The Real-Life Parallels to Love Is Strange
BY Trudy Ring
August 28 2014 12:20 PM ET
In the fine new film Love Is Strange, the central characters find themselves in a situation all too familiar to same-sex couples in 21st-century America: After they are finally able to enter into a legally recognized marriage, the spouse employed by a religious institution loses his job.
In the movie, George, played by Alfred Molina, is a music teacher at a Catholic school in New York City. Supervisors, students, and parents know he’s gay and partnered with Ben (John Lithgow). But when the two men get married, that’s a public declaration that they’re living their lives in violation of church doctrine, so the Catholic hierarchy orders school administrators to fire George.
The character responds with eloquence we all wish we had (thanks to writer-director Ira Sachs and his cowriter, Mauricio Zacharias). Read the text below and then take a look at some of the real-life stories that have parallels to the film.
By now you have all heard of my joyful news, and of my sad news. To be able to finally marry my partner of almost 40 years, Benjamin Hull, in a small ceremony here at the New York City Hall was one of the happiest moments of my life. Unfortunately, later I found out that I could no longer continue to teach music at St. Anthony’s.
Most of you, and everyone at the school, knew that I was gay and that Ben was my lifelong partner. I have always had nothing but support from all of you, so I would like to thank you, and also to emphasize that I understand that what happened is not the fault of St. Anthony’s and its leadership.
Above all, I urge you to take this opportunity to have a conversation with your children about whether or not justice was served here.
The last thing I want them to take from this is that they should hide who they are, or what they think, if they believe it will get them into trouble. Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.
I believe the world is a better place if people aren't lying.
In the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “Love does not delight in injustice, but rejoices with the truth.”
Here are seven real-life examples in which school and church leaders would benefit from watching Love Is Strange:
Christopher Persky (far left) and Ken Bencomo
Bencomo and his partner of 10 years, Christopher Persky, were married July 1, 2013, shortly after marriage equality was restored to California. Less than two weeks later, Bencomo was fired from his job as an English teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, a suburb of Los Angeles. He had taught at the Catholic girls’ school since 1998, and his students and colleagues said he was one of the most beloved faculty members there. Also, most of them knew his relationship status. “It was known by 99 percent of the school that he was gay, but it was never an issue in the past,” Brittany Littleton told The Huffington Post. “I think it’s very hypocritical to be OK with someone and their relationship until they are open about it.” Bencomo has sued the school for wrongful termination. Attorneys for the school claimed that constitutional separation of church and state barred him from taking legal action, but a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in June that the suit can go to trial.
McCullough, an English teacher at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, Ark., married Barbara Mariani, a Pulaski County prosecuting attorney, in New Mexico October 16. Moments after the ceremony, she received a phone call from Mount St. Mary principal Diane Wolfe, telling her to resign or be fired, so McCullough submitted her resignation to the Catholic school. Students petitioned unsuccessfully for her reinstatement, but McCullough ended up with a new job, which she started in January, at Little Rock Central High School. It’s a public school with a nondiscrimination policy, and it was a prominent site in the struggle for African-American civil rights, being desegregated by court order in 1957, with the National Guard called in to protect black students. She noted the school’s legacy in an interview with The New York Times’ Frank Bruni in December, and she also said she was through with just being partway out and wouldn’t have done anything differently. “As I told the principal, I’m 50 years old,” she said. “I’m tired of this. I’ve tried to play this game my whole life. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
While Klansnic’s story doesn’t exactly parallel that of Love Is Strange, it’s a reminder that antigay discrimination doesn’t happen just in Catholic schools, or just in religious ones of any stripe. Klansnic says he was let go as principal of North Gresham Elementary School in Gresham, Ore., after coming out as gay in the wake of his divorce. “The way I was treated in the school district changed drastically,” he told a Portland TV station last year, adding that a supervisor used “bullying words” with him in a private meeting. He had been with the school for 10 years of his 25-year career in education, and he says he received such treatment despite Oregon’s gay-inclusive antidiscrimination law. He filed a complaint against the school district, which was settled out of court without the district admitting liability or wrongdoing, and moved to another state to continue his career.
Meanwhile, there have been cases of discrimination against personnel in schools affiliated with religions other than Catholicism. In 2010, Lisa Howe resigned as soccer coach at Belmont University, a historically Baptist but now nondenominational Christian college in Nashville. Students said at the time that Howe was pressured to leave after she revealed that she is in a same-sex relationship and that her partner was pregnant; Howe declined to discuss the matter. In any case, the tension between laws that embrace equality and faiths that don’t will undoubtedly continue, along with debates over how much leeway antidiscrimination laws should give religious institutions.
It wasn’t a wedding announcement but an obituary that cost Hale her job as a gym teacher and coach at Bishop Watterson High School, a Catholic institution in Columbus, Ohio. When Hale’s mother died last year, the obituary listed Hale and her female partner among the survivors; Hale’s brother had encouraged the partner’s inclusion. A parent sent a letter to the school, anonymously, objecting to Hale’s relationship, and shortly after the teacher returned to work, she was fired. Students rallied around the popular Hale, dubbed a “wonderful teacher and amazing role model” by one Watterson alum. She hired a lawyer, filed a discrimination complaint with the Columbus Community Relations Commission, and tried to get her job back. Late last year, she reached a confidential settlement with the Diocese of Columbus; she won’t be returning to the school, but it will acknowledge her 19 years of service. She’s now working as a substitute teacher in and around Columbus and is reportedly happy to be back on the job.
Zmuda was forced to resign as assistant principal at Eastside Catholic High School in Sammamish, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, in December, after his bosses learned he had married his male partner, Dana Jergens, the previous summer. Protests against his ouster drew hundreds of students, but school administrators would not reconsider the action. Zmuda, who says he was told he could keep his job if he divorced, has filed a wrongful termination suit, and, as in Bencomo’s case in California, a judge has agreed it can go forward. Meanwhile, he’s starting this school year with a new job, as assistant principal and athletic director at Mercer Island High School, also near Seattle.
Collette had been music director at Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, for 17 years when he announced his engagement to Chicago teacher William Nifong via Facebook in July. The church promptly fired him. Church leaders had long been aware that Collette is gay, he says. He and Nifong have been together five years, and Nifong proposed while they were on vacation in Rome. But the Rev. Terry Keehan, the church’s pastor, said Collette could not remain in the church’s employ because he had “publicly endorsed a position in conflict with church teachings.” About 700 people, many of them supportive of Collette, turned out at a meeting this month to discuss the situation; Collette received a standing ovation when he arrived. Another church staffer, cantor Kevin Keane, resigned in protest, saying, “If he’s not fit to serve, then I am not fit to serve.”
McMahon is another Catholic church music director fired for his same-sex marriage. He lost his job at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, Va., in the summer of 2013, after his pastor learned of his marriage. McMahon had worked in various parishes around the Diocese of Arlington for 30 years, but a diocesan spokesman said, “This public act is unmistakable and verifiable and serves to cause scandal in the church and confusion among the laity. The church can’t let a diocesan employee, especially one who has a significant and public role in the liturgy of the Mass, and other ceremonies, to stand in open defiance of church teachings.” McMahon then took a job as a musician at a gay-affirming Protestant church in Washington, D.C., but he said he still feels Catholic. He said his firing was a blessing because he is free to be himself, but told The Washington Post, “Serving in the ministry of the [Catholic] Church has been my identity my whole life. This placed me outside of that. I now think of myself as not able to serve in church ministry. I know I’m Catholic, and I know I belong, but I can’t do part of what makes me me.”