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Catholic high school corrects a 63-year-old homophobic wrong, honors gay track star

After a long and successful career in politics and comedy, Tom Ammiano finally receives a varsity track letter he earned with a 1958 victory.

Actress Halle Berry testifies before the Assembly Public Safety Committee
Tom Ammiano greets Halle Berry in his role as a California State Assemblyman.
Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It’s not every day that you read an inspirational athletic story that includes the phrase “from the author of ‘Kiss My Gay Ass.’”

But that’s the kind of life San Francisco political institution Tom Ammiano has led. And quite frankly, his story is more interesting than most inspirational figures who haven’t yelled that particular heckle at the star of “Jingle All the Way.”

While the 79-year-old Ammiano is a legend of San Francisco gay politics, he’s in the news this week because his Catholic high school in New Jersey took action to right a wrong that goes back to the days when he was 16.

In 1958, Ammiano was part of the track team at Montclair’s Immaculate Conception High School. He played a big role in their success and demonstrated his running skills by finishing first in his final one mile run of the season. In honor of his triumph, Ammiano was promised a varsity letter.

However, before the awards ceremony took place, Immaculate informed Ammiano that his victory in the final meet was being wiped off the books and he was going to be denied that status-conferring letter. As Ammiano told The New York Times’s Carol Pogash, even though Immaculate never gave an official explanation, he knew the truth: “I was weird and different.”

While “weird and different” could be used to describe literally every successful athlete from Babe Ruth to Tom Brady, in Ammiano’s case, it was because he was a closeted gay kid. According to Pogash, Ammiano “was a skinny high school student who had asthma, a high-pitched voice, and effeminate mannerisms.” In 1958, that was all that was needed to brand him a pariah.

Califbudget
Tom Ammiano on the floor of the California State Capitol. This is one of those, “If I could only show this to my high school self” kind of photos.
Photo by Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Indeed, his high school experience as a whole sounds like what so many LGBTQ students fear as their worst-case scenario. Ammiano recalled, “If it was discovered you were a gay kid, there were two alternatives: psychiatry because they thought you were nuts, or the cops, because it was illegal.”

His own team taking away his varsity letter was emblematic of what it was to be gay in New Jersey in the late ‘50s. So Ammiano fled to San Francisco after college, hoping to find a more accepting atmosphere.

Not only did he find that acceptance, Ammiano also charted a path of remarkable success in the Bay Area. Inspired by Harvey Milk, Ammiano was out and proud as a gay teacher, eventually entering politics and winning election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the California State Assembly.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Ammiano also worked nights as a stand-up comedian known as “The Mother of Gay Comedy.” And while many comics enter the business because they were denied a varsity letter, in almost every case that’s because schools don’t give letters to mathletes. Ammiano was a legitimately great runner and a winner.

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The Mother of Gay Comedy with a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm guest star. You might have seen him playing Harvey Milk in a 2008 movie.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Despite his many accomplishments, that moment of teenage humiliation was impossible to shake. In a recent interview with San Francisco’s KQED, Ammiano lamented, “It’s something that still hurts, even a hundred years later.”

Upon hearing this, a listener wrote to Immaculate Conception to encourage the school to write a decades-long wrong. And after consulting with Ammiano’s former coach and a teammate, the school awarded him the varsity letter he’d earned and had been missing since he reached driving age.

In a letter informing Ammiano of the school’s decision, Alumni Association Director Nora Bishop acknowledged Ammiano’s achievements and humanity, declaring “You truly possess the ‘heart of a Lion’ and have always exhibited character and conviction. You are an inspiration.”

Sometimes it actually does get better. Even if it takes 63 years.