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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 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."

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