clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Out band director at Catholic university still bears physical scars of living in the closet

Keith Johnston welcomes everyone into his program

Keith Johnston has been the band director at Sacred Heart Univ. for 14 years.

When Outsports told me it would be interesting to have an article about an out college band director, my first thought was “what do I really have to contribute to the ongoing story of male and female athletes coming out and standing up for who they really are?” As March Madness rolled on, and with Sacred Heart University’s WNIT game behind us, I had the chance to reflect on that.

I’ve been directing the marching band, pep band, and concert band at Sacred Heart, a small D1 college along the Connecticut coast competing in the Northeast Conference, for 14 years. I’ve been an out gay man for the last 20 years, and have been married to the same man for 17 years.

At my core I’m a teacher and, as Leonard Bernstein, the great American composer and conductor, said “when I teach, I learn.” It’s from what I’ve learned from my students over the years that I think I have something to add to our community.

For many in this audience you might be thinking “a marching/pep band director? How is that related to athletics?” Of course there’s the obvious connection – We play and rally the crowds at sporting events. Yet I’ve learned there’s even more that ties us to the athletic department other than playing the schools’ anthem at basketball game.

Those who have done it know there is a level of physical conditioning, athleticism, endurance, potential for injury, teamwork and individual achievement required of musicians involved in the marching arts. There are numerous studies, including one by the American College of Sports Medicine, that support the athletic nature of marching bands. Go. Read. Enjoy.

If you don’t think athletic bands should be included on this site, that’s fine. But remember this: Take the usual uncertainty that many young gay men and women have, add in a few comments about “band geeks” and “band nerds” (often coming from a high school sports team), and you have a recipe for stunting the emotional and personal growth of thousands of kids – harsh words and sentiments that could set them back for years.

When I started at Sacred Heart University 14 years ago, despite having been out for a lot of years, I came in with a pre-conceived notion of how my Catholic college students would react to a gay director. While the administration that hired me was aware I was gay, I’m not Catholic, and I wasn’t experienced enough at that time to know how – or even if – I should integrate the personal side of who I am as a person into my teaching.

I’ve learned much since starting here at SHU, an institution steeped in the Catholic Intellectual tradition, and more progressive than many would suspect.

The biggest thing I’ve learned, however, has been from my students. Yes, they’re in band to play music. But what they really want to learn is how to become who they really are, and who they have the potential to be. The only way they can learn that is for their teachers to be unafraid to share with them who they are, regardless of their sexuality.

My coming out mirrors so many other stories that we’ve all read on this site, with one twist that still informs how I approach my students today.

Keith Johnston’s specialty is the trombone.

I knew I was gay from a very young age, but I hid it and tried to suppress who I was from everyone. My inner turmoil finally boiled over in grad school when the stress of internal struggle, having by that point dominated every thought in my head every minute of the day for years, got to me. It interfered with my classwork and my private lessons.

One day during a lesson my teacher stopped, looked at me – more like stared into my soul.

“What is it?” He asked. “There’s a wall between you and everything else, what’s going on?”

The voice inside my head was screaming “I’m gay, and I don’t know how to handle it!” If I had taken advantage of that moment to trust him and tell him I was gay, my life may have taken a different direction. But I didn’t do that. I kept it a secret.

The denial was too much. I started not taking care of my health, not sleeping or eating right, until finally while walking to rehearsal one day my body gave up. I passed out, landing face first in a gravel driveway. I woke up with bits of gravel embedded in my forehead and cheeks. One of my fraternity brothers, who was an out, bi, navy vet, found me, called 911 and they transported to the hospital.

I still have the scars on my face from this incident, and every day I look at myself in the mirror and am reminded of the physical damage that can be happen by trying to be someone we’re not. It was not long after that I decided it was time to start accepting who I was, and if anyone had a problem with it, it was indeed their problem, not mine.

I’ve had, probably do have, and will probably have in the future, students in my band who:

· Were and are proudly out, some with boyfriends and girlfriends

· Were out to a small group of friends, but terrified that their family would find out

· Are out online, but nowhere else

· Are hiding deep in the closet, with no idea what to do.

As a country we've made tremendous progress in treating the LGBT community more equally than ever before. An added benefit to changing attitudes, and in legal recognition, has been that the stress and anxiety felt by young people who are coming to terms with who they are, is a little more bearable.

But we are human beings, and still seek some sort of affirmation from our friends and family as we journey through life.

At the start of each year at band camp, I tell my students that if you’re gay, straight, bi, transgender, or you don't know what you are, you’re welcome in the band. If, like me, you’ve heard the voices screaming inside of your head saying “you’re gay”, and you don't know how to make the noise stop...come and talk with me.

The simple, yet enormous act, of saying out loud to someone "I'm gay/bi/trans/confused" is the first step to taking control of your life, and not letting others intimidate, or try to force you into being someone you're not.

Each of us has worth and dignity, and that worth includes our gender and our sexuality. My door is always open to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Sexuality and gender is a spiritual gift.

All of who you are is sacred.

All of who you are is welcome.

You can find Keith Johnston on Facebook, and on Twitter @CTtrombone. You can also email him at Johnstonk@sacredheart.edu.

Editor: Cyd Zeigler