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

“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,’ ” said Kristen Ostendorf.

"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.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.