How I Got Into Sex Ed
I was born into a very traditional, blue-collar, Italian-American, Roman Catholic family in South Philadelphia. The message I got growing up was that God loved everyone, of course, but God especially loved “good” boys and girls. No one ever defined what being “good” meant, but it was clearly tied to following rules, being polite and smart, staying relatively quiet, and, most of all not bothering adults. I mastered the art of being a “good” boy early in life; heck, I was the poster child for being a “good” boy. Being a faithful Catholic was absolutely essential to being a “good” boy, and I was gunning to be the best good, Catholic boy ever! If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my fourth grade self answered “the Pope” without hesitation.
There was only one thing that stood in my way. I couldn’t name it back then, but it had something to do with that exhilarating and terrifying butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling I got when looking at other boys. I couldn’t ask adults what these feelings were about – good boys didn’t bother adults – so I tried to figure it out on my own. Books and the church had the answers to everything, so that’s where I looked. The available scholarly books in my house were the Bible, the dictionary, and a one-volume encyclopedia that was published in the 1960s. It was in those books I found the answer, contained in one simple but very bad word – homosexual.
So, there I stood as an eleven or twelve year old boy faced with two absolutely true and seemingly contradictory facts: I was a “good”, Catholic boy and I was a homosexual. From that point forward, my goal became seeing if it was possible to integrate those two seemingly contradictory but absolutely true facts. If I couldn’t do that, I was in trouble – big trouble!
Books and church had defined the problem, and they were also the only place I knew to look for answers. So, starting in high school (my all-boys Catholic high school, of course) I threw myself into a surreptitious quest for information. Using the library card catalogue (this was the pre-internet, even pre computer, world) I memorized all the Dewey decimal numbers that had to do with homosexuality. I would breeze by those library shelves, quickly pull off a book at random and hide in a completely different section of the library to read it. It was easier to read books on church history and sexual morality openly, although I was always ready to flip to a different page if anyone approached to see exactly what I was reading.
After high school I was accepted to a local Catholic college where studying theology seemed to be a natural step in my quest for information and integration. I was the only theology major in my class. I took as many classes on sexual morality as I could find, and every paper I wrote was about the Church’s position on sexuality. In my more daring moments I wrote about homosexuality in particular. The school library was much bigger and had many more books both on sexuality in general and on homosexuality in particular. During those days I felt slightly less self-conscious about deliberately browsing those shelves, but I still took the books to another corner of the library to read them.
My years of wrestling with my sexual orientation while studying church history and sexual morality had shown me that being gay and being a person of faith was not an either/or proposition. I could be (quietly) gay and participate fully in the life of my Church. When I graduated in 1986 I was a mostly in-the-closet young gay man with a bachelor’s degree in Theology and a burning desire to be a high school religion teacher. I had no idea anyone could be a human sexuality teacher. Religion was the only “in” I had found to that subject area.
I took a job teaching religious studies and English at the same all-boys Catholic high school I attended as an adolescent. The ninth grade religion course I taught was a study of the Old Testament with a two-week human sexuality unit awkwardly tacked on at the end of the year. This was my first experience teaching human sexuality in the classroom and it was transformative! I was having conversations with my students about issues that mattered deeply to them and was doing it under the umbrella of teaching about a loving God who gave humanity the choice to use our sexuality and our bodies to further the Divine work. Over the seven years I taught at the school I slowly turned that two week mini-course into a required full-semester course, so the first place I taught sex-ed full time was in an all-boys Catholic school!
I the late 1980s, while still maintaining my full time teaching job, I began a graduate program in moral theology at another local Catholic university. It was sometime during my first semester there that I heard about a graduate program in Human Sexuality at the University of Pennsylvania. I had studied sexuality through the lens of theology for years, but this Penn program offer the chance to study human sexuality itself. I decided to apply to the program but I was both intrigued and nervous. I had never studied at a “secular” university. Would they be respectful of my dual interests in theology and sexuality? This called for a true leap of faith, and I took it.
I was accepted into the Penn Graduate School of Education Human Sexuality Program in 1990, and, to quote Scripture, “something like scales fell from [my] eyes”. I discovered a world of scholars and scholarship I had never known. I met professors who would become mentors and even friends. I met students who would become friends, colleagues and even family. Dr. Ken George taught me how to be a proud gay man, and Dr. Konnie McCaffree taught me how to be a rationale-based, student-centered sexuality educator. And far from demeaning me for being a person of faith, I found my whole self embraced, nurtured, challenged, and supported by the Penn program and its faculty and students. When I graduated with my master’s degree in 1993, I felt more alive, more skilled, and more deeply committed to sexuality education than I ever imagined I could be.
I was laid off from my teaching job in 1993, and soon found myself working as the Coordinator of Training and Volunteers at ActionAIDS, Philadelphia’s largest AIDS-service organization. For the first time I lived my life as an out and proud gay man, I used my Penn training to create dynamic HIV/AIDS education programming, and I met warm, dedicated, and fiercely passionate people, both staff and clients, who were on the front lines of creating a better life for people living with HIV/AIDS. At ActionAIDS I learned how to be an activist as well as an educator.
After four years at ActionAIDS I was ready to go back to the classroom full time, but I knew it had to be at a school where I could fully be myself and bring all my gifts and talents to my work. I found a perfect fit at Friends’ Central, a Quaker school whose spiritually-based, values-driven, whole-person-focused philosophy does education exactly the way I want to do it. While they originally hired me as a full-time English teacher, I asked if I there might be room for me to use my degree in sexuality education as well, and they were enthusiastic about the possibilities. Over the years I have become the upper school sexuality educator and have had the opportunity, with the school’s blessing, to expand my work beyond the school onto the national stage.
As news of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church became public, and as the church’s protests against same-sex marriage became more mean-spirited and vitriolic, I made the very painful decision to walk away from Catholicism and seek a new spiritual home. I now worship with The Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. Today I am proud to be a sexuality educator, a person of deep and abiding religious faith, a teacher of adolescents, an out and proud gay man, and, I think, still a “good” boy.