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Fired after she came out to colleagues, Totino-Grace teacher leaves dissonance and silence behind

ostendorf
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
"It wasn’t planned. It was a very surreal moment when I heard myself saying the things I tried not to say. And I was at once terrified and really glad and proud," said Kristen Ostendorf.

After enduring the Catholic school version of “don’t ask/don’t tell” for several years, Totino-Grace High School English/religion teacher Kristen Ostendorf unexpectedly came out to her colleagues at the 47–year-old Catholic school in Fridley on Aug. 21. “I’m gay, I’m in a relationship with a woman, and I’m happy,” Ostendorf blurted out to a roomful of 120 fellow teachers at a workshop. She was asked to resign the next day.

She didn’t, the school terminated her, and in a matter of moments the 43-year-old Ostendorf had become the second Totino-Grace educator to part ways with the school over sexual identity this summer (president Bill Hudson resigned in July after acknowledging he is in a committed same-sex relationship).

At the moment, after 18 years at Grace, Ostendorf is “wearing out her running shoes” and looking for a job. Monday afternoon Ostendorf took to a table at Groundswell, her favorite neighborhood coffee shop in St. Paul’s Hamline neighborhood, to chat with MinnPost about her dream job coming to an end.

MinnPost: Why were you fired from Totino-Grace?

Kristen Ostendorf: I wasn’t given a reason. I asked. As far as I can surmise, the rule I broke was saying out loud that I am in a relationship with a woman. It is OK in the church to be gay, though one would really not say that aloud.

MP: Is there a stated rule or regulation on the books that you broke?

KO: There is a document that we who work at a Catholic school sign called “Justice In Employment” in which we agree to not publicly act or speak against the Church or its teachings. I suspect my eight words (“I’m gay, in a relationship with a woman”) broke the rules spelled out by that document.

MP: Tell me about how this all came down.

KO: Bill Hudson’s resignation was prompted by anonymous information provided to the chairpersons of the Totino-Grace corporate board. Bill’s departure under such disquieting circumstances was difficult for everyone in our school community, particularly for those of us who are gay or lesbian. Unfortunately, what we all feared only loosely – that we would be fired or asked to resign if we were “outed” – became too real to ignore. I was finding it very difficult to return to Totino-Grace, especially knowing that my job is to help students advocate for justice and be voices for the voiceless. While Bill’s departure was a factor in the resignation of other staff members by mid-August, I decided to return to Totino-Grace to continue my work in a community that, as you know, has been my home for nearly all my adult life.

Things changed two weeks ago, though, when my colleagues in campus ministry and I were introducing the theme to the faculty and staff during workshops. Every year, Totino-Grace has adopted a school theme based on Catholic school teaching or the lives of our founders. This year’s theme, “Make Your Mark,” is based on St. John Baptist de la Salle’s prayer “Lord, the work is Yours” and his hope that we all do well the work to which God calls us. In the process of reviewing the history of our themes, which included Catholic school teaching ideas like “A Place at the Table” and “One Human Family,” I found myself unable to string sentences together.

I was struck by the dissonance between the meaning of our themes and the events that had recently taken place. I found myself trying to buy time while I tried to figure out how I could encourage others to “make their mark” if I was willing to be part of a community where I was required to hide and compromise and deny who I am. How could I ask others to give themselves entirely to the work God calls them to when I couldn’t do this myself?

MP: What happened next?

KO: It wasn’t planned. It was a very surreal moment when I heard myself saying the things I tried not to say. And I was at once terrified and really glad and proud. I didn’t just say, “I’m gay, I’m in a relationship with a woman, and I’m happy,” and sit down. That really wasn’t the point of what I was saying. It was, “This is my prayer for all of us: That we mean what we do.” Then I sat down and I thought, “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” I hadn’t considered [the repercussions], but I didn’t know I was going to say what I said.

There was silence in the room. I wasn’t surprised. Nobody stands up in a room of 120 people in a Catholic school and says, “I’m in a relationship with a woman,” when you’re a woman. Afterwards I got emails from people who said, “I’m proud of you,” and “My only sadness is that I didn’t stand up and applaud or yell, ‘Amen.’ ”

I said to them, “Most of you know I’m gay.” And that’s a true statement. Afterwards, I just felt weird, like I had to get out of there. So I left and went for a walk with a friend, talked and prayed with some friends, and went home. My house was full of people in the afternoon and evening, and we ate pizza and talked, and I just waited for the other shoe to drop. I didn’t know what that would mean, but frankly I was hoping someone in a position of power at the school would show up and say, “This really sucks, but we love you.”

That didn’t happen. I got a phone call from the president, Julie Michaels, and she said, “You don’t have to come in for workshops tomorrow, and why don’t you meet with us at 2:30?” I’ve never been told not to come to workshops, or anything. Often, I’m in charge of them. That was strange.

There was very little sleep. The next day I met with the administration and they asked what I thought their options were and I said, “I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.” But I’d never been asked not to attend workshops, so I said, “I presume your options are to fire me or ask me to resign.” The conversation ensued from there about resigning, and they asked me how I felt about that and I said, “If you were listening yesterday, I think you heard me claim my own voice and say out loud the things we don’t say out loud, just in the name of integrity. And I don’t feel like resigning is commensurate with what I said.”

I told them that it was important they know I hadn’t planned on saying what I said, that I wasn’t sorry for saying it, I’m not embarrassed or ashamed, or trying to be aggressive or start a war. Not my intention, at all. In the end, I said I was sorry we were all sitting there.

So we had a conversation about what the repercussions [of] not resigning would have on my future employment, and what Totino-Grace would be able to say to a future employer. And I just said, “I want to be very clear about this: I’m not embarrassed about what I said. I will not dance around it. I will tell every future employer precisely why I left. And if that’s a problem, I don’t want to work there. I can’t do it anymore.”

MP: Sounds like everyone in the room knew exactly what was going on, but you were the only one doing the talking.

KO: I get it. I do. I understand all of it. The fact is, I stood up in a room of 120 people and said, “I’m gay, I’m in a relationship with a woman, and I’m happy.” Probably I’m never going to work in the Catholic Church again. That ship has probably sailed. I know what the rules are, and I know I broke them by speaking the eight words I shouldn’t have said. The next day, I told them I would not be resigning and they gave me what my lawyer says amounts to a letter of termination.

MP: Tell me about your background, your faith, where you grew up, when you knew you were gay, and if you’ve been out as a gay person in your life before this all hit.

KO: I grew up in Chicago, went to Divine Providence grade school and Immaculate Heart of Mary high school, just a couple blocks from my house. To grow up Catholic in Chicago is a religious and a cultural event; on the news they practically report what the pope says. I moved here 18 years ago, and started at Totino-Grace then.

I moved here to get married, to a man, and we divorced eight years later, and it was shortly after that that I realized I’m gay. I came out to family and friends, most of whom were from the school, and my ex-husband worked at the school. I also had friends from [attending] graduate school at St. Thomas for a master's in religious education.

MP: You’re a theologian, basically. As you’ve gone on with your life and faith and sexuality, how have you reconciled the Catholic Church’s stand on homosexuality and gay marriage?

KO: It’s a tricky one, you know? I grew up hearing, I’m not sure if it’s “mixed messages,” but I grew up in the church of the '70s, with nun teachers playing the guitar. That was a different time from the church we live in now. It has been a pendulum swinging back and forth, but mostly one way towards a more mainline conservative church.

So having grown up in that post-Vatican II church and all of that, “throw open the doors” work and the church being more the people of God, I think it made it easier for me, even though I’d heard very little about people who are gay and had very few gay role models who weren’t whispered about or spoken about in vague terms. Nonetheless, having grown up in the church of “everybody belongs here” has deep roots in me, and I’m grateful for that. Because I really do believe that’s true; that’s not a 7-year-old’s understanding of the church. That’s a real long-term life understanding for me.

And also, while the Catholic Church sort of confuses me, indeed I am made who I am. Period. That’s a given. That’s true. God made me, God made all of us, and I don’t think that I’m some abnormal person, or an aberration, or that there was something missing in the making part, or something extra in the making part. It’s hard though, still, to believe that and then to hear, “We respect everybody” and “Everybody is a child of God,” but “Don’t live your life, don’t love as you are made to love.”

That’s a tough one. That’s a really hard one. I think there’s a difference between the church that’s run by people and the church that’s revealed by God. I’m not naming myself as an interpreter of that; all I can say is what I understand and what I believe to be true. I don’t believe there’s anything strange about me, I don’t believe there’s anything quote wrong about being gay. I also don’t believe there’s anything wrong with loving someone who I really love.

MP: Did the gay marriage movement in Minnesota inspire you to want to speak your truth?

KO: Yes, in a way. I’ll say, for good or for bad, I was sort of ambivalent about gay marriage in general. And then when I learned we were going to vote on it, I got very interested. Write it into our constitution? When have we, in a constitution, limited people and been OK with that? Never. And as a citizen of this country and Minnesota, it raised my ire. The driving force in my life is being a teacher, being an educator, and I never want to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” And that’s been in my mind a lot; it’s been a real internal struggle for me. So when the marriage amendment went on the ballot, in lots of ways because it was such a public conversation, inside of me push came to shove and the question I had sort of put at bay of standing for justice all the time knowing I’m silent, and that my silence is part of the problem, that’s troublesome for me, as an educator. It’s more than troublesome. It eats away at me.

I’ve always known the way church feels about marriage, and what the church teaches about sexuality and homosexuality, but I don’t think I ever really understood the phrase “last straw” until Bill’s resignation. His resignation was too much.

MP: I’m sure it’s a case of you love being a teacher, and you love being a teacher at Grace, and the idea of discrimination gets compartmentalized or philosophized.

KO: You make a separate peace with it – for good or for bad. But all in the name of doing something I love. And that’s the hardest part. It’s sad for me to see Bill leave a job he loves, and it’s sad for me. I loved the work I did. I taught English part-time, and I was campus minister and I taught kids in a faith setting. We asked ourselves, “What does our faith call us to do?” and we tried to move people to do it. What a great job. I’ve traveled a lot with our students on our service trips, and the conversations that happen from those things are amazing.

MP: That’s hard.

KO: Really hard. To not be able to do that work anymore in a community I love … There’s a reason I was at Totino-Grace for 18 years. I love it. There’s a reason I chose to put aside my integrity to do the work I love. I believe in Totino-Grace. I believe in Catholic education. I believe in good teaching, I believe in community, and I haven’t really felt that anywhere else so strongly like I have at Totino-Grace. And because that’s true, it makes me more sad.

MP: What parts of scripture might have guided you on your way the last couple weeks?

KO: There is nothing about The New Testament that is unencouraging to me. As a person who was raised as a Christian, a Catholic, I think to see the world and engage in the world and love the world is one of the messages of scripture and to really authentically live your life is another huge message of scripture, and that motivates me. It always has.

MP: Your students – past and present – have got to be on your mind a lot these days.

KO: They’re in the forefront of my mind. Very much so. We’ve had some students who’ve come out in different ways and have come out to their friends and us, and I think about them a lot. I’ve certainly never said to a student or former student, “I’m gay.” But I think about what my silence says to them. They’re not stupid. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out or guess that I’m gay.

Growing up, I never knew anyone who was gay. I was at Totino-Grace for 18 years. I don’t think it would be easy for anyone to paint me as a criminal. So I think that maybe, just maybe, kids, adults, and whoever can say, “OK, there’s a real human being who really means to be herself and live her life and does it with integrity. She’s gay.” That’s a big deal. Instead of, “That person’s a criminal.”

I’m not a big fan of silence. I’m not a fan of leaving the unnamed elephant in the room. I think silence is a huge problem. There’s been criticism of Bill for having “kept a secret.” And I think, really? He was doing a job he was called to do. But let’s say he was keeping a secret, and I chose to not keep a secret. We’re both gone. And the sad story is, I’d like to be the last person to be fired for who I loved, or for the gender of the person I love. But I won’t be, probably, and the silence around it terrifies me.

MP: But that’s how the school year is starting off at Grace.

KO: The truth is, there are 800 kids who started school two weeks ago. They have a job to do, and they have to do it well, and they will. They have to press on. Still, I’m gone, and my desk is empty, and everybody knows it, and nobody’s talking about it. That’s something I wake up at night thinking about: the silence. Silence is the undoing of lots of good things, and I would err on the side of truth. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

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Comments (36)

Let's see the church keeps the pedophiles and throw out gays

Perhaps there should be a rethink here.

It is unfortunate that Ms. Ostendorf is not teaching now I hope a school finds a place for her soon. She certainly exemplifies what it means to be a religious person of conscious as the bible intended.

There is an important

There is an important distinction between sexual identity and sexual orientation. It's unfortunate that discrimination wrapped up in religion is still allowed. As with the former principal, I am sure this educator will land on her feet in a more accepting environment. Best of luck to her.

20 years from now .....

Good interview. 20 years from now, we will be telling young people "you know, there was a time when people were actually fired from their job because they were gay."

Excellent Interview

What school wouldn't want such a teacher? Wow.

Thank you, Kristen and MinnPost

It is very sad to know good people have lost jobs they have loved and done well simply for being gay. It is important these stories are told and discussed and I want to thank both Kristen and MinnPost today. May the students and staff at Totino-Grace realize the power "silence" has on issues like this one. May they not remain silent. May they continue the discussion and help bring a new understanding to their community. Most of all, may the gay students now at Totino-Grace know that God loves them exactly as they were created. May the administrators understand the fear they have placed in the hearts of those students when they fired two long time, well respected educators simply because they came out.

Thank you

This is an incredible interview and I have been touched. Silence is not golden, it's deadly.

Open Doors and Education in a Spiritual Setting

I hope that Kristin Ostendorf will find her way to Breck School for an interview.

Student at TG?

For any current TG students: you have a tremendous amount of freedom to end the silence in this situation. Your teachers, counselors, etc face the very real threat (as evidence shows) of losing their jobs and many of them are probably feeling stuck right now and powerless in this situation. YOU can bring voice to this issue so that the deafening silence isn't all that remains. Start conversations in your classrooms, student groups and lunch tables, ask tough questions of your administration, and don't accept the answer of "this is just that way it needs to be". In a school that already struggles with diversity you simply cannot afford to lose the voices of so many dedicated people.

A perfect example of why need

A perfect example of why need unions and unionized teachers.

no, no, no

This issue has nothing to do with unionized teachers. It has everything to do with the right of a religion based school to hire teachers that live and act in accordance with the beliefs of the religion.

I applaud her for coming out, I hope she applies in Edina where my children go to school, and I hope religious institutions never lose the right to practice their beliefs without government or court intervention.

Perhaps this issue is....

...how certain religious schools pick and choose who will be sacrificed in the name of devotion. There are all sorts of violations of religious belief (divorce and pedophilia being a couple of the biggies) and yet not everyone is sent packing with the urgency that gays frequently are.

When the religious schools TRULY practice their beliefs, I'll buy your argument, Mr. H.

DisGrace (I should work for the NY Post)

Sad to see this play out again at TG. I am a former student of Miss Ostendorf's. I've been in Chicago now for 8 years. Over that time I have met a few people who attended Chicago Catholic high schools and have asked if I knew Kristen Ostendorf. They have raved about her influence on them and her leadership on mission trips that she lead with Totino-Grace. It's amazing to see someone who so clearly lives and preaches the central message of what I was taught in 16+ years of Catholic education be cast away over who they love. The schools I attended St. Raphael's in Crystal and Totino-Grace taught us to live like Jesus... to love, to be accepting of all, care for poor and those in need; yet when it comes down to it, they only care about screaming against abortion and discriminating against gay people.

Engagement

I'm curious about the school's rules, the “Justice In Employment” agreement that states employees can't speak out in opposition to the Catholic church's position on issues. Is anyone else disturbed by this position? It seems that this church is taking the stance that if they can't have an open honest debate with their critics, that they're going to do their best to simply silence them. That just strikes me as wrong. If your idea has merit, send it out there and do your best to convince others that this is the right position. But don't slap a muzzle on them and pretend that this passes for civil discourse.

Todd, you'd *think* that

Todd, you'd *think* that would be a good path to follow, but it goes against the whole idea of a religious dogma that must be adhered to.

In other words, you are proposing something that goes against the very idea that defines religion, any religion.

It's a "Believe in this, and you can join our club" kind of mentality.

Weird that people behave this way, but what are you going to do, eh?

Burn them at the stake?

Oh, wait ...

Not all religions

My church welcomes different ways of thinking. We do not consider ourselves a club that people join. Do not confuse belief with dogma. The hierarchy might pass down principles but that is not necessarily God's will.

Do not judge all religions based on individuals from one religious group. Even more, don't blame that religious group for the behavior of individuals in that group. When you do, you create your own rigid dogma.

Shame

Shame on the administrators and board member at Totino-Grace.

They are on the wrong side of history, and, I believe, on the wrong side of the teachings of their prophet Jesus.

Agreed

They have a different understanding of Christian behavior than I do.

to TG students

To Totino Grace Students:

Know that Ms. Ostendorf represents integrity.

The people who fired her? They do not even understand integrity, much less practice it.

Orientation

The Church teaches that all are to be treated with dignity and respect. Firing an employee without giving a reason is inconsistent with that teaching. In this case, it's also odd, since the reason is obvious.

That said, she was not fired for "being gay." She says that "most of you know I'm gay." What changed is that a Church institution learned that her behavior is in direct conflict with Church teaching. It's legal to be a stripper at a bar, but if a teacher who stripped was fired would anyone be surprised? She was not "debating" the Church's teaching, she was violating it. If the president of the Podunk County Planned Parenthood said there is no constitutional right to an abortion and she was removed, would anyone be surprised? Who could respect any institution that allows those in leadership roles to directly contradict it's basic tenets? Christ spent his time with sinners, but he didn't say whatever you do is fine. he said go and sin no more. But enough of that, to acknowledge the idea of sin these days is to marginalize oneself from public debate.

She is free to reject Church teaching, and by her actions she has. That is why she lost her job.

This is of course not to say that the Church or those who lead or follow it are anything close to perfect. (See my opening sentence.)

I'd think that allowing a

I'd think that allowing a progressive diversity of opinions -even disagreements- within the Church- would, by stimulating discussion, strengthen the sense of community and inclusion, not weaken it. Is Catholicism so fragile that anything not hewing to the official line is a threat to its very stability and existence? I can think of no other clear reason to stifle discourse.

I think that Mr, Kallur and Mr. Phelan missed the point

The first being the irony of the Church's position which I pointed out in my first comment. The second being that they seem to cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Say what you will

But this is just another case of the don't-ask-don't-tell policy being a good idea for everyone involved.

I served with several gays in the military, but they were smart enough to keep that information to themselves and the rest of us were smart enough to not want to know. It's sad and unfortunate how things turn out otherwise. Live and learn.

Apples and oranges

If memory serves, the draft was still in place when "Don't ask, don't tell" came into effect. That means that - unlike involvement in one church v.s. another - there was no element of personal choice available to gay soldiers who found themselves serving through conscription.

One point being made in this thread is that if Ms. Ostendorf doesn't wish to remain publicly in line with the religious orthodoxy of the institution where she presumably sought employment in the first place, then she can go seek another where she will not have to struggle with her personal dilemma.

That choice was not available to conscripted gay soldiers which placed them in a very untenable position indeed.

Not exactly

DADT was a policy initiated by the Clinton administration, well after compulsory military service was ended. Before that, homosexuality was strictly prohibited in the military.

A soldier could be dishonorably discharged, and marked for life, just for saying he was gay.

Okay

As I said, I was relying on recollection rather than looking it up.

DADT was a bad idea no matter how you looked at it, though. A similarly bad idea was the prohibition on homosexuality in the military.

Asking people to hide an essential part of themselves each day, every day, all day long - especially in the close quarters of military life - is not a level of stress I would wish on ANYONE.

And while the level of "immersion" for a teacher falls short of that of a person living in the military, that repression - when those around you are free to talk about who they're dating, who they're living with, who they love - is also certain to create an immense amount of stress. I don't think any one of us who has not lived it can actually ever really comprehend how difficult that is.

my two cents...

So many comments, so many fixed positions.

Seems that the teacher would have known exactly the outcome of speaking up. She chose not to be ignored and the church/school responded exactly as expected. Both sides acted within their rights.

Someone above suggested that the church should have an open dialog about this; that that would make the institution stronger. That seems like an unproven cliche to me. One side says no, never. The other side says yes, someday. The only reason for the dialog that I can see is to try to pursuade the school to change their rules and dogma. It is don't ask, don't tell and once you tell you force their hand.

If there is to be a dialog the pro side has to come from heterosexuals or non open homosexuals within the church. It would have to come from people with no vested interest, at least no open vested interest, in the outcome. I guess the part of the church stance that I dislike is that in some parts of the church just the act of saying you support the rights and reality of gays is enough to get you kicked out.

For all the dialog lovers who posted here, when I read through all the posts this morning I was struck by all the barking and shouting of positions with no effort made to understand the comments of people on the other side of the issue. There was no listening except to grab some comment and distort its meaning to set up a rant. By the end of the thread are we closer together or farther apart?

Here's one result of the

Here's one result of the action taken by administrators at Totino-Grace:

Many, many students in this Catholic school will now begin to question their faith. And if they aren't doing it now, they will when they get questioned about this firing by their peers in other schools.

So, you see, there IS a silver lining!

* Note: To head off those who might suppose that my comment is anti-Catholic, let me say that I think that every religious person should question his/her faith. That's a good thing -- it's called critical thinking, and should be the mainstay of all education, everywhere.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is should be a mainstay not only of education but also of faith. A faith that that cannot accept questions, doubts, criticism is not strong.

Of course this is better!

So now the only homosexuals teaching students at Totino-Grace are those more willing to trade their principles for money and keep silent about their sexual orientation and their lives in order to keep their jobs. Because that's better - it's better to have SECRET homosexuals teaching your children than to have openly homosexual persons teaching your children.

From What She Said

Her orientation was no secret. It was only when the school became aware of the relationship that she is in that lost her job.

Relationship

The relationship probably wasn't a secret at the school either, just as her orientation wasn't. It isn't that the school minds gay people working there, it's that they don't like -openly- gay employees. That strikes me as more than a little dishonest.

To be gay and Catholic...

To be gay and Catholic is to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. To be condemned for misrepresentation? Or for not following don't ask don't tell? (both appeared above)

For those who came of age before or during DADT, never discussing your personal life at school was the only way to not be ostracized, making it the best way to reconcile the irreconcilable. Looking back at my 13 years of Catholic school, I wonder how many of my teachers were gay and in the closet... 2? 3? 4? I may never know.

One might imagine...

that somewhere in the Totino family tree there could be a gay individual. Now what would Grace do if it had, on high moral principle, to reject Totino sponsorship? To cull the Totino name from buildings, stationary, uniforms, walls , pictures, legal documents. No, that is a fantasy. They like the money way too much. Best not to look, then we can pretend. Funny a high school teaching that as a lesson.

I wonder...

what they would have done if a straight single person had stood up in that meeting and declared that they were having sex with someone outside of marriage. Seems like that would have violated their rules and they would have been forced to act on that.

For the quibblers I acknowledge it isn't a perfect analogy. She's in a "committed" relationship, but she could now be married if she chose.

A sad lesson

As with any human institution, all religions contain both good and evil. If nothing else, this situation is an excellent teaching opportunity for the students to experience and understand the ugly side of religious prejudice. The Church is confronted with another “Galileo moment.” While I hope and pray the Church learns from its error, I fear it stands at the cusp of another 350 year stain on its reputation and spiritual authority. I can only offer my sincerest sympathies to the poor teacher.

Well what do you know

Echoes of Pope Adolph Ratzinger, so much for love forgiveness mercy and the rest of the church teachings. How anyone could actually send a child to this school is beyond me. The fact that they fired her shows me only that the Church has run out of stakes.