Research Insights: The State of LGBTQ Leadership in U.S. Independent Schools

Spring 2019

By Kirk Wheeler

My journey as a gay head of school has been uniquely mine. And yet, over the past five years I have begun to better understand that my journey also has similarities with other LGBTQ school leaders. I have found myself intensely curious about others’ experiences and how our stories as LGBTQ leaders might be similar or different from our more “traditional” counterparts. What are some characteristics of schools in which LGBTQ leaders feel acceptance? What challenges do they face? How can schools learn from these leaders, and what is the impact on their schools?
These and other questions led me to conduct a survey as a way to address the lack of research on LGBTQ leaders within independent schools. The 21-question survey, created with the help of Rafael del Castillo, head of school at Bertschi School (WA), and Patricia Hearn, head of school at Lake Washington Girls Middle School (WA), was designed to collect demographic data about LGBTQ heads of school and other senior leaders in independent schools; describe the experiences of these leaders within the context of their unique communities; and uncover avenues for further research and exploration. A total of 47 people completed the confidential online survey.


The majority of respondents (51 percent) reside in the West and Mid-Atlantic regions. East, Midwest, and New England regions account for 42.55 percent, with the remaining respondents in the Southeast and Southwest. 
The vast majority of LGBTQ leaders report being in coeducation (91 percent), nonsectarian (78 percent), and day (85 percent) schools. Of those identifying as religious schools, 29 percent are Episcopal, and 57 percent are “other,” which includes Quaker schools.
The majority of respondents (61 percent) currently serve as head or assistant head of school/president or division head, have been at their current school for 10 years or less (72 percent), and hold an advanced degree (84 percent).

Personal Journey

The majority of respondents indicated that they identify as gay or lesbian (74 percent) and are fully out to family, friends, and the school community (73 percent); 18 percent reported being out to family/friends and select members of the school community. Within this seemingly straightforward question, the complexity of gender and sexual orientation becomes clearer. Several respondents (11 percent) indicated “other” and provided additional information for clarification. Comments included identification as queer, cisgender, pansexual, genderfluid, and gender nonconforming.
Independent school leaders who are fully out shared many stories about the experience. For some, this is simply how they showed up from the very beginning of their careers: “ ‘What you see is what you get’ was and is my approach. It was never a problem or questioned,” said one participant. Another said: “I didn’t think of being out to students, families, or the community as a decision. I’ve been out in my prior career and was hired with the community’s awareness of my sexual orientation.”
Others, perhaps reflecting on past experiences in former schools, chose a different path when they entered their new schools. “I came to this role as an open gay male with a husband who has been included in all appropriate school and administrative events. Our school is quite liberal with other out gay administrators. My previous school … was a bit trickier.”
Survey participants who reported not being out or partially out within their school community were asked to share perspectives and context about their decision. One interesting aspect was the interpretation of being out. It is an assumption that “coming out” occurs at a particular moment in time and that it can be neatly packaged. But coming out can occur in many ways and may well evolve over time as one’s identity evolves. “I have always felt uncomfortable with the term ‘out’ because I don’t know that everyone agrees on what it means,” said one respondent, continuing that, “For me, I am out because I do not hide or lie about my sexuality. Not owning my sexual orientation was a mistake I made for the early part of my life, and I did vow not to make that mistake again.”
Even within their current school, LGBTQ school leaders face an ongoing decision about whether to continue to come out. One respondent said, “I am completely out as a queer person because I am privileged to live in a place where I feel mostly safe being my queer self. That being said, coming out is a process that never ends, and I am not fully out in terms of my andro/nonbinary/genderfluid status. I continue to come out whenever possible. I especially want folks who are new to this community to know that there are queer/nb people here, even if our numbers are small.”

School Culture

The challenges LGBTQ leaders face reflect school culture as well as geographic and political contexts. A school’s perspectives on diversity and inclusion, the presence of other LGBTQ community members, values at the board level, and legal protections all play a role. One respondent said, “It is a very open and accepting community. The community would possibly be less comfortable with someone who is closeted.”
In contrast, others paint a picture of challenges even when the school community is generally supportive. “Despite being a welcoming and well-intentioned community that views itself as being at least socially liberal, heteronormativity is the norm. There are ways that LGBTQ leaders still are left on the outside of conversations, assumptions made, etc. By way of comparison to what others face elsewhere, these issues pale but make some parts of the experience harder.”
The research also highlights a discrepancy between a school’s aspirations for inclusion and diversity and the actual LGBTQ leader experience. LGBTQ leaders sometimes feel they are used as symbols for inclusion or perceived as being able to speak for the broader LGBTQ community. “There are so many layers to who we are as school leaders—as individuals. Even when accepted as an openly gay administrator, one risks being ‘tokenized’ or having one’s agenda questioned.”
And when they do speak, “the perception of being biased as a far-left thinker and political person” is a concern, said one respondent, continuing, “I often find that I am dismissed by parents and students alike because of my orientation. They assume that my work in equity and inclusion is because of my identity as opposed to my extensive education, background, or professional degrees or training.”

The LGBTQ Leadership Experience

When asked to describe the LGBTQ independent school leader experience, respondents shed light on how it is similar to or differs from that of a more “traditional” school leader. As one respondent articulated, “There are simply jobs that are not available to us in the independent school world, and communities in which we cannot be our most true self.” Another said, “All headships are lonely. An LGBTQ headship can be especially lonely. You are constantly deciding how much to include others in your life. You also are deciding how to navigate micro- and more significant aggression.”
Many respondents did not portray the LGBTQ headship or senior leadership experience to be any different: “Other than the chance to be an exemplar for LGBTQ students, I don’t see any difference.” And in the words of another, “I don’t think it has been any different. Our school is intentional about its commitment to inclusion because we believe it creates the best scholars and community.”
The search process can also be challenging. Stories reveal the tension associated with publicly identifying one’s sexual orientation. Even for those who are completely out in their current schools, they must consider whether (and how) to broach the subject during a new search process. It’s important to understand the school community and culture and discern the degree to which their identification will be accepted. As one respondent noted, “I’ve applied for a few other senior positions outside of my school, and I’ve been very careful about not coming out in interviews. Although it wouldn’t matter one iota in my school, I still never know how it might be received in another school, so I go into those situations cautiously.”
Despite the challenges, some respondents indicated that there are benefits as part of their LGBTQ leadership roles. One element is the ability to bring greater empathy to the position. “I believe my LGBTQ status shines in the area of looking at topics, discussion, or decisions through the additional lenses of gender, sexuality, race, and socioeconomic status,” one respondent noted. Another said, “I think I am better able to acknowledge and recognize feelings of being ‘other,’ whether or not we are talking about LGBTQ issues.”

Reflections and Next Steps

The survey results provide tremendous insights into the state of LGBTQ leadership and illustrate the challenges and opportunities that are part of the LGBTQ school leader experience.
There were some surprises in the data, which may well say a great deal about my own personal journey and assumptions. First, the number of school leaders (91 percent) who were out or out to select members of school communities was higher than I expected. Does this mean that those who were out were more willing to complete the survey or felt safer in doing so? What are the stories of those who are not out?
Second, the number of respondents who said there wasn’t much difference in the experience between LGBTQ and more “traditional” leaders was higher than expected. It appears that those heads who feel their experiences are not unique are also in schools where they are accepted and fully or partially out. Have these schools “normalized” a nontraditional headship to some extent? What does this say about the evolving headship in general? Might there be some parallels between the experiences among other nontraditional heads such as female, single, and heads of color?
In the quest for quantitative data, regarding identification, respondents were asked to choose a label—a box. One responded noted, “Outside the boxes for both gender and sexuality, no existing identity language captures my identity.” Sexual orientation is simply one of many areas of gender and sexuality. Perhaps, over time, coming out in terms of sexual orientation will become normalized and the greater challenges school leaders face may be other expressions of gender, gender identity, and gender expression.
I am particularly intrigued by the coming-out process—the decision process itself, the stressors, the head search, and potential or perceived need to come out as an ongoing process. An overlay seems to be that the LGBTQ leader is constantly managing perceptions and relationships. To what extent can they or should they be clear about their sexual orientation? How can a potential leader best discern the degree to which the school community and culture truly embraces this diversity?
I believe an understanding of the stories and experiences of LGBTQ leaders in independent schools is essential to our collective missions. I believe our students will need to lead with moral courage and that we, as educators and school leaders, must be their role models. We, too, must lead authentically and courageously. We must do our own edgework if we are to expect that in our students.

Discussion Questions

As this article notes, the survey and its results are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to reflecting on the insights here, school leaders and boards should consider:
  • What are the personal narratives of those who are not out within their communities?
  • How might these leaders’ experiences reflect the missions and aspirations of independent schools, regional associations, and NAIS?
  • Knowing that the number of LGBTQ students is increasing in schools, how might schools and associations learn from LGBTQ leaders’ experiences as they further their respective missions?
  • What can schools and boards do to attract LGBTQ leaders and other nontraditional leaders?
  • To what extent are schools missing out on exceptional LGBTQ leaders?
  • How can schools ensure they are welcoming and prepared for a nontraditional head of school both in the search process and in the transition and retention phases?
  • During the search process, how can schools assume greater responsibility in articulating school culture authentically and proactively, thereby reducing this stressor on behalf of a potential candidate?

As part of collecting and sharing this research, Kirk Wheeler also shares the powerful story of coming out to his school community.
Kirk Wheeler

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