Too often lately, there have been too many stories of LGBT people and allies being fired from Catholic institutions because of their identities, marriages, or support of LGBT equality. So, it’s a refreshing change to report on a case where an out gay man is serving safely and successfully at a Catholic school and has only positive things to report about his experience.
Outsports.com recently published a reflective essay by Keith Johnston, the marching band, pep band, and concert band director at Sacred Heart University, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Johnston reports that he has worked at the school for the past 14 years, and that “I’ve been an out gay man for the last 20 years, and have been married to the same man for 17 years.”
Johnston reports that his positive experience at the school has changed his perception of Catholic institutions:
“When I started at Sacred Heart University 14 years ago, despite having been out for a lot of years, I came in with a pre-conceived notion of how my Catholic college students would react to a gay director. While the administration that hired me was aware I was gay, I’m not Catholic, and I wasn’t experienced enough at that time to know how – or even if – I should integrate the personal side of who I am as a person into my teaching.
“I’ve learned much since starting here at SHU, an institution steeped in the Catholic Intellectual tradition, and more progressive than many would suspect.”
Johnston’s example as a successful, out gay man certainly has some impact on the students with whom he works. He reflects on the experiences that his musically talented young people often face:
“Take the usual uncertainty that many young gay men and women have, add in a few comments about “band geeks” and “band nerds” (often coming from a high school sports team), and you have a recipe for stunting the emotional and personal growth of thousands of kids – harsh words and sentiments that could set them back for years.
And he notes the importance for teachers to be role models for them:
” The biggest thing I’ve learned, however, has been from my students. Yes, they’re in band to play music. But what they really want to learn is how to become who they really are, and who they have the potential to be. The only way they can learn that is for their teachers to be unafraid to share with them who they are, regardless of their sexuality.”
Johnston is explicit in his support:
“At the start of each year at band camp, I tell my students that if you’re gay, straight, bi, transgender, or you don’t know what you are, you’re welcome in the band. If, like me, you’ve heard the voices screaming inside of your head saying “you’re gay”, and you don’t know how to make the noise stop…come and talk with me.”
In the essay, Johnston recounts his own tumultuous coming out experience in which his own physical health was put in peril. He survived the ordeal, and he has come out stronger on the other side:
“. . . [E]very day I look at myself in the mirror and am reminded of the physical damage that can happen by trying to be someone we’re not. It was not long after that I decided it was time to start accepting who I was, and if anyone had a problem with it, it was indeed their problem, not mine.”
The band director at this Catholic school, though not a Catholic himself, certainly has values that reflect the Catholic tradition. At the end of his essay, he states:
“Each of us has worth and dignity, and that worth includes our gender and our sexuality. My door is always open to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
“Sexuality and gender is a spiritual gift.
“All of who you are is sacred.
“All of who you are is welcome.”
I can’t think of any better expression of Catholic values about humankind, identity, and hospitality. I think Pope Francis has, in other ways, expressed those same values.
I also can’t think of a better argument for why Catholic institutions, especially schools, should continue to employ LGBT people. The gifts they bring from their personal struggle and growth are a blessing to all they serve.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 23, 2017
New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. For more information, visit www.Symposium2017.org.