superintendent Robert Rogers and School Board President Alex Lantos say Wilson, who is nontenured, has a contract to teach in the coming school year at Mehlville High.

The issue of gay teachers had never come up in Mehlville until Wilson brought it up. And the board seems ready to let it drop.

Said Rogers: "We expect Mr. Wilson or any other teacher to teach the appropriate curriculum. I think he needs to follow that guideline, and he'll be fine."

When asked what he thought of gay teachers, Rogers said, "If (Wilson) wants to announce he's gay, that's his business." And if Wilson continues to make that announcement in the classroom?

"That may be a different issue," Rogers said.

Lantos said that regardless of parents' point of view, he appreciates the concern they have for their children. "I think every parent has the right to state their opinion," he said.

Wilson intends to stay out of the closet, although he is vague about whether he will discuss homosexuality in class. Wilson contends he has not violated any policies of the Mehlville School District and adds he intends to follow those policies.

"This is purely a free speech issue and an academic freedom issue," he said. Taking Attendance

Wilson finds little company "coming out." Most gay and lesbian teachers crowd the closet cloaking their sexual orientation.

"It's kind of like the military," said a lesbian teacher at a public high school in St. …