Minnesota Catholic School Fires A Second Teacher For Coming Out As Gay
Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minnesota has fired a second teacher who's had the guts to come out of the closet in the face of discrimination and adversity. Karen Ostendorf, an English and religion teacher at the school, could no longer struggle with silence and decided to live her truth by announcing her relationship with a woman at a recent faculty meeting. She was asked to resign the next day.
In an interview with MinnPost, Karen explains what inspired her to come out and risk her livelihood.
Bill Hudson’s resignation was prompted by anonymous information provided to the chairpersons of the Totino-Grace corporate board. Bill’s departure under such disquieting circumstances was difficult for everyone in our school community, particularly for those of us who are gay or lesbian. Unfortunately, what we all feared only loosely – that we would be fired or asked to resign if we were “outed” – became too real to ignore. I was finding it very difficult to return to Totino-Grace, especially knowing that my job is to help students advocate for justice and be voices for the voiceless. While Bill’s departure was a factor in the resignation of other staff members by mid-August, I decided to return to Totino-Grace to continue my work in a community that, as you know, has been my home for nearly all my adult life.
Things changed two weeks ago, though, when my colleagues in campus ministry and I were introducing the theme to the faculty and staff during workshops. Every year, Totino-Grace has adopted a school theme based on Catholic school teaching or the lives of our founders. This year’s theme, “Make Your Mark,” is based on St. John Baptist de la Salle’s prayer “Lord, the work is Yours” and his hope that we all do well the work to which God calls us. In the process of reviewing the history of our themes, which included Catholic school teaching ideas like “A Place at the Table” and “One Human Family,” I found myself unable to string sentences together.
I was struck by the dissonance between the meaning of our themes and the events that had recently taken place. I found myself trying to buy time while I tried to figure out how I could encourage others to “make their mark” if I was willing to be part of a community where I was required to hide and compromise and deny who I am. How could I ask others to give themselves entirely to the work God calls them to when I couldn’t do this myself?
She goes on to detail how the school handled the situation the following day:
I got a phone call from the president, Julie Michaels, and she said, “You don’t have to come in for workshops tomorrow, and why don’t you meet with us at 2:30?” I’ve never been told not to come to workshops, or anything. Often, I’m in charge of them. That was strange.
There was very little sleep. The next day I met with the administration and they asked what I thought their options were and I said, “I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.” But I’d never been asked not to attend workshops, so I said, “I presume your options are to fire me or ask me to resign.” The conversation ensued from there about resigning, and they asked me how I felt about that and I said, “If you were listening yesterday, I think you heard me claim my own voice and say out loud the things we don’t say out loud, just in the name of integrity. And I don’t feel like resigning is commensurate with what I said.”
I told them that it was important they know I hadn’t planned on saying what I said, that I wasn’t sorry for saying it, I’m not embarrassed or ashamed, or trying to be aggressive or start a war. Not my intention, at all. In the end, I said I was sorry we were all sitting there.
So we had a conversation about what the repercussions [of] not resigning would have on my future employment, and what Totino-Grace would be able to say to a future employer. And I just said, “I want to be very clear about this: I’m not embarrassed about what I said. I will not dance around it. I will tell every future employer precisely why I left. And if that’s a problem, I don’t want to work there. I can’t do it anymore.”
Karen understands her actions are appreciated in the wider LGBT community, but worries that Totino-Grace is missing an opportunity for dialog. "I’m gone, and my desk is empty, and everybody knows it, and nobody’s talking about it. That’s something I wake up at night thinking about: the silence. Silence is the undoing of lots of good things, and I would err on the side of truth. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen."