Guest Blogger

High School Administration's Homophobia Causes Lawyer

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 13, 2010 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Chris Worden, education policy, indiana, journalism, LGBT youth, teens

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Chris Worden is a family-law attorney and political commentator. Chris has managed two successful statewide races in Indiana, including the campaign to elect Pam Carter, the nation's first African-American woman attorney general.

Chris-Worden-headshot.pngAs if homophobia weren't its own evil! This story chronicles how my high school administration snuffed out my love for journalism and compelled me to become an attorney by driving my gay newspaper advisor out of the school.

It started when I was serving as sports editor for the Ben Davis (Indiana) High School's paper, The Spotlight, during my senior year in 1987. I always wanted to be a writer, but my advisor and mentor, Bill Briggs, turned me into a journalist, at least temporarily. Bill not only refined my writing, he also convinced me journalism was a noble craft. Bill espoused the value of ferreting out "facts" because "truth" was subjectively unknowable.

bill.pngI never expected the tragic accuracy of his assertion to fundamentally alter my identity and career path.

For Bill, journalists were democracy's mechanics. They inspected and diagnosed what made the system clunk and wheeze and then let the people decide whether to pay to fix it. Journalism was not detached inward reflection; it was immersing oneself in the cold, hard world and exposing its sordid underbelly.

But we're talking high school. What was I going to expose? That the ladies in hair nets had been using Monday's leftover hamburgers to make Wednesday's chili?

High school was a time of obliviousness for me. There were no interpersonal conflicts or political agendas. Admittedly, the debate team did have a handful of Alex P. Keaton worshippers and one Nixon-loving, rabid pro-lifer who hammered on the immorality of homosexuality and how all Catholic priests were pedophiles. Who knew he was prescient about the priests and that, eight years later, he'd be a gay, pot-smoking, law school classmate of mine?

I focused then on self-serving "high school things," such as college searches, upgrading from my puke-green 1972 Dodge Duster (known to my friends as "the dookiemobile"), and trying to score with "hot chicks," a task at which I was staggeringly unsuccessful. I seldom recognized Democrat versus Republican, conservative versus liberal, or devious versus innocent. I just saw students crammed into Breakfast Club categories by teachers harmoniously working with an administration that students viewed with indifference.

Bill's Angst at Whitney Houston's Tragically Bad Dancing

I also had no idea anybody I knew, particularly Bill, was gay. Had I known any of the stereotypical signs of a gay man, I might have suspected. Bill was always the best dressed in the room, often wearing a sweater with the arms tied around his neck. He adored Whitney Houston, and he was visibly distressed that her video for "I Want To Dance With Somebody" laid bare her chronic dancing deficit. Bill commonly referred to Madonna or whatever pop tart was hot at the moment as "that tramp."

Had I known, though, I wouldn't have cared. I admired Bill immensely. He was a transformative instructor who made me believe in myself, and for an extremely short and awkward teenager, that's a major accomplishment. Bill had me confidently sniffing out "scoops" like Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one. By virtue of that instinct, I snagged the story of a lifetime.

Ronald Reagan's Prostate

I remember early in the school year seeing a campaign sign asking me to vote for Tristan Walling for senior class president. It read: "If you vote for me, I promise to have less prostate surgery than Ronald Reagan!" The sign was funny and irreverent, which immediately made me like the guy.

A fusion of John Bender and Allison Reynolds, Tristan was toast before he started. He was trench-coat-mafia-Euro-goth-punk-outcast-cool before idiots in Colorado made it horrifically violent to be so and before South Park turned it into a punch-line about identically-behaving and dressing non-conformists. Tristan and his cohorts sported mohawks, combat boots, Sid Vicious t-shirts, wrist bands, dog collars, and earrings. They frequently resembled the Mad Maxian party crashers from the movie Weird Science. His second campaign posted upped the weird factor when he threatened to cast a spell on all who voted against him. In short, he was the antithesis of a senior class presidential candidate, and he was running against our school's golden child, LaRae Simpson.

The Establishment Candidate Prevails?

LaRae was intelligent, attractive, unpretentious, and involved in as many school activities as Max Fischer in Rushmore. LaRae was everything except unconventional, which turned out to be a tragic flaw in a school full of teens struggling to craft independent identities. Many mocked Tristan, but secretly, many admired his moxy and thought there no better way to send a collective, rage-against-the-machine "f--- you" to the administration than to make him the guy with whom the principal had to work daily.

Though Tristan had no chance of winning and would likely leave a wake of chaos and mayhem, I proudly cast my anti-establishment vote for him.

I anticipated a LaRae land-slide until I started playing Mr. Gallup with an exit poll. Yes, I was that big of a nerd. Among advanced placement classes, LaRae led 2-1. But in the non-AP classes, which comprised the majority of the student body, Tristan dominated. I was, therefore, astonished to hear LaRae won; it seemed mathematically impossible. I spent the day scratching my head.

Deepthroat Emerges (No, the "Secret Source" Variety)

Then in 4th period physics, "Ms. Deep Throat" emerged. She told me in confidence that she helped on the vote count, that the margin of victory was less than twenty, and the last thirty ballots were all for LaRae, but none of those ballots had marks for any of the other offices. Ms. Deepthroat told me the name of every student in the room on the count.

I had an immediate suspect, one of the most straight-laced girls in the school. I approached her before our 2nd-year algebra class with an investigative technique I call "the Perry Mason" - you say something in a cocksure manner and see if people will cough up a confession.

"(Name)," I said almost indifferently, "you've been implicated by multiple sources in a vote fraud scandal. Do you have a comment for the paper?" Her face turned flush, and she almost started to cry. "He's a warlock! Do you want to be represented by somebody who does witchcraft!?!" In my mind, I was screaming, "Oh my God! Oh my God! I'm right!" But I preserved my stoicism, acting all the part of the unbiased, emotionless vessel of fact gatherer.

The "Establishment" Conceals Voter Fraud

My math teacher, Mrs. Pugh, noticed the young lady's distress though and asked me, "What's going on over there? What's the ruckus?" I replied nonchalantly, "I am writing a story about how the senior class election was rigged." Ms. Pugh's brow furrowed, and during class, she crossed the hall to the room of fellow math teacher, Mr. King. They returned a few minutes later, and I was asked to enter the hall.

Mr. King started in immediately. "I supervised the vote counting. There was no fraud." Mr. King was a large man with a Magnum P.I. moustache, and I was intimidated, but still able to eke out, "Sir, did you look at every single vote?"

"No, but I was in the room the whole time."

"Sir, can I look at the ballots?"

"No, they've been destroyed."

"What was the margin of victory?"

"Eleven."

"You wouldn't have wanted to hold those for a bit in case a recount was
requested?"

"They've been destroyed."

Unbeknownst to me, at that very instant, Tristan Walling's mother was in the principal's office giving holy hell on her suspicion of treachery. But I knew.

Bill and Harvey Fight It Out

Where professional journalism has the Pulitzer Prize, high school journalism has the Harvey Award. And I had one in the bag. What college with a journalism program would not give me a full-ride for this story? I was exhilarated. I cut class to talk to Bill.

I chronicled what had happened, all the while studying his face. He had a semi-smile that said he was proud of my investigative skills, but his eyes were weighted with trepidation. He explained that the story would generate heat by giving the school a major black eye, and he expected that he would have hell to pay if we ran it. Bill told me he wanted me to think about it overnight, but he never waivered on this one point: he would back my decision.

I went home, and I deliberated mightily in solitude. On one side, I had "truth," but I could not shake the feeling that I was using this lofty term to tilt the scale toward my drive for personal glory. On the other side, I had not only substantial concern for my advisor's well-being, but also concern about embarrassment to LaRae, my dear friend, and for all the people involved. After all, this wasn't a real election. All it decided was who would decorate homecoming floats and whether our prom theme came from Dirty Dancing or Back to the Future.

I vowed to keep silent, forfeiting a certain Harvey. What I failed to realize then was that when you let corrupting processes and people go unchecked, they almost always rot more. They seldom redeem themselves.

I spent the rest of the semester writing about "safe" topics, like school fundraisers, plays, and sports events, and life in the journalism room puttered along until late December.

"Hey, Bill! Have a great Christmas break."

"You, too," he replied. These were the last words we ever exchanged.

I returned after the Monday after the New Year's break, but Bill didn't. A week went by without him, and we all wondered aloud if he was okay. Then I got summoned to the principal's office.

Concealing Connivery

I nervously sat across the desk from Dr. James Mifflin, the principal of Ben Davis High School. He was wearing a cat-ate-the-canary grin on his face, and he told me that Bill resigned from teaching, but before he left, he gave a glowing report on me and how I had the knowledge of the computer printing system to keep the paper running.

Dr. Mifflin was serving sycophantic puffery pastry, and it didn't taste right. Bill wouldn't leave without explanation. He loved his students. I asked old Dr. Mifflin why Bill left, and he told me how salaries plateau when a teacher reaches a certain age and experience level. Bill wanted to explore "other business opportunities," I was told. I was dumbfounded. Bill had moved from Illinois only two years before. Why would he leave so soon? Over the next few days, I recounted this conversation to many friends.

Two Plus Two Equals Working for Tips?

A week later, a photographer for the yearbook informed me she saw Bill working as a waiter at Dalt's, a restaurant on the Indianapolis Northside. Nobody leaves teaching on their own volition to become a waiter. I know I'd been lied to, and I went into bloodhound mode.

I started thinking back to another controversial story that did run in the paper. A member of the staff "came out of the closet" in a column, though the story ran anonymously. Damn. I handed in a Harvey, and they canned him for something else that bothered them?!? But then the buzz in the newsroom started centering on Bill being gay.

I went to see Peggy Sandberg, who was in charge of the paper's computer system, and I gave her the Perry Mason treatment. "I think they thought Bill was gay, and they told him you quit, or we'll fire you," I posited. Ms. Sandberg's fingers slowly and tightly clinched into a fist, which she shook with indignation as she cried, "It's so damn unfair what they did to Bill!"

"Oh my God! I'm right!" I thought.

To squelch allegations of unfair disciplinary treatment based on race after federal courts ordered desegregation, Ben Davis High School had created something called "Rumor Control." It was designed to give the administration a chance to explain the basis for disciplinary actions against students in response to written questions from students stuffed in a box in the library.

"Was Bill Briggs fired because he is allegedly gay?" I wrote. Though responses are normally provided in writing, I was called to see the Assistant Principal, the appropriately named Herod Toon. After some back-and-forth jousting, he told me, "You need to get a lawyer, Mr. Worden." I have no idea what he meant, but I know I felt bullied, and my stomach did a Keri Strug-type flip.

The Administration's Deplorable "Gay Hunt" Tactics

Digging deeper, I picked up troubling tidbits, including an allegation that my former middle-school cross-country coach and head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes tailed Mr. Briggs to see whether he went to a gay club. That same teacher was heard saying, "We got rid of one, but there are still others in the township we need to get rid of." Other what? Journalism advisors? I also learned from an office worker that in exchange for departing voluntarily, the administration told Bill they would give him a reference. But when other schools called, literally, nobody would pick up the phone.

I kept stirring up trouble until another teacher who was a friend of Bill's told me that Bill wanted me to stop. This was 1987. Even if he could return, what environment would exist for an "outed" gay man? I heard a year later that he landed a teaching job at an all-girls academy in Illinois.

While I understood why Bill made the choice he did, I could not escape the feeling of injustice. But what lingers most is the illogic. In what universe can sexual orientation negate your effectiveness as a high school journalism instructor? I asked myself, "Bill made an indelible mark in my life and untold others as an educator. How can this be about education?"

The Catharsis of Contract Law

I never knew the depth of the imprint Bill left, though, until my first year of law school in 1993. I was sitting under a banker's light desk in my apartment reading the 1966 case of Odorizzi v. Bloomfield School District for my contracts class. It involved a teacher who was charged with "homosexual activity." The school board threatened to publicize the arrest if the teacher did not resign, so he did. He was acquitted of the charges, and he sought to have his job reinstated. In that case, the court found that the resignation was forced by "over-persuasion."

Even though this case would not have saved Bill, as he had no employment contract, and Indiana is an "at will" state, the facts were too close to the mark. A wave of emotion swept over me, and I burst into an uncontrolled, prolonged, gut-wrenching cry that left raccoon marks under my eyes from burst capillaries caused by tightly clenched eyes. When I gathered myself, I was taken aback because as an adult I've cried a handful of times in my life.

I realized that my cries come in response to feeling powerless: a friend with cancer, a break-up. a grandparent's death, a mentor pressed down by a homophobic group of "Machiavellian Christians," the type who will engage in any manner of un-Christian deception to further their alleged Christian goals. They sully the faith for all others in it by making us all seem immeasurably petty and unforgiving. One of the conspirators was the super-hypocritical Christian, the type who demonizes homosexuality while buying pornography after midnight from a local convenient store while wearing dark glasses and an overcoat.

As I wiped my eyes, I knew I was joining the right vocation. No, I couldn't have saved Bill. But I knew as a lawyer I could preserve his spirit and fight for those who stood where he once did.

I then reflected on how I landed in law school instead of journalism in the first place, but resolution came easy on that score. The Ben Davis High School administration and the Wayne Township School Boarded killed journalism for me.

History Repeat Itself But Not Without a Fight

A year after Dr. Mifflin dismissed Bill, he repeated history by removing Bill's best friend at Ben Davis and its yearbook advisor, Marilyn Athmann, after a showdown over how much coverage the state championship winning football team should receive. The stated reason for Marilyn's removal was "failure to properly supervise." Quixotically, Dr. Mifflin permitted her to keep teaching English; she just could not supervise the yearbook, which had just been named the best in the state for the third consecutive year.

Employing a "fool me once" mantra, I suited up. Marilyn's students and their families attended many school board meetings fighting for her reinstatement. Despite confirming Marilyn's suspicions that Dr. Mifflin instructed a staffer member in the audio-visual department to keep a "transgression" dossier on her, we did not succeed.

Our core group switched gears and worked with the Student Press Law Association in Washington, D.C. to help Marilyn raise $25,000 to sue the school board. Richard Cardwell of the Indiana Hoosier Press Association served as Marilyn's counsel. Though she ended up with a settlement and later won the Hugh Heffner Award for protecting the First Amendment, she never presided over the yearbook again. I often wondered if the fact Marilyn was a former nun and a single gal played into their calculations.

What I knew is that there was no clearer affirmation of Bill's early lesson on "facts." This time it hit with knife-sharp elaboration. Yes, the press can keep political figures honest, but we are foolishly naive to think pulling back the curtain on deception inevitably creates a just result.

Truth Isn't Enough

The "truth" is that only a few "facts" are more than pliable trifles that can't be shorn, pressed down, understated, misstated, misconstrued, spun, exaggerated, ignored, or all of the above simultaneously and in the same sentence. Justice seldom comes from gathering and presenting "facts." It comes only from marshalling those "facts" in a way that the conclusion "injustice here demanding action" becomes utterly inescapable. This is the lawyer's calling.

While the statute of limitations on any lawsuit coming from what happened at Ben Davis High School passed close to two decades ago, the court of public opinion knows no time limit save our collective memories.

This is Bill Brigg's Exhibit A.


Blogger Jon Easter has a poignant post on how a Mississippi high school cancelled its prom instead of letting a lesbian attend in a tuxedo with her girlfriend. Easter noted that where he teaches, same-sex couples go to the prom without incident, and he added to me personally that the school has an active Gay-Straight Alliance. Easter's school? Ben Davis High School. I pray we never underestimate the ability of the right leadership to transform an organization for the better or the value of good people like Jon Easter.


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What an epic story. And you're absolutely right that letting powerful people off the hook for their misdeeds only emboldens them. If only people had the same mentality when it came to certain Justice Department lawyers who got a little torture-happy.

I nominate this for the best post ever made on the Bilerico Project!


Wonderfully written and moving to read, but it's still 1987 in many ways in Hoosier high schools [or '77 — about the time a social studies teacher at Bloomington North was forbidden from inviting me back to speak to a second class]. Anyone out there know the latest on the advisor to the student newspaper in that northeast Indiana high school last year who was removed from that role after defending the publication of a pro gay rights editorial?

Thanks.

Tristan Walling | March 13, 2010 11:13 PM

Just imagine how much hell I'd have given Mifflin if you would have run that story, Chris!

I read elsewhere that he got in trouble later on... it made People magazine or something.

The events you described made me extremely cynical for a very long time. Hell, I'm still cynical.

It was very much a microcosmic view of the world, the rigged election, the coverup in the press... heh, I think I've seen that play out on a larger scale later on.

Anyways, thanks for writing about it, even later. Do you mind if I put this on Facebook?

Great story Chris. Thanks for sharing it. I 2nd that nomination from Nerissa!

Excellent post! And how frustrating to know these kinds of homophobia, bigotry and hatred are still tolerated and encouraged. Thank you!

I agree with Nerissa.

Chris, this was an amazing post. I love the way that you tell a story and we are so lucky to have you in our corner.

A thought-provoking and thus (for me) a very enjoyable read here. I'd love to see a post script someday - How did the rest of Bill's life unfold? Has he ever regretted asking you to cease and desist in your quest for justice for him? Stuff like that....

Tristan Walling | March 14, 2010 11:56 AM

This is Tristan Walling's "Exhibit A" as well, Chris.

Excellent post and very important point.

Tristan's_Friend | March 15, 2010 6:43 AM

Well, as a friend and former co-worker of Tristan's, let me just tell everyone who he is now.

He has gone from a trench-coat wearing, mohawked, "warlock" to a non-smoking, non-drinking Chief Pilot at a very prestigious Flight Academy. He is by far the sharpest, funniest and most down-to-earth person I have met in my life. He is an excellent pilot, and an even better instructor of aviation. His students and co-workers love him. I worked with him at the flight school, and now I am proud to say that he is my friend.

Tristan did tell me the abridged version of this high school vote scandal. However, I had no idea that the story ran so much deeper, and with such dark, phobic undercurrents.

I wonder what Dr. Mifflin would say if he could see the man that Tristan has become? I wonder what Dr. Mifflin's face would look like when one day as he's sitting in Coach Class on a commercial airliner, the announcement comes over the intercom, "This is your Captain, Tristan Walling...." What a douche bag you are, Dr. Mifflin!! What a horrible, scared, closed-minded troll you are, Dr. Mifflin. Furthermore, the point was made in this article that: "One of the conspirators was the super-hypocritical Christian, the type who demonizes homosexuality while buying pornography after midnight from a local convenient store while wearing dark glasses and an overcoat."

I'm willing to bet that Dr. Mifflin is probably one of those closeted hypocrites sitting in front of a computer screen watching gay porn. It seems that the most right-wing, conservative, "christian", homo-phobic men are the ones who are so desperately trying to stifle and hide their homosexuality. They seem to be the leaders of every homosexual "witch hunt" undertaken in politics. To wit: Representative Eric J. Massa, to cite just ONE example of this homo-phobia in politics. And here are the Top 50:

http://www.zimbio.com/America%27s+50+Most+Scandalous+Political+Scandals/articles/139/8+Scandals+Outed+Gay+Politicians

Nice work, Chris.

-Sue

Chris Worden | March 15, 2010 12:23 PM

I'm really flattered that so many people took time to read this story and felt it had value. To answer Jim's question, I don't know what Bill ever thought. I tried to find him, but I did not succeed, which pains me to this day because I never got to tell him how much I appreciated him.

As a result, I'm not even sure how he would feel about this story. I reconnected with my high school newspaper editor recently, and she voiced concern about publication because it is his story as well, and I didn't clear it. Had I been able to reach him, I certainly would have done so.

All I can offer at this point is that I prayed on this, and I was firmly convinced that it would do more good than harm. Hopefully, it can help people realize how insignificant orientation is to inspiration and how "un-Christian" actions can taint people's faith.

Also, I have to say that Bill was exasperated at me constantly. I was the world's worst procrastinator, and I was ALWAYS pushing a deadline. Nonetheless, I found out from my editor that he once told her that I could be president one day.

So to Bill Briggs, I have this message:

Dear Bill:

If you read this, I hope you know that I'm not an isolated case. You have a lot of people who are eternally grateful to you. Your impact was greatest among those who taught me.

Chris

P.S. - Sorry I didn't get to the White House. As this story was written two decades after these events happened, obviously, I still have a bit of an issue with procrastination. Maybe that kept me from getting it done.


Chris,

I was news editor on the Spotlight in the 1982-1983 session, when Dennis Cripe was advisor to both the Spotlight & the Keyhole. I also attended during the reign of Dr. Mifflin; if you looked in the dictionary under "Self-Centered Prick", you would see his picture.

My situation was opposite yours--closeted gay kid & active Christian advisor--but not once did I ever feel like Mr. Cripe singled people out for believing differently. I also learned about integrity & fact-checking, & I have to say he was one of the most influential teachers I've ever had.

I suspect we both know what other teachers at BD were being targeted. I didn't find out until some years later which ones were actually gay, but wouldn't you know most of them were the "cool" teachers. It's good to know the environment has shifted towards a more inclusive one. The Westside of Indy has never been known for its liberal attitude; nice to see that the kids are changing that.

BTW, I also had Mrs. Pugh, & while we rarely saw eye to eye, I have to credit her with teaching me integral calculus using the example of stacking Tupperware...