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Coming Out in 1994 Nearly Cost Rodney Wilson His Teaching Job. Has Missouri Learned Anything? 

click to enlarge Rodney Wilson with a copy of the 1994 Riverfront Times story about his decision to come out — and the reactions it sparked.

DAN STEADMAN

Rodney Wilson with a copy of the 1994 Riverfront Times story about his decision to come out — and the reactions it sparked.

Room number 115 at Mehlville High School was decorated with posters in the spring of 1994. Student-made work hung alongside posters of Gone with the Wind characters Rhett and Scarlett kissing, as well as Jackie Kennedy and JFK. Escape from Sobibor, a dramatic retelling of a World War II concentration camp, was playing on the roll-in TV in a class full of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old social studies students. The class was discussing the Holocaust, and when the movie was over, teacher Rodney Wilson pulled out a poster of the patches Jewish people were forced to wear in concentration camps.

He pointed to a pink triangle on the poster and looked at his class.

"If I was alive during this time, I would be wearing this patch, because I am gay," Wilson told the students.

It's a moment that made the Riverfront Times' August 3, 1994, cover story, sparking rage in parents at school board meetings when they discovered what Wilson had told their children.

Students in the class at the time say it didn't seem like a big deal back then, but now they see the impact of Wilson's words. Dana Workes, who was in class that day in Mehlville, tells the RFT what Wilson did paved the way for change.

"He stepped out and spoke his truth in a way that was definitely appropriate to the lesson. He didn't make it a big announcement that it was about him, but at the same time he opened the door to conversation," Workes says. "He showed authenticity; he connected with his students in doing so. It was the beginning of a new chapter that he would continue and still continues to have this position and to this day, in terms of speaking out and being an advocate and pushing for equality and acceptance and learning."

It was a moment that shifted Wilson's career path, and it continues to affect his life nearly 30 years later.

Ultimately, Wilson was not fired. He went on to win his tenure a year later and worked for the school district until 1997.

"When I left Mehlville, initially I wanted to do something a little different," Wilson tells the RFT now. "Those years, 1990 to 1997, they took a lot of energy."

His post-Mehlville journey took him to Massachusetts, where he taught GED classes in jails, and then to a Puerto Rican learning center, where he taught English to Spanish speakers. Then Wilson returned to Missouri. Each October, he participates virtually in presentations and events for LGBTQ History Month, a topic that Mehlville School District once didn't allow him to discuss in front of students.

In the RFT's 1994 story, Wilson had called a "shift toward justice" inevitable.

"Young teachers like myself are not going to be closeted anymore," he said at the time.

Then-RFT staff writer Jeannette Cooperman wrote in 1994 that Wilson clarified himself swiftly, saying he wasn't advocating for a "radical overturning of the system." He said he was aware of gay history and African American history, and he was inclusive of that. He pointed to the Gone with the Wind posters of Rhett and Scarlett, saying he celebrated hetereosexuality and there was nothing gay about his classroom besides the rainbow flag.

It wasn't enough for parents back then. In the weeks that followed the RFT's coverage, parents like Doris Hinsen went to school board meetings and demanded that Wilson essentially go back in the closet — there was to be no talk about his sexuality, they insisted, because Wilson would indoctrinate the kids into homosexuality. They called for him to be fired. In the board meetings, some parents declared homosexuality "unnatural," and others begged the board to "keep the district a good district."

Flash forward to 2021, and the same battles are still happening in school districts across Missouri. Wilson tells the RFT it's "disappointing" that these issues are still being debated nearly 30 years later. He points to the case of John Wallis as an example of history repeating itself.

click to enlarge John Wallis resigned in September from his teaching job in Neosho. - STEVEN DUONG
  • STEVEN DUONG
  • John Wallis resigned in September from his teaching job in Neosho.

Wallis was a speech and debate teacher for the Neosho School District who had put up a rainbow flag and poster to make his classroom more inclusive to LGBTQ students. Parents complained to the administration that Wallis would "teach the kids to be gay." The district responded by forcing Wallis to sign a paper agreeing to not discuss his sexuality with his students. He resigned.

"John was born in 1998, four years after the events at Mehlville High School," Wilson says. "So it's unacceptable that this is still an issue in Missouri, in places like Neosho."

Wilson and Wallis had connected on Facebook prior to Wallis' confrontation with the Neosho School District. When Wallis posted on social media about what had transpired, Wilson was there to support him.

"It means the world to me that he has reached out to check on me," Wallis tells the RFT. "I was familiar with his story before all of this, but the connection between our two stories is very telling. It's almost as if nothing has changed in the years since."

Wilson still checks on Wallis frequently. Wallis says it's comforting to be able to talk to someone who knows what he is going through.

Sarah Reece was a student of Wilson's when he came out, and she is now a special education teacher in the Mehlville School District. While there was an eleven-year gap between Wilson's departure and her own start as teacher at the school district, she believes if Wallis had set up shop with the flags in a Mehlville classroom now, no one would have batted an eye. Reece says the staff at Mehlville feel empowered to be inclusive without any negative repercussions.

In recent years, she was interviewed alongside other Mehlville teachers for a short documentary, "Taboo Teaching," named after the RFT cover story, about Wilson. One educator who speaks in the documentary, Alex Moore, says he found it hard to think about what happened to Wilson at Mehlville High School. Moore said that in his first interview with the district, he discussed his husband.

Reece says after the documentary came out in 2019, the Mehlville staff watched it together, and some of her coworkers asked her about her reaction at the time. She didn't realize all that Wilson went through with the school board and parents pressuring him to not talk about his sexuality. Reece scoffs at all the concerns about Wilson influencing his students' sexuality — "obviously I didn't turn gay because he said that to me."

Today, she's struck by the difference in dynamics between students of the '90s and now.

"Students are very much so comfortable with their sexuality," Reece says. "They say, 'Oh, I'm straight, trans, bi,' without too much regard for what the reaction is going to be. They don't seem to be scared to share. Obviously you don't think of it as being that long ago, but it surely was a lifetime ago. I mean, when this happened, some of the teachers that I work with now, they weren't even born yet. So, it really has been a long time ago and you realize, like, 'OK, that was still in the '90s,' and you think, 'Oh, well, surely we were more with it then,' but we really apparently weren't."

click to enlarge A 1994 letter to the editor that Wilson saved and underlined is an example of the backlash. - COURTESY RODNEY WILSON
  • COURTESY RODNEY WILSON
  • A 1994 letter to the editor that Wilson saved and underlined is an example of the backlash.

For Wilson, it's nice to see Mehlville School District's evolution. But progress hasn't been as swift across the state — arguably falling backward in some cases. Just this year, Missouri Republicans floated legislation to ban trans kids from playing sports, making teen athletes the target of the latest version of the moral panics that swept through the country in previous generations. Not even the anti-gay messaging of the 1990s has gone away.

Wilson found September especially difficult. Along with Wallis' resignation, that was the month state officials removed a LGBTQ history exhibit at the Missouri State Museum. Wilson read all twelve panels of the display and describes it as "basic information about the gay civil rights movement in Kansas City," the homophile movement in the 1950s and beyond. The display lasted only four days before Republican legislators had it removed.

"So in the month of September, we had an attack on inclusive history and an attack on inclusive faculty, 27 years after what I experienced," Wilson says. "And it was really sad. And I was very frustrated about both of these."

He penned an essay for the Advocate, saying that "this blow could be devastating" to young members of the LGBTQ community. As far as young people in education, the advice to "be true to yourself" is what he can offer. Being in the closet is much harder for this generation, Wilson thinks, because people are more open on the internet and more themselves.

Wilson counsels those facing difficult decisions today not to worry too much about consequences, because they still have time to fix them.

"It's just important to embrace who you are and to not hide it, but in your own time and in your own way. Just make sure people know, because life is a lot happier when you're not keeping secrets," he says.

An old aphorism sticks out to Wilson when reflecting on the past 27 years: "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit."

Around the same time Wilson came out to his students in 1994, he founded what was then called Lesbian and Gay History Month. Now known as LGBTQ History Month, it's celebrated every October in coordination with National Coming Out Day. Wilson chose the month because while June is internationally known as Pride month, school isn't in session then like it is for Women's History Month and Black History Month.

This year, Wilson has noticed an uptick in interest. He's spoken to audiences in Oakland, California, and to an LGBTQ youth group in Maine. Wilson looks at the month as the way to tell the full story of LGBTQ people, so students can feel empowered and strengthened by their knowledge of those who came before them, fighting for the same cause.

"I think it's important that young people know what came before they were born, because it's natural that we sort of think the universe started the day we were born ... we have that sense of ego — it's not a bad thing. It's just the way it is," Wilson says. "And so it's important that we learn early in our lives that, indeed, the universe existed long before we came here and it will exist long after we're gone. And in this interval while we're actually here, it's up to us to make the most meaning we can from our lives and do the most we can to make our lives and the lives of everyone we know and love better and happier and more fulfilling."

To Wilson, studying history and understanding what others have done for us on our behalf is the best way to do that. He points to the line about planting trees, saying gay rights activists in the '30s and '40s were planting trees, long before anyone would see the leaves. Passing on a seedling to the next generation, he's watching the work unfold with today's activists.

"We're watching the tree grow even taller and stronger with the roots more embedded in the Earth so that young people today — hopefully, and I think so — have it significantly better than young people of my generation did," Wilson says. "And then the young people today are going to move everything forward. I have a lot of confidence in them, because they see a lot of things and know a lot of things now that it took my generation, you know, 40 years of living on the Earth to understand. And the young people today, many of them already have that knowledge and information. So they're going to advance things even more. And I hope that LGBTQ History Month can be part of that process of enlightening us, all of us, about the history and then giving us the strength that comes from that knowledge."

click to enlarge Back in 1994, Wilson predicted a “shift toward justice.” In some ways, he was right, but old battles continue. - COURTESY RODNEY WILSON
  • COURTESY RODNEY WILSON
  • Back in 1994, Wilson predicted a “shift toward justice.” In some ways, he was right, but old battles continue.

Looking back on the years, Wilson only has maybe a couple of regrets — one being that while he has two master's degrees, maybe he should have also gotten his doctorate. But he doesn't regret coming out. He's happy he did.

Jamie Windhorst, another one of his students at Mehlville in the '90s, remembers her teacher fondly. After high school, Windhorst married a man and had a child. When she later came out and reconnected with Wilson, she knew he would understand the freedom she felt.

"It's just a support system that you don't think that you're going to stay 'friends' with a teacher the rest of your life or, you know, realize the impact that they have at the time or that they continue to impact a life," Windhorst says. "I feel like as a society we've come a long way, but if it wasn't for people like Rodney, I certainly wouldn't be where I am today. And I think that we do have a much further way to go. But because of him and his continued education and just what he keeps giving to the LGBTQ community, it's just continues to be a safer, more educated place."

Reece finds inspiration in the way Wilson instructed her class — the way he didn't just sit there and lecture but involved students in the process through recreating social justice movements' posters or reading and connecting current events to historical ones. Workes calls him a role model — someone who is a natural teacher and has "never wavered" from it.

Wilson, now teaching at Mineral Area College and the cosponsor of the school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance, has a few years before retirement. He continues to take pride in LGBTQ History Month. And he takes pride in the way he allowed himself to be authentic with his students years ago.

"As we get older, we do begin to look back at our lives to try to see what difference did I make or what is that which I might be remembered for," he says. "And I am happy that I had those experiences at Mehlville High School as an openly gay teacher. It took a little while in my life, but I'm happy that I did find a place of complete integration in my own being and acceptance. And yeah, I'm happy to have gotten to a good place. And I hope most of all that I did something that nudged or advanced the ability of others to become integrated in their own personality and accept who they are and share that at an even earlier age than I did."


Follow Jenna on Twitter at @writesjenna. Email the author at [email protected]
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