One storm I have not been able to turn off, however, at least in my mind, is the one surrounding the resignation/firing of St. Mary Central Catholic High School band and choir director Brian Panetta.
I have read the stories and opinions regarding the legality, morality and outrage surrounding the issue. But, in sifting through the bluster of emotion and opinion, I realized something important was missing throughout this discussion: The impact on students, especially an often overlooked group of young people who hide their homosexuality or who silently struggle to make sense of their sexual orientation.
An ongoing debate in any community is whether or not homosexuality is a choice. If one asks gays or lesbians when they “became gay” most will explain they knew from an early age they felt different from others even before they understood why. That “feeling” was not a choice; it was as much a part of them in childhood as it is now. Only when they learned the terminology and heard about what is “normal” and “not normal” did they discover they failed to fit into the described norm, heterosexuality.
I understand the issue is not necessarily that Mr. Panetta is gay. The issue is that by announcing his plans to marry and, thus, become physically intimate with another man, he violated the terms of his employment agreement. This violation led to his resignation/firing, and it’s obvious the community feels the impact.
This is when I noticed that missing from this discussion was the potential impact this situation has had on those silently struggling students. As I thought about them, my attention drifted back to my own experiences.
In school, gay classmates were harassed and shunned. I saw their pain and tried to ignore the fact that I could relate so well to them. I feared someone might see what I was trying to suppress even from myself, and I hid behind schoolwork and tennis.
It wasn’t necessarily because I enjoyed those activities; they kept me safe. The more desperately I tried to change the “different” feeling I had known since childhood, the more I grew to detest myself. I fell into a long-lasting depression almost hoping that my selfhatred would destroy me.
My high school guidance counselor accepted me unconditionally, however, and that connection saved my life. She was not gay, but I saw kindness and traits that inspired me to keep going. Without her presence, I might have given up.
Life experience has taught me that homosexuality is not banished by fervent prayer. It is not something that can be turned on or off. It is not learned or unlearned. It simply is.
Reaching that understanding takes time and support.
I do not know Mr. Panetta but, from what I understand, he did an outstanding job and inspired excellence. He used his God-given talent to help students tap into their own gifts. And, yes, he violated his employment agreement in the interest of being true to himself. Whether or not you agree with how he chooses to live his life, it is his life.
When this story fades, SMCC will still have its employment policies and Mr. Panetta will have moved on. However, the young people silently struggling with their sexual orientation and their fears of the consequences of not fitting the norm will remain.
This is the most salient facet of the SMCC/ Panetta storm. I noticed that concern for them was absent from the inches of opinion published these last few weeks. Not because I was looking for it, but because I sensed the void.
I believe we must do what we can to reach these young people, support them, accept them, and help them to reach their potential as they walk their personal path. Each one is important and each one belongs to us. The storms of life will come and go, and all of us deserve to feel accepted both internally and among others.
Tiffany Gray, M.S., ACSM-CPT, is an adjunct faculty member in the Exercise Science department at Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona, where she teaches introductory courses in wellness. She also›owns and operates Gray Wellness Consulting LLC, and serves as the exercise specialist for the Family Wellness Program at St. Vincent de Paul, Phoenix. Gray formerly worked for The Sandusky Register as a news clerk