A Journey to Openness

An elementary principal tells of his journey from closeted teacher to openly gay administrator.

By Daniel R Ryan

In the past decade, I have journeyed from being a school teacher unwilling to divulge my growing gay identity to others, to becoming an elementary school principal wanting to share stories of my partner and our two adopted children. Along the way, I learned to embrace a role of advocacy via the simple act of openly identifying myself as a gay man.

Serving as an openly gay principal of a school has been both a challenging and enlightening experience. This essay describes the journey to openness and the responses and responsibilities that come with serving as an openly gay school administrator.

During my ten years of teaching, it was an honor to live, laugh, and learn with the children I served in grades one through six. At all developmental levels, the children, their parents, and I engaged in a rich sharing of experiences and ideas. I helped parents who were struggling with their child’s behavior at home. We brainstormed ways to support a child’s academic success and we worked together in nurturing their social and emotional growth. Deep personal relationships developed while interacting as members of a shared community.

As a teacher, I engaged in these communal relationships while silently struggling to define myself as a gay man. A few trusted colleagues were aware of my “roommate” and other gay identifying artifacts in my life. Yet, in the teacher’s lounge, my discussion of weekend events was always in the first-person singular. I succumbed to the belief that silence provided acceptance. It was not until I found a partner with whom I could make a life commitment, and the adoption of our daughter in 1994, that I realized invisibility was no longer an option.


I moved from the classroom to an elementary school principalship in 1992 in order to effect educational change at a broader level. My first principalship was at an elementary school in a wealthy community intent upon preserving its upper-echelon status. My school was located outside of Chicago’s more diverse Cook County. Like most communities in the United States, this school district condones the firing of openly gay employees by virtue of having no discrimination policies based upon sexual orientation. Therefore, I began my first principalship in a district replete with resources and devoid of diversity.

During my first year as principal I was not out of the closet, nor had my partner and I yet adopted our daughter. I found myself in a position I loved, working with children, their families, and the teachers in the school. Concurrently, I instituted the processes involved in bringing diverse voices forward against the backdrop of conservatism found in this community. I encouraged discourse with all community members and activated an open-door policy to facilitate meaningful discussions. As a result, I found myself confronted by parents intent upon perpetuating their personal beliefs within a public domain. Some were convinced that our school should have a Christmas tree in the lobby, despite the presence of children from other religions at our public school. Other parents invited me to their church group lecture series, as a result of my call to hear all community voices. I attended one such lecture, which concluded with the announcement that next week’s topic would address the “evils of prostitution and homosexuality.” I worked diligently to quietly confront such bias while afraid to share the diversity my being gay would bring to the community. During the first year of my principalship, I continued my silence, as so many gay/lesbian educators do for a variety of reasons – fear of rejection, threat of job loss, or child custody issues.

On August 29, 1994, at the start of my second year as principal, everything changed. On this day, the daughter that we were to adopt was born in Minnesota and my partner and I brought her home ten days later. Her coming into our lives initiated what was to become, for me, a very schizophrenic year. Although our school year had already begun, I took a day off to fly up to Minnesota for our daughter’s birth. I arrived back to work confounded by the dilemma that I could not share my joy as a new father with anyone.

My past silence had put up walls that would be difficult to tear down. For the remainder of the school year, I longed to share stories with another teacher who had just had a baby.

As rich and rewarding as I found the responsibilities of my job, I knew that I was in a community that would not easily accept my newfound family. My discomfort with silence surfaced a desire to find a place where I could merge both the personal and professional. I knew that my daughter deserved parents who would be open and able to confront the prejudices that may exist in people. My partner was able to share our daughter’s birth at his workplace, where they have sexual orientation included in their non-discrimination policies. As a result, they held a baby shower for us at his office. His courage reaped the rewards of communal connectedness. Because my partner chose openness, there were no walls to be torn down upon our daughter’s birth. I witnessed the joy and support his co-workers provided. In order to find such a community for myself, I would seek out and obtain two opportunities that transformed my life as a gay man. First, I interviewed for and was hired as the principal of a progressive laboratory school of a university located in Evanston, IL. Second, I applied for and was accepted into a Practitioner’s Doctoral program at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Both of these opportunities created events and circumstances that allowed me, as a gay man, parent, and school leader, to enter into relationships with others honestly and openly.

When interviewing for the new administrative position, I privately explained to the dean of the College of Education that I would uphold my responsibilities as director of the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade laboratory school with great care, and that I would need to do the same regarding my family. I shared with her the experiences in my previous school district and informed her that I could no longer work in silence. My family deserved recognition and I knew that the college had policies of non-discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The dean welcomed me into the college and served as a strong advocate of diversity throughout my four-year term as director of the laboratory school.


Before I began my new position as director in the fall of 1993, I spent the summer in New York City studying with a cohort group in my Columbia University doctoral program. In the cohort, I was one of 25 educational leaders from around the country who would spend two summers and ten weekends together at Teachers College working on our doctorates. There were urban superintendents, technology coordinators, principals in rural schools, and many other leadership positions represented. Upon our introductions, I stated that I had a family and was about to start a new principalship as an openly gay man. Many of these individuals would become close friends, not only because of our shared academic experiences – they were the first community I entered openly as a gay man. By the end of that first summer, I was to gain hold of my gay identity to such a degree as to make a commitment to conduct my dissertation research on the subject of gay/lesbian parents and schools. I could find only one study devoted to this topic and knew that my research would offer me an opportunity to generate data that would not only reach others, but benefit my family as well. Little did I know what a strong component my dissertation topic would become in my openness as a gay school administrator.

In our earlier meeting, I had briefly described to the dean how I intended to present myself as an openly gay director of the school. I would let my life unfold like any other individual in the community – to normalize it like any other family constellation. As questions about my family are asked, or stories about children are shared, I would participate freely and openly. It did not seem appropriate for me to call attention to my being gay in a specific way. Only with the college dean and the associate director of the school did I initiate conversation about my being a gay father. I felt an obligation to their close working relationship with me, should any feedback arrive at their doorsteps. Otherwise, the process of sharing my family, of not putting up walls, was slow and steady. In most cases, the connections were made via our daughter. Fellow faculty at the school and in the university would talk about their children and I would proudly share my own stories. If someone asked if my wife worked or stayed at home, I would simply respond that my partner spends half-time caring for our daughter and works half-time at the University of Illinois. By the end of my first year as director, few faculty would ask such a question, knowing me as a gay man.


In August of my second year, during our opening teacher meetings, I shared stories of our daughter’s excitement at starting preschool. Present at that meeting were newly hired faculty, associate teachers, and staff. Sharing such a story became routine for me, while I later learned that it still startled others.

During the course of my first year as an openly gay administrator, I discovered I had become an advocate for lesbian/gay families working with schools. My doctoral studies provided the crucial reflection needed to support my newfound work as an advocate. I would spend weekends in New York, meeting with professors and others working to shed light upon the growing number of lesbian/gay parents in the United States. Through a program requiring inquiry and discourse, I was able to process my own journey in coming out. National connections were made and I discovered a strong need for information and research to support the successful relationship between gay/lesbian parents and school personnel.

My research on gay/lesbian families, my daily openness at school, and newfound membership on local and national lesbian/gay parent boards merged when our school was to welcome our first openly gay-headed family. I arrived back from my second summer session at Columbia University steeped in ideas for my dissertation on gay/lesbian parents and school personnel, when our associate director informed me that a lesbian couple enrolled their preschool daughter in the school. This offered us the opportunity not only to acknowledge diversity but to enter into a relationship that could inform our practice. In welcoming this new diversity, direct actions needed to be taken that were difficult for me to institute during my first year. As a new administrator, I was trying to be sensitive to community members who might consider my being openly gay too confrontational if I demanded immediate changes. This had as much to do with my being a first-year director at the school as with my being openly gay.

With the advent of a lesbian-headed family joining our community, I had reason for requesting that all of our forms read Parent/Parent as opposed to Mother/Father. I shared ideas and research with the child’s teacher, and we welcomed them into our community in the same way that we welcome all children and their families into the school. Both parent names were listed together in the school directory, with their permission. Both parents attended all conferences and school events. We encountered some turbulence along the way, as occasionally families struggled with their child being in a class with the daughter of two lesbians. It was significant, though, that these families brought their concerns forward and felt there was a safe forum for discussion. I think this forum emerged out of my being openly gay and having worked with the child’s teacher on her already well-established knowledge of anti-bias curricula.

Well into my second year as director of the school, the circle of community members aware of my homosexuality widened. During my first year, the faculty and staff slowly understood the nature of my family constellation, and as we welcomed a lesbian-headed family into our school, parents began to make connections to my being a gay father. It was the expanding work of my dissertation that created greater community awareness. Being in a university environment, many colleagues and parents would inquire about my dissertation topic. When I would inform them of my research on lesbian/gay parents and schools, inevitably I would share with them the fact that this topic stems from my personal experiences as a gay parent. By the end of my second year as director, both the parent community and faculty were aware of my being gay.

It was during my third year as director that I was able to effect change directed at children. I always saw my openness as providing a role model for the entire community, including youth in our middle school. There was one incident in particular when I met with a middle school student who seemed to be struggling with his own sexual identity. Under the guidance of his mother and a counselor, I shared my being gay as an issue I was challenged to work through. Whether this is a question for him or not will become clear in the future.

During my third year, the timing was right for me to begin more proactively helping the school community find constructive ways to confront lesbian/gay issues. Regarding teacher training on gay/lesbian issues, it is preferable to inspire the changes with encouragement at the building and grassroots levels. Later, when a critical mass of support has been established among the faculty, further persuasion may be attempted.

In February of 1998, I was able to schedule a teacher in-service on gay/lesbian parents and schools. I had to be careful to separate my personal issues and doctoral research from the needs of the community I was serving. Yet it was during one of the many focus groups I was conducting for my research that a participant poignantly stated: “I think that the school needs to focus on reminding teachers that they’re not getting to decide whether this is right or wrong. They’re not getting to decide whether this is going to happen or not. They are working with children in their school who, whether they think it is right or wrong, you think those people shouldn’t be parents. They already are. So I think you need to remind teachers that they need to focus on what their job is, which is to reach children in the best way possible, and that it’s not their right to judge the parents.”

I was fortunate in being a member of a community that placed children first and embraced progressive teaching practices. Yet it proved useful to show the faculty a 10-minute video, Both My Moms’ Names Are Judy, and to invite our lesbian moms in to share their experiences in the school.

During this in-service session I was able to discuss my own experiences regarding my daughter’s integration into a preschool near our home. I shared my research and provided articles, as well as opportunity for discussion and reflection. It was a significant point on my journey toward openness, as is demonstrated in the shared trust I had with our faculty to engage in constructive dialogue. It was reflected by publication in our school newsletter of our in-service topic, putting the words gay and lesbian out into the community. It allowed for the sharing of stories in an environment that was deemed safe. Gay faculty offered support, and straight teachers told of their experiences and concerns.


Fellow university faculty approached me for more information on my research. Two faculty were focusing on similar topics, and one colleague and I have embarked upon a professional relationship in which we have conducted workshops and given presentations on lesbian/gay parents and schools. A kindergarten teacher at my school was honored for her teaching and work in welcoming diversity into her classroom. We have since shared our school experiences at national conferences. The connections continue to form and enrich the layering of ideas and activism that began in the simple act of choosing to speak honestly as a gay man.

The journey does not end at any one point, as I continue to find new paths to travel. What I have discovered along the way is a need for school systems to provide avenues for all educators to be open about their homosexuality. As my hesitation during my first principalship attests, without non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, it is difficult to surface the voices of lesbian/gay educators and their straight allies. I saw strength in my partner’s ability to serve as an openly gay member of his professional community and created an opportunity to become a role model within my own. Without silence, there were no walls to tear down, and upon the adoption of our second child in February of 1998, the faculty of my school held a baby shower, while the parent organization provided a generous gift and congratulations to my family. Such celebrations should occur for all families in all communities. However, the changes necessary to fully include any minority population often take time and involve conflict. We need to help teachers understand the issues having to do with children in gay/lesbian-headed families. It is unreasonable to expect that teachers will automatically value the knowledge that parents and community members bring to the education of diverse children, if valuing such knowledge has not been modeled for them by those from whom they have learned. In the process of becoming an openly gay educator, I have found supportive interactions with people who have enriched my life in countless ways. They have strengthened my belief that being openly gay is important work and necessary for the advancement of all minority people who must be included in the fabric of our communities.

Daniel Ryan is an associate dean for the College of Education at National-Louis University in Evanston, IL. He and his partner have a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son.

The above is reprinted and adapted from Democracy and Education, Winter 2000, Vol. 13 #3, by permission of the author and the Institute for Democracy in Education. For more information, or to order this complete issue entitled, “Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Bisexual Issues in Education,” please contact IDE at 740-593-9827 or www.ohiou.edu/ide.