For 18 years, Kristen Ostendorf worked as a teacher at Totino-Grace High School in Minnesota in relative silence: she didn’t tell anyone that she is gay. But after she finally came out to her colleagues last month, her work at the Catholic school immediately came to an end.
43-year-old Ostendorf told the MinnPost that during a workshop of 120 teachers in late August, she blurted out, “I’m gay, I’m in a relationship with a woman, and I’m happy.” The next day she was asked to resign, having broken the Catholic school’s code of conduct barring any public speech or actions that contradict the Church’s teachings. When she refused, she was promptly fired.
As far as I can surmise, the rule I broke was saying out loud that I am in a relationship with a woman. It is OK in the church to be gay, though one would really not say that aloud… Probably I’m never going to work in the Catholic Church again. That ship has probably sailed. I know what the rules are, and I know I broke them by speaking the eight words [I'm gay, in a relationship with a woman] I shouldn’t have said.
She says the topic came up because the teachers were discussing that year’s “school theme,” a yearly motto based on Catholic teachings that guides coursework for the year. This year’s theme is “Make Your Mark,” focused on doing the work one believes God has called them to do and contributing to the shared success of “one human family.” Ostendorf says she couldn’t keep quiet about the school’s hypocrisy when it came to inclusion and togetherness.
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?
By “recent events,” she means another scenario similar to hers that occurred only months before at the same school. Ostendorf isn’t the only one to have been fired for being gay. Earlier this year, school president Bill Hudson was forced to resign after he was anonymously outed to the school’s corporate board and ultimately revealed that he had a male partner. This means Totino-Grace fired two openly gay employees on the basis of their sexuality in just one year.
Ostendorf told the MinnPost:
Bill’s departure under such disquieting circumstances was difficult for everyone in our school community, particularly for those of us who are gay or lesbian. Unfortunately, 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.
After the meeting where she came out to her colleagues, school officials sat down with Ostendorf to “discuss her options,” she says. However, she made it clear that she would not hide the truth of why she was being asked to leave.
We had a conversation about what the repercussions [of] not resigning would have on my future employment, and what Totino-Grace would be able to say to a future employer. And I just said, “I want to be very clear about this: I’m not embarrassed about what I said. I will not dance around it. I will tell every future employer precisely why I left. And if that’s a problem, I don’t want to work there. I can’t do it anymore.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last. The Catholic Church’s institutional intolerance is not a secret in any way, but it seems Ostendorf did a decent job of working around the Church’s infamous homophobia to accept and embrace her sexuality:
While the Catholic Church sort of confuses me, indeed I am made who I am. Period. That’s a given. That’s true. God made me, God made all of us, and I don’t think that I’m some abnormal person, or an aberration, or that there was something missing in the making part, or something extra in the making part. It’s hard though, still, to believe that and then to hear, “We respect everybody” and “Everybody is a child of God,” but “Don’t live your life, don’t love as you are made to love.”
Ostendorf is brave — there’s no doubt about that. It takes some serious guts to come out in such a public way, knowing the repercussions will likely be unfair and unjust. It takes something else entirely to be open about experiencing such brutal bigotry, and to share it with the world in the hopes of fighting the system.
I would be surprised if any Catholic schools seriously considered changing their policies after Ostendorf’s firing, but at the very least we can hope she’ll inspire other Catholic LGBT faculty and students to unapologetically be true to themselves. She clearly made a difference in her students’ lives as a teacher, particularly for those who may have been LGBT and too afraid to say so. As an accidental spokesperson for openly LGBT people in the Church, she’ll continue to have an influence, whether as a teacher or not.