By Marissa Mizroch
“I feel like a ton of bricks has been lifted. If I knew this is how I would feel, I would have done this 20, 30 years ago.”
This is how Pete Cahall, principal of Wilson High School, describes his feelings after coming out as gay in front of his school community on June 4. Cahall made his announcement at Wilson’s 2nd annual Pride Day assembly.
“How can I look these kids in the eyes and tell them it’s ok to be who they are—gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender, and this is a safe place to do it, when I wasn’t able to speak my own truth,” Cahall said, about his decision to come out. “I felt like a hypocrite.”
Since the announcement, Cahall has received national attention and support from all over the country. He received letters of support from as far away as Germany. Many educators, students, and parents of LGBTQ children have commended him for his choice to come out. However, the most support came from the Wilson community itself.
“At commencement, where there were 3700 parents and family members, and all of the graduating class, a large group stood up and gave him a standing ovation,” Kim Bayliss, incoming president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization and mother of two Wilson students, said. “Based on that, I can say that the community is incredibly proud and supportive.”
Bayliss said that despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the responses were positive, she has seen some negative feedback in regards to Cahall’s announcement.
“I’ve seen at least one email, directed at the principal, that was questioning his motives, questioning his timing,” Bayliss said. “The questioning has been limited to why now, why in a public place at the school, that sort of thing. But that is such the minority viewpoint.”
Of the negative feedback, much of it revolved around the relevance that Cahall’s sexuality has to his job as principal. Cahall recognizes that some people may feel uncomfortable with his choice to come out, but he feels that his sexuality does have a place in the school, just as much as his straight coworkers’ sexuality does.
“While a straight principal doesn’t come in and announce that’s he straight, he does introduce his wife to people and has pictures of her on his desk,” Cahall said. “I wasn’t able to do that. So they may not explicitly say it, but they do announce it.”
Tao Marwell, a recent graduate of Wilson and co-head of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, was surprised but supportive of her principal’s announcement.
“Part of being a principal is fostering a safe and welcoming environment for everyone,” Marwell said. “There will always be that small group who oppose people who are LGBT. I think his coming out was not inappropriate at all, because he’s helping foster that welcoming environment and leading by example that it’s going to be ok.”
In the weeks since Cahall’s announcement, Wilson has also been in the news for a large counter-protest against the Westboro Baptist Church that took place just days after the Pride Day assembly in which Cahall came out. The notoriously anti-gay church group picketed Wilson for their support of the LGBTQ movement.
Now that the school year is over, things at Wilson High School have settled down. But according to members of the Wilson community, the response to Principal Cahall’s announcement isn’t just a passing fad. As the media attention fades, the love that exists for all members of the community is still there.
“It is an incredibly diverse community. Not just socio-economically, not just racially. But there is a really strong mix of straight, gay, questioning teachers, students, parents,” Bayliss said. “And it has always seemed to me as a very cohesive and unified community. And that is bigger than the principal.”
Marwell thinks that the support Wilson and its community has shown over recent events is further proof that Wilson is a school full of pride.
“Wilson has always been a very welcoming community, but I’ve never seen the school come together in such an incredible way,” Marwell said. “I think this really shows how united we are, and how supportive we are of everyone in our school. I also think it shows our pride, not just gay pride, but our pride as one big community that supports each other.”