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Congratulations to Principal Peter Cahall
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/05/14
Last updated on: 06/05/14
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Peter Cahall.

Congratulations to Peter Cahall, principal of Washington, D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson High School, who, in an act of authenticity, came out as gay at his school's Pride Day event on June 4, 2014. Flanked by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and openly gay Councilmember David Catania, Cahall addressed his students: "I want to say publicly for the first time, because of your leadership, care, and support, that I am a proud gay man who just happens to be the principal of Wilson High School."

As Emma Brown and Ovetta Wiggins report in the Washington Post, "Students in the school's packed atrium greeted Cahall's announcement with a loud, long cheer."

Cahall later said he was inspired to go public in part by the recent coming-out of professional athletes Jason Collins, who plays basketball for the Brooklyn Nets, and Michael Sam, who was drafted by football's St. Louis Rams. Their decisions were considered indicative of the increasing tolerance of homosexuality. Cahall also attributed his decision to a moment of introspection provided by his recent 50th birthday.

Cahall said that following his announcement he felt "like a ton of bricks lifted." Others said his honesty accomplished much more, sending a powerful signal of acceptance and hope to glbtq students.

"He's a role model for everyone," said Aidan Parisi, 17, a senior who helped organize the Pride Day event. "He's always been there for us, and he's always been supportive. But saying he's gay might make a lot of other people feel comfortable" coming out.

Cahall has led Woodrow Wilson High School since 2008, and is widely credited with transforming a failing school into one of the top performing schools in the District.

The school's student body is ethnically diverse, with about 50% African American, 25% white, 16% Latino, and 9% Asian. About 40% of the students come from low-income families.

Under Cahall's leadership, the school has risen to rank among the best high schools in the Washington area, higher than most suburban schools with smaller percentages of low-income students.

Wilson is especially known for the high number of its students who enroll in advanced courses. About 89% of Wilson graduates continue their education beyond high school, with 77% attending two-year or four-year colleges or universities.

As Brown and Wiggins note, "Cahall, a onetime wrestling coach and college football player, has a 6-foot-4 frame that makes him an unmistakable presence in Wilson's hallways. With his weekly data-heavy letters home about the progress of Wilson's students--or scholars, as he always calls them--he also is a regular presence in parents' e-mail inboxes."

The announcement was an unexpected and emotional addition to the school's second annual Pride Day, a lunchtime festival that brought together more than 20 community organizations and government agencies that offer support and services for glbtq youth.

Chris Obermeyer, a faculty adviser for the school's Gay Straight Alliance, said the festival is meant to give students a way to seek information without singling themselves out.

Suzanne Greenfield, director of the city's bullying-prevention program in the D.C. Office of Human Rights, said Cahall's announcement was a courageous and important step.

"We have the principal of a major urban public high school saying, 'This is my life, too,'?" said Greenfield, whose daughter attends Wilson. "Does it change everything for kids? No. .?.?. But it's a wonderful opportunity to have the more difficult conversations we need to have about making everyone feel safe."

Predictably, Cahall's announcement drew condemnations from groups that oppose gay rights. Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at Family Research Council, said the public school has no business having a Pride Day to begin with.

In contrast, Mayor Gray congratulated Cahall for "going public with who he is," and encouraged students to feel comfortable doing the same.

"There is nothing worse than walking around having to hide who you are," said Gray, who was D.C. Council chairman when the city approved same-sex marriage and who as mayor has pushed insurance companies to cover sex-change operations.

Councilman Catania, who came out when he was 20, said he knew the "silent, quiet, isolating sense of desperation" of living in the closet. He said Cahall's announcement sent a message not just about acceptance and courage but also about honesty and integrity.

"I think this is the most important lesson that these students will learn this year," Catania added.

In his speech, Cahall said he had not been out before "because I did not want my kids to think of me differently or not respect me." But he said his 50th birthday a few weeks ago was a watershed moment that made him want to come out of hiding, a move he said felt possible because of the support of political leaders, other faculty members, and, especially, Wilson students.

After the announcement, Cahall was still shaking as students approached to offer him hugs. "I've hid all my life," Cahall said. "In this community, with these kids, I'd be a big hypocrite if I didn't speak my truth."

Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based organization known for anti-gay picketing at military funerals, plans to protest Wilson's Pride Day on Monday. Westboro also plans to protest at other Washington institutions that the church contends have been too supportive of gay marriage, including the Supreme Court, the White House, and Congress.

Nearly 1,000 Wilson students have signed up for a peaceful counterprotest.

Mayor Gray described Westboro's followers "backward-thinking" and added, "In my best biblical reference, they can go straight to hell."

The video below reports on Principal Cahall's coming out.

In the video below, Cahall discusses his coming out.

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