Online Exclusive: A Head's Powerful Reflection on Coming Out to His School Community

Spring 2019

By Kirk Wheeler

I am a gay father. I am a gay head of school. I didn’t always have the courage to introduce myself this way. Last year, when I was asked to share my experience of coming out at the Northwest Association of Independent Schools’ Fall Educators Conference, I nearly said no. Actually, I think I may have said no several times. Eventually, I stepped into vulnerability and agreed to share my story. I showed up, and this is the story I told.
 
Several years ago, I made the decision to come out as gay. As a gay father, husband, and head of school. First, to my two children and then to my extended family. Those were challenging conversations, filled with love, confusion, and compassion.
 
With my family behind me, I knew intuitively that the best path forward was to come out to my school community. I needed to tell the story first and in my own words. Being a head of school is a very public position, and the relationship between head and board chair matter deeply. I shared my decision with my board chair and soon thereafter, the executive committee. The storm clouds were gathering very quickly.
 
Later that month, in the presence of the full board, I took a deep breath and, with my heart pounding, said the words “I am gay” aloud. I think everyone was a bit unsure what to say in that moment. No one wanted to misstep. After all, there are not a lot of “gay head of school case studies” as part of board training. And so, the long pause lingered.
 
We all have that one trustee, you know, that gifted trustee who has the just-right way of inserting humor or getting right to the heart of the matter. After a long silence, Claire said simply and with just the right spark, “Is that it? And I was so worried there was something wrong.”
 
Last-minute faculty meetings are not generally welcome news, but beyond the board, my most important team is the faculty and staff I work with each day. I wanted this to go well, and I worried that I might not find the best words, the right tone. What weighed even more heavily on my mind was the concern that it would be perceived as oversharing. After all, this was a deeply personal matter. I had no obligation to share my sexual orientation with anyone. But, I knew that sharing it, being authentic, was too deeply engrained in who I was as a person and as a school leader. My faculty would eventually hear the news on the street, and I felt they needed to hear it from me first.
 
And so, with the storm clouds darkening and swirling, I stood before my faculty, glanced at my notes, leaned in, and began. …And in walked my board chair. He just stood there, quietly by my side.
 
I learned something in that moment. When faced with a crisis (whether real, small, large, or just storm clouds gathering in our minds), we look to others. We seek guidance through their reactions and responses. Despite the “something-is-truly-wrong-or-the-board-chair-wouldn’t-be-here” moment, the grounding presence of my board chair at my side conveyed we’ve got Kirk’s back…this is not a big deal.
 
Knowing that telling my story reflected the very values we lived as a family, I decided to write a letter to the entire school community. Coming out to my family, board, and faculty didn’t prepare me for the profound emotions and deep vulnerability associated with writing a highly personal letter to more than 600 people.
 
The letter began: “St. Thomas School is a family, and families have a responsibility to engage with each other in ways that build mutual understanding and trust, while communicating accurately and fairly. As Head of School, I am committed to leading by example within the culture of trust and transparency that defines STS.”
 
The letter was emailed on a Friday afternoon. Parents suspect that schools send challenging communications on Fridays to avoid having to deal with the immediate aftermath. Well, in this case it was true. My assistant patiently waited until students, parents, and faculty had gone home for the weekend. And she waited. And waited. “I am here for as long as you need me,” she said, several hours into the evening. She checked on me several times and then, finally, I said, “Let’s send it.” She stepped into my office one last time and offered this advice: “Don’t check your email this weekend.” She hit send, and we walked out together.
 
I survived the gathering storm. And I survived Monday morning.

Believe it or not, this is not a story about coming out.
 
This is a story about showing up.
 
I believe in vulnerability as a quality that makes us stronger. We must wrap ourselves in our own vulnerability and authenticity to find our pathway to courage. And, I believe if we want our students to show up courageously, then we do too. I believe our world needs moral courage now more than ever.
 
The point is, as educators, we must show up authentically—as ourselves. Don’t misunderstand me. It doesn’t matter if we are out or not. It is not about crossing boundaries between personal and professional lives. But, it is about being our authentic selves. It is about having the courage to be vulnerable and to know ourselves. And only then can we, in turn, convey to our students that they are worthy just as they are. Just the way they show up.
 
The author recently explored the demographics and experiences of LGBTQ leaders at independent schools. Learn more about his research.
Author
Kirk Wheeler

Kirk Wheeler is head of school at St. Thomas School in Medina, Washington.