Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sometimes we do win one


This is a "YES, it can happen here!" -- something good, that is. I've got some new heros.

Merry Stephens was named Teacher of the Year in Bloomberg, Texas in 2004 and Coach of the Year in three out of five years in her tenure as head coach of the Lady Wildcats basketball team, but suddenly all that no longer mattered. . . . Stephens is a lesbian, and school district officials decided she needed to go.

[The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Education Association/Texas State Teacher's Association] negotiated a settlement agreement on behalf of Stephens. . . . The school district agreed to pay Stephens for the last two years of her contract [amounting to $100,000.]

For most of my life, this story would have been impossible. My elementary school gym teacher was a lesbian I'm sure, but everyone carefully didn't ask questions about "Miss Wesp." My elementary school music teacher lived with another woman teacher for 30 years; again nobody asked.

But that was in a private school in a big city and these women came from known middle class families -- they were at least somewhat protected from any nosy bigots by their fathers' class status.

But Stephens lived in another world, in one of the reddest of red states, where bigoted pseudo-Christianity is a force.

In 1999, Stephens, who grew up in a small town in Arkansas, started coaching at the Bloomburg Independent School District, which is only one building, kindergarten through 12th grade, and last year had 264 students.

The next year, she moved from nearby Longview into Bloomburg, about 25 miles south of Texarkana, Tex. Most townspeople work at the paper mill a few miles away, in oil fields and in the chicken-raising and logging industries. Downtown is a three-block strip of neglected and abandoned buildings. . . .

Stephens learned quickly that everyone in town was interested in everyone else's business.

"They'd test me to try to figure out if I was a lesbian or not," she said. "They'd ask if I had a boyfriend or if I wanted one. I lied because I knew it would be career suicide to admit anything." In 2000, Stephens moved in with Sheila Dunlap, the school's bus driver and a teacher's aide. …

Some parents of Stephens's players wanted her gone. Craig Hale, who owns an oil company, said he does not want a lesbian teaching his children and possibly influencing the way they think. His daughter, Kaitlyn Cornelius, played for Stephens last season and said she felt uncomfortable around the coach, though she said Stephens never did anything inappropriate.

"I had nothing against her as a person," Hale said, but if he stood up for "one lesbian" that would mean he was "for them adopting kids, and my morals and the Bible doesn't allow that."

Three sisters on last year's team - Amy, Amber and April Medina - said that Stephens was a great coach and that they did not mind that she was a lesbian, though they never knew she was, for sure.

After the last basketball season, Stephens resigned as coach and took a full-time teaching job at the school. While 25 girls played basketball at Bloomburg in the 2003-4 season, only seven ended up on this season's team. Many quit because Coach Stephens was gone. . . .

Since leaving their school jobs, Stephens and Dunlap, who live in a spacious log house on nine acres, have started a concession business selling fruit drinks at fairs. They are still the talk of the town, especially because the school board election is coming up, pitting candidates who were pro-Coach Stephens against those who opposed her.

"There have been many times that I wanted to quit coaching because of the scrutiny and pressure of being what people wanted me to be," said Stephens, who said she may coach again somewhere. "So in a strange way, I'm glad this all happened. I can be who I really am now."

You go girl!! Do it for Miss Wesp and all the others who led cramped lives because telling the truth would have set them up to be ruined. Do it for everyone in California who fought the Briggs Initiative in 1979, a measure that would have outlawed allowing gay people to teach. Sometimes we do win one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm more horrified that Craig Hale has spawned than the town running a gay teacher out! Even Ellen Degeneres (who went to a neighboring high school for a couple of years) compared it to Mayberry...stuck in the fifties.