It was just over a month ago that 49 people were killed in a gay bar in Orlando. The day after the tragedy, in the hope of reminding my personal network of the love in the world by sharing more pictures of gay couples kissing, I posted this photograph of my husband and partner of 13 years, Dan Pinar, and me on my public-facing Facebook account:
Shortly after I posted the picture, a man named Steve Kenney, who happens to be the principal of a school in Florida, allegedly saw it flash across his news feed (most likely because we have a mutual friend who shared my loving post). Kenney's disgust was painfully obvious from the three messages he left on said Facebook post of me kissing my husband.
In one message, Kenney defined my husband and me, as well as my Facebook message, with one word:
He repeated the "sick" comment in a second response. A school principal calling a gay couple "sick" for posting a photograph of themselves on their own social-media account certainly seemed egregious.
Yet the insidious post that ultimately has led to me write this column sent shivers through my mind, particularly given the timing, literally hours after the Orlando shooting:
Gays must be put to death. Not should be, not might be... must be. Put to death.
While Kenney was clearly not harming anyone physically with his post, and while it would be hyperbole to suggest there was any actual intent to do so on Kenney's part, I thought about how religious doctrine was again at play, as it had been just 36 hours earlier in Orlando.
My heart sank as I clicked on Kenney's Facebook page to see he listed himself as the head of Center Academy in Pinellas Park, Fla., just 100 miles from where the Orlando massacre took place and where the Tampa Bay Rays would honor the dead later that week. I wondered how an educator of young minds -- a school principal -- could not only think such terrible things about gay people, but go a step further and post them on a stranger's loving photo only hours after the massacre.
I am a frequent and outspoken advocate for disenfranchised young people -- someone who cares deeply about making sure that every kid feels included regardless of sexual orientation (or anything else that makes them different from the mainstream). As such, the insensitivity of this school principal was beyond my ability to grasp.
"It is horrifying to realize there are people in leadership roles in education who hold these repugnant views," GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard said to me. GLSEN is the country's leading education network on LGBT issues. "Saying gay people deserve to die is so far beyond the pale it is horrifying, and any time we learn of someone with those views, we must do what we can to make sure they are not directing the education of young people.
"The good news is that the mainstream of the educating world has repudiated those views."
Beyond shaping young, impressionable minds, Center Academy is a school for special-needs students, previously earning a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Most of the students apparently aren't just impressionable, they are some of the most vulnerable in our society.
"How particularly ugly and horrifying that someone who works with a more vulnerable population, who are so prone to face additional challenges to having a happy and fulfilling life, would do this," Byard told me. "But we have to come back to the core value of educators and the mainstream education world that has rejected these views."
It was with the hope of appealing to those core values of educators that I reached out to Center Academy CEO Andrew Hicks to inform him of Kenney's insensitive posts. Hicks made clear to me that Center Academy is not a religious school. He later told me he "spoke to" Kenney, and that Kenney wouldn't post anything like that on Facebook again. The photo, I was told by Hicks, bothered Kenney because he didn't expect to see something like that on his feed (again, my best guess is that a mutual friend shared the post).
When I asked about plans for any repercussions, disciplinary action, or implementation of LGBT education and training in the school, Hicks said he could not share any of that with me, but that he was looking into the possibility of LGBT training.
I asked to speak with Kenney, in hopes of talking with him about the importance of having visible LGBT people at the school. As an LGBT advocate with many prominent sports connections, I had hoped to convince him to bring out LGBT athletes and coaches to talk with the student body and faculty. I had hoped for a civil dialogue with Kenney that could help educate him as well as his students and faculty.
I wanted to know that the LGBT faculty and special-needs students would be completely supported by robust programming and outreach from the administration despite Kenney's obvious feelings about the sight of two men kissing.
Instead, Kenney and/or Hicks ignored my requests to speak with Kenney personally, despite my having left my email and phone number with Hicks. Kenney did finally delete his Facebook messages after I specifically requested through Hicks that he do so, but apparently he couldn't be bothered with connecting with me to talk about the deeper issues of hate against the LGBT community.
My last communication with Hicks was June 17 (my attempt to reach him last week and this week went unreturned). Sadly, Kenney never reached out.
On its Web site, the school lists seven guiding principles and goals. The first one is of paramount importance for any institution charged with shaping the minds of young people:
"1. Center Academy will improve its students' self-esteem, self-concept, and self-confidence"
It's difficult to understand how a principal who posts Biblical messages calling for the execution of gay people could possibly live up to that primary principle, at least without some serious training and some eagle-eyed watchdogs in the school. The matter feels particularly urgent to me, given the high rate of suicide attempts for LGBT teens.
It might be convenient for some to excuse Kenney's post as simply a quote from the Bible. Yet 36 hours and just 100 miles from the location of the massacre of 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando, it seems to me that only someone who has at least some sympathy for the horrific quote from the Book of Leviticus would have the unfathomable insensitivity to share those words on social media.
Forget about calling a loving, married gay couple "sick."
What bothers me most is my concern that, without education about inclusion and a community of watchdog administrators and parents encouraging tolerance, Kenney's expressed bigotry could seep into choices he is making for his school. The good news is that principals don't generally instruct classes of students on a day-to-day basis.
Yet if he is presented with the opportunity to hire an out gay coach, will he opt for a straight coach who isn't "sick"? If a pro-LGBT speaker wants to conduct an empowering presentation to the student body about sexual orientation, what decision would Kenney make about someone who must "be put to death"? How would a student or teacher feel coming out in that school?
At the end of the day, this is about the kids. The LGBT kids, the kids questioning who they are, the straight kids who live in a world where gay couples are their friends and neighbors.
I don't want Kenney to lose his job. I don't. I do want there to be repercussions for his insensitivity; if I were the school administration, I would consider suspending him without pay. And I do want this whole thing to be a learning experience for him and a catalyst for change for the school. I want the parents and administration to be very aware of this issue. I want them to be the eyes and ears on the ground watching Kenney's decisions. I want them to make sure that every LGBT student in that school feels included, and that programs are set up in Center Academy to ensure that Kenney's statements about gay people being "sick" don't dictate school policy or programs.
I want Kenney to introduce an LGBT speaker at a school assembly. I want Kenney to shake the hand of a gay athlete sharing her story with the athletic department.
I know the school will ultimately find its way through this, and I share this story publicly to make sure it does. No parent wants their child to grow up in 2016 thinking the thoughts that this principal posted on Facebook. As Byard told me, the educational system in this country resoundingly rejects divisive messages like those Kenney posted on my photograph. I know the school will institute LGBT-inclusive programs with the urging of parents.
I'm hopeful that Kenney, with some open, honest dialogue, can be a part of the solution.