I have a lot of memories from high school. One that sticks out is the gay mime.
Okay, they didn’t actually bring a gay mime into my high school. But, during my sophomore year Sex & Dating class, we watched a video. In it, several mime artists acted out a scene at a party; at the end of it, two of them bump into each other and the one drops a magazine called Gay Monthly. He ran away in shock. (Yes, he actually mimed shock as he ran away.)
I remember we clowned on it — and, by that, I mean the presentation. Was there really a magazine targeted for gays with the incredibly on-the-nose title of Gay Monthly? Why would you carry it around if you were afraid of being outed? And why did my teacher feel the need to show us this scene with mimes?
What I don’t remember doing (though I’m sure it happened among some of us) was making fun of gay people. The video’s point — unless these people were really bad mimes — was to tell us to not treat gay people any differently. I thought it lined up with how my high school usually acted: Accepting of all.
I never really fit in anywhere until I went to there. In grade school I was a huge dork who stuttered. I was a poser desperate to do whatever it took to fit in. I had bad teeth and terrible acne (and I wasn’t allowed to get Accutane). I wasn’t an outcast. I had friends, but looking back at it I never really felt I could act like myself.
Most of these problems carried over into high school (though I did get braces). Maybe it was just growing up. But I felt like my high school fostered an environment where I could be myself. Sure, sometimes this made me an asshole: I was a wise-ass who was enough of a goodie-goodie to skirt out of trouble most of the time. I liked high school way more than college. But my high school years allowed me to begin to grow into the person I am today. It felt accepting in all ways.
I thought. I went to Holy Ghost Prep, which has been all over the news recently for firing a teacher for being gay. I didn’t know Michael Griffin — he was a 1996 graduate of the school who returned to teach in 2001, and I graduated in 2000 — but by accounts from his students he was a well-liked teacher. News of his firing, which first spread Friday among alumni and students, shocked me a little.
In addition to miming us into tolerance, Holy Ghost went even farther. My sophomore year a speaker with AIDS — who told us he got it from sexual contact — came in to tell us to be tolerant of people with the disease. That Sex & Dating class, hilariously, was taught by an Irish priest. A priest! But he was a Sex & Dating teacher that didn’t even lie when he presented us with the accurate failure rates for birth control. (We looked them up on the Internet.) I’m sure it wasn’t intended this way, but most of us took “You’re only allowed to use the rhythm method in marriage” with a big 1990s wink.
When I talked to kids from other schools about their experience, I thought Holy Ghost sounded pretty progressive for Catholics. (And maybe we just had a lot of offbeat presentations; our most notable anti-drug speakers were Big “Do Hugs Not Drugs” Al and these three guys who told us if we did drugs we wouldn’t be allowed in Canada.)
But, of course, as a straight white man — who didn’t even have long hippie hair then, as required by school rules — I never really had to think about fitting in. Pretty much 90 percent of my graduating class was upper-middle class white dudes. The only openly gay people I knew went to public school. The school encouraged us to be ourselves, but only to a point. All my good high school friends were straight. I never really thought about what the church was saying when — as we also learned in our Sex & Dating class — it told us that having gay feelings was okay but acting on them was a sin that could doom you to hell.
Father James McCloskey — the headmaster of the school when I was there, too — says he fired Griffin when he told the school he applied for a marriage license. The school was happy to have him when it could pretend he wasn’t gay, though Griffin says he and his future-husband sat with the school’s president, Jeff Danilak, at a school event. But as soon as it felt it received an official notification, McCloskey said he needed to act. Please. If our Catholic institutions have shown us anything over the past 2,000 years, it’s that they’re all about hushing things up. (Also, that their idea of “bread” leaves a lot to be desired.) What McCloskey has done is tell gay students and alums that you’re welcome in the community as long as you don’t ask for the same rights as straight people. What bullshit.
Most of the alums I know are pretty angry at the school, but here’s the rub: Holy Ghost is a school also partly designed to send students off to good colleges. I know I went there because it was about five minutes from my house likely to increase my chances of getting into Penn, where I wanted to go even as an obnoxious teenager. And in the real world Holy Ghost grads come into contact with openly gay people and they realize how ridiculous the church’s position is. Sending kids to elite liberal arts colleges makes them more liberal, and it makes them less likely to agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on gays. And this is going to be a problem at any Catholic high school. Get these kids ready for college and watch them repudiate many of the values you taught them!
I have fond memories of Holy Ghost Prep. But I’m not religious anymore, and I’m embarrassed to be associated with a school that treats people like it treated Michael Griffin. The school and church are free to do what they wish to. But I think the school is finding the students it helped create don’t agree with its stance on gays. Many have said they are not donating anymore. I don’t think I will be, either.
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