ST. LOUIS — What began as a routine history class for Rodney Wilson's students at Mehlville High School became a real-life lesson in civil rights for the entire district when the 29-year-old teacher disclosed that he is gay.
Last March, after showing a film about the Holocaust, Wilson held up a poster showing emblems used to identify people in concentration camps. He said: "If I had been in Europe during World War II, they would have put this pink triangle on me and gassed me to death, because I am gay."
First, there was silence. "Then one of my students said, 'That was a very brave thing to say.' Then another student said a similar sentiment, and then it seemed to me that the whole class started clapping," Wilson said.
Wilson is among a growing number of gay teachers across the nation who have chosen to reveal their sexual orientation in class. Many cite a need for honesty and a desire to serve as role models for homosexual students.
But supportive applause has not been the response of some parents and school administrators. Karen M. Harbeck, a Boston lawyer who specializes in gay and lesbian issues, says some gay teachers are being forced to choose between keeping their sexual orientation a secret or fighting to keep their jobs.
"Teachers are one of the last professions to come out of the closet," said Harbeck, who believes there's an average of 2.4 gay or lesbian teachers in every school building in America. Of course, no one can say for certain.
Kevin Jennings of Cambridge, Mass., author of "One Teacher in 10: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories," said the desire to be honest about who they are is the reason most homosexual teachers give for coming out.
"It's very stressful to hide who you are. You have to lead two lives, keeping distance between yourself and others, and that makes it difficult to bond with students," Jennings said.
Wilson argues that disclosures like his can save lives. A 1989 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study said homosexual youths are two or three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Gays may account for 30% of suicides among minors annually.
The issue of gay teachers had never come up in Mehlville, a suburb of St. Louis. School administrators responded by placing a memo in Wilson's personnel file that says, "Mehlville School District considers it inappropriate conduct for a teacher to discuss facts of a personal nature, regardless of the nature of those beliefs, in the classroom."
They also told Wilson he was to mention homosexuality in class only if it was part of the existing history curriculum.
Wilson won't be eligible for tenure until September. Worried that the memo could pave the way for his dismissal, he hired a lawyer to have it removed. While the district protects students against discrimination based on sexual orientation, no such policy protects teachers.
Wilson has won support from some teachers, parents and students as well as from the gay community. He's also backed by the 2.2-million-member National Education Assn. Since 1973, the NEA has offered free legal counsel to teachers harassed or discriminated against because of sexual orientation.
"Some organizations would take Rodney's case for free," said Harbeck, who says such cases "can bankrupt a school district."
That may be among the reasons some districts choose not to take them on.
On Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, San Diego teacher Jose Arroyo greeted his students at Sweetwater Union High School wearing a pink triangle and other symbols of gay pride. Though troubled, school officials did not try to stop him from answering students' questions about his homosexuality.
"I told them I was not going to discuss my personal life, just like you wouldn't talk to a straight teacher about their love lives," Arroyo said. "They asked questions like, 'How long have you known you were gay?' 'How did you know you were gay?' I answered those."
Wilson and Arroyo, both considered excellent teachers by their principals, say they struggled with their decisions to reveal their homosexuality.
"I think back to when I was in high school," said Arroyo, who teaches learning-disabled students. "I wish I had known there was a gay or lesbian teacher, even if I had never talked to that person. Just to know there was someone there who was successful and open about it would have helped."
Wilson agrees. "What I'm saying is, allow me to be an openly gay role model for gay kids and for straight kids," he said. "And, hopefully, people will realize that gay and lesbian people are average American citizens . . . and it will free young people who are gay or lesbian from being gay-bashed--verbally or physically--from being harassed, from being lonely and from being scared."
Parents on both sides of the issue spoke to the Mehlville School Board after a local newspaper published a story about Wilson.
"I really do feel (Wilson) has the right to say he's gay," said Anne Kasal, who identified herself as the mother of a gay student who graduated from Mehlville in 1992.
Debbie Povich disagreed, saying that although she had nothing against Wilson's being gay, "We just don't want him to teach it to our kids."