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

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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."

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