A Minnesota Catholic school teacher spontaneously came out to her colleagues in a staff meeting last month and was fired the next day, MinnPost reported this week.
Kristen Ostendorf, a 43-year-old English and religion teacher at Totino-Grace High School, is the second staff member to be forced out of a job at the school in the past three months on the basis of sexual orientation and relationship status -- president Bill Hudson was asked to resign in July after he came out as a gay man in a committed relationship to leaders of the school's corporate board. Other staff members reportedly resigned over the summer in protest.
Ostendorf said that Hudson's ouster created a climate of fear for the school's LGBT faculty members:
"...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.
Ostendorf's sense of loyalty to the Totino-Grace community -- she'd taught there for eighteen years -- prompted her to decide to keep quiet and return to school this fall.
But at a campus ministry planning meeting at the end of August, everything changed.
Ostendorf told MinnPost:
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?
So, in front of 120 of her colleagues, Ostendorf decided to stand up then and there and officially acknowledge her truth for the first time -- knowing full well that it meant she'd probably never work in the Catholic Church again.
"I'm gay, I'm in a relationship with a woman, and I'm happy," she said.
The room was silent as Ostendorf sat down, but she says she received supportive emails and visits throughout the rest of the day. The school's president, however, called to tell her not to come to workshops the next day, but to attend a meeting with the administration instead.
Ostendorf knew what would (and did) happen next: administration officials asked her to resign. But she refused, saying, "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."
Administrators responded by firing her on the spot.
Ostendorf's firing is just the latest blow in the American Catholic Church's all-out campaign of spiritual bullying and religion-based bigotry against LGBT people, couples, and families, an unholy crusade that I've chronicled extensively on this site and elsewhere.
Stories like this are also intensely personal for me: I'm a former Catholic and liturgial musician who, like Ostendorf, was dismissed for (in my case) being married to my soulmate -- simply because that person is another man. I know dozens of wonderful, dedicated, talented LGBT people serving the Catholic Church as teachers, administrators, organists, music directors, liturgists, cantors, and volunteers. Kristen Ostendorf's story could happen tomorrow to any one of them.
By speaking out and owning her truth no matter the consequences, Ostendorf is taking the high road. On the contrary, I'm incredibly dismayed by the victim-blaming I'm seeing from some quarters of the LGBT community. I'm already seeing comments like "Ostendorf knew the Catholic Church was anti-gay when she took the job. What did she expect?"
Aside from the fact that it appalls me whenever I hear fellow LGBTs justify our oppressors' actions and excuse their homophobic prejudice -- even when it's served up under the guise of religion -- such responses are massively hurtful. Instead of cynically shaming people who, in whatever life situation they're in, are able to summon the courage to own their truth and challenge the bigotry of their faith traditions, we should be affirming and applauding them. After all, LGBT Catholics deserve equality every bit as much as non-Catholic LGBTs do.
Ostendorf didn't speak out because she wanted pity, sympathy, or attention. She spoke out because her conscience compelled her to -- and because she could no longer maintain her silence in the face of injustice.
The LGBT community can only really be a welcoming community of non-judgment and acceptance if we stand in solidarity with people like Kristen Ostendorf, instead of rolling our eyes and tut-tutting about how she should have known better.