Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thoughts on the Firing of Kristen Ostendorf

One of the key quotes in Jim Walsh's excellent MinnPost story about English/religion teacher Kristen Ostendorf's recent firing from Totino-Grace Catholic High School after she came out to colleagues as gay and "happily in a relationship," was when Ostendorf simply acknowledged, "I can’t do it anymore."

The "it" Kristen is referring to is, of course, the living of a closeted life in her work environment – one that, until last month, had been for her a Catholic institution.

I think it's fair to say that at a very fundamental level, the vast majority of Catholic work environments are unhealthy environments. How can they not be when, in the final analysis, they must enforce the Catholic hierarchy's dysfunctional and unhealthy perspective on sexuality?

With wider society increasingly leading the way toward a much healthier perspective on sexuality (the advances in marriage equality being a prime example), it's little wonder that LGBT people within Catholic work environments are finding they "can't do it anymore." And nor should they.

Choosing a life of honesty and integrity

I'm followed a number of cases were LGBT people have either resigned or been fired from Catholic institutions. And as difficult as the situation was initially for these folks, they've actually moved on to a much better place in their lives. For one thing, they're no longer closeted. And, let's be honest, why would we want anyone to remain in a situation where they can't be their true and full selves? That's a terrible way to live. I know as I lived it for many years. Oh, to be sure, we can justify it by saying something like, it's better to be "on the inside" doing what we can to help others.

Well, let me tell you, that only lasts so long. Ultimately, the best way we can help others, say, for example, young people at a Catholic school, is to live a life of honesty and integrity. That's what Kristen Ostndorf has chosen to do after eighteen years of being in a work environment that, as she says, required her to "hide and compromise and deny who I am."

I'm happy that Kristen is out of such an unhealthy environment. I'm sad that such environments still exist – especially within a faith community that claims inspiration from the life and message of Jesus. There's a major disconnect there, to be sure. This disconnect is something else that many gay people – Kriten Ostendorf included – are finding they can no longer embody in their work lives.

Young Catholics: Not buying the dysfunction of the hierarchy

I feel bad for those still trapped in this environment – the young people of Totino-Grace in particular. But I know that most young people are equipped with acute 'bull-shit' detectors, and that, accordingly, however the leadership of Totino-Grace and/or the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese try to spin this story, the students at Totino-Grace and elsewhere will see through it. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if we hear about some subtle and not-so-subtle student-led protests, similar to ones we've witnessed elsewhere.

I also take hope in knowing that the positive and healthy messages young people receive today about gender and sexuality through various aspects of our culture, and often via their family and friends, greatly outweigh the negative and dysfunctional messages the Catholic hierarchy attempts to indoctrinate them with. Again, the incredible support for and success of marriage equality points to this reality. Young Catholics – indeed, Catholics in general – aren't buying the dysfunction of the hierarchy.

Fear and betrayal

Finally, I feel bad for those in leadership at Totino-Grace who fired Kristen. They must be feeling like shit . . . Well, I hope they're feeling like shit because it was a truly shitty thing they did. After all, Kristen was a friend and colleague they've known for eighteen years. Why the rush to fire her? Oh, sure, I get it that in the dysfunctional environment of a Catholic institution truth-telling is the greatest of sins, but why not wait until word got out about Kristen's "truth-telling" and the Archdiocese demanded her termination? If nothing else, this certainly would have given her more time to find another job. I can't believe that the leadership of Totino-Grace really supports and wants to enforce the hierarchy's erroneous and damaging sexual theology. Fear, I guess, is a powerful thing. Better to be seen to take action before being told to talk action by those above you – even if it means treating a friend and colleague poorly and sending a terrible message to the young people of the school.

And what is this terrible message? Well, first, let's back up a minute. Did you know that in the late-1990s Totino-Grace was one of eight of eleven Catholic high schools of the Archdiocese that were part of the Safe Schools Initiative of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM)? How sad that the message the school is now sending its students is one that says: It is not safe to be a person of honesty and integrity, at least in a Catholic setting.

What a betrayal all round that message is.

And what a pity also that rather than fearing the wrath of the anti-gay Archbishop Nienstedt, the leadership at Totino-Grace couldn't find the strength and inspiration to emulate the gentle "Who am I to judge" spirit of Pope Francis?

They didn't, and as a result fear and betrayal won the day.

A place of acceptance and safety

But I remain hopeful. Life and love extend well beyond the various dysfunctional systems and environments of the Catholic hierarchy. Sure, I'll support those working to reform these systems and environments, but I also don't hesitate to direct and lead others to places of acceptance and safety beyond them.

My sense (and hope) is that like William Hudson, who resigned as Totino-Grace president earlier this year after revealing he was in a same-sex relationship, Kristen Ostendorf, despite the initial shock and uncertainly resulting from her firing, will soon find herself in a work environment of acceptance and safety.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Fired After She Came Out to Colleagues, Totino-Grace Teacher Leaves Dissonance and Silence Behind – Jim Walsh (MinnPost, September 11, 2013).
Second Gay Teacher Leaves Totino-Grace – Jana Shortal (KARE 11 News, September 12, 2013).
Totino-Grace President Resigns After Revealing Same-Sex Relationship – Anthony Lonetree (Star Tribune, July 2, 2013).
After Totino-Grace Exit, Bill Hudson Finds Home at Mounds Park Academy – Mila Koumpilova (Pioneer Press, September 5, 2013).
On Labor Day, Let’s Remember LGBT People Fired from Catholic Institutions – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, September 2, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Quote of the Day – September 2, 2013
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Church Fires "Openly" Gay Music Director
Compassion, Cristian Community, and Homosexuality
For the Record: CPCSM's Safe Schools Initiative
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 1)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 2)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 3)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 4)
Thoughts on Archbishop Nienstedt
Progressive Perspectives on Archbishop Nienstedt's Anti-Gay Activism
Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality
Knowing What to Do, Knowing Why to Stay

Image: Jim Walsh (MinnPost).


Ray Marshall said...

What is it about being a homosexual in that they are driven to tell everybody that they are a fraud with their employer. She was a religion teacher of a religion that forbids homosexual activities. I would call that a voluntary resignation

Paula said...

The problem is in the religion, Ray. You are right, it forbids homosexual activities. It also says that humans are made in the image of God, and that people who are baptized into its sacramental system are filled with the Spirit of God. People who are born into the religion, baptized by their parents, taught all the beauties of Catholic teaching about the value of the human person and God's love for them, find out with their sexual maturation that they are homosexual. Imagine that you found out something about yourself that created a contradiction with the religion you were formed in. You might still have that realization to come, Ray. Can't you understand the contradiction in the religion's excluding homosexual sex from the realm of human goodness? There is an insight you are not allowing yourself to have.

Anonymous said...

The Catholic church has rules just as other institutions have rules. If you are an employee you need to follow the rules. If you do not agree with the rules do not work there. There are many other schools to work at where the rules are different. Rules are rules. We teach our students to follow rules so I expect adults to do the same.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Anonymous sounds like one of those 'good Germans' during the years of the Nazi regime.

I think more than simply teaching students to blindly follow rules, we should encourage them to respectfully question and, if necessary, challenge all kinds of attitudes, mindsets, and, yes, rules.

Rick Notch said...

Intelligent people should LEAVE the Catholic Church. This just reason number 349,284 (this year).

Mick said...

Aw, I got kicked out of Prom at Totino-Grace when I showed up with a boy! Is it still a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Totino frozen pizza kingpin? He's like the Koch brother of Anoka county.

Kathleen said...

The Holy Roman Church thrives on secrecy and cover-ups. As long as "don't ask don't tell" prevails the church's sick state of hypocrisy and shame will fester. Courageous actions like those who "out" their work for justice in the church expose its hypocrisy to light and healing.

If the church invested equal resources into reparations for the abuse scandal as it has in its homophobic crusades, we might be able to see a church in sync with the vision of Vatican II.

The Roman Catholic Church is a diverse site itself--this is my solace as I poke and pull at the church from where I sit on its margins. Hang on fellow Thinking Catholics, we are the Body of Christ; we are the Church!