Fired Minnesota Teacher Speaks Out on the Danger of Silence

Kristen Ostendorf

Kristen Ostendorf

“I don’t feel like telling the truth should cost me my job.”

Those are the words of Kristen Ostendorf, reacting to being fired from a Minnesota Catholic high school after she publicly revealed that she was a lesbian and involved in a relationship with another woman.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports that officials at Totino-Grace H.S., in Fridley, a suburb of the Twin Cities, have been tight-lipped about their response to the firing.  MPR states:

“The school released a statement saying the matter is a private one between employer and employee.

” ‘Like all Catholic schools and organizations, Totino-Grace follows the teachings of the church and the employment policies of the Archdiocese,’ it said in part.”

Interestingly, this is the second case this year of a Totino-Grace staff member leaving the school because of revealing involvement in a same-sex relationship.  William Hudson voluntarily stepped down as school president when he disclosed to school board members his long-term commitment to another man.  Ostendorf taught English, religion, and was a campus minister and swimming and lacrosse coach.

The silence of the school officials contrasts strikingly with Ostendorf’s claim about telling the truth. In a MinnPost interview, Ostendorf spoke eloquently about the destructive power of silence:

“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 [William Hudson] 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.

“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.”

In the same interview, Ostendorf comments about another form of silence in the church:

“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.”

MPR also reported on another Totino-Grace staff person, Chad O’Leary, a youth minister, who resigned in 2010 after telling school administrators that he was gay.   They also describe these types of departures as part of a national trend:

“Firings at Catholic schools over same-sex relationships appear to be on the rise nationally, according to Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for LGBT employees in Catholic institutions.

” ‘In 2011 there was maybe two or three cases like this. In 2012 there was probably six. And now [this year] we’ve had well over a dozen,’ he said.

“DeBernardo says that’s in part because gay marriage has become legal in more states, like Minnesota, and that has gay employees of Catholic schools speaking up about their relationships.

” ‘The arrival of public affirmation of their relationships is going to bring out more and more of these cases,’ he said.”

For a listing of the known dismissals of church workers because of LGBT issues over the past few years, click here.

Michael Bayly, a prominent Catholic LGBT  Twin Cities’ advocate, put these firings into spiritual context in his blog post at The Wild Reed:

“I’ve followed a number of cases where LGBT people have either resigned or been fired from Catholic institutions. And as difficult as the situation was initially for these folks, they’ve actually moved on to a much better place in their lives. For one thing, they’re no longer closeted. And, let’s be honest, why would we want anyone to remain in a situation where they can’t be their true and full selves? That’s a terrible way to live. I know as I lived it for many years. Oh, to be sure, we can justify it by saying something like, it’s better to be ‘on the inside’ doing what we can to help others.

“Well, let me tell you, that only lasts so long. Ultimately, the best way we can help others, say, for example, young people at a Catholic school, is to live a life of honesty and integrity. That’s what Kristen Ostendorf has chosen to do after eighteen years of being in a work environment that, as she says, required her to ‘hide and compromise and deny who I am.’

“I’m happy that Kristen is out of such an unhealthy environment. I’m sad that such environments still exist – especially within a faith community that claims inspiration from the life and message of Jesus. There’s a major disconnect there, to be sure. “

Silence is unhealthy and secrecy breeds many negative consequences.  Instead of castigating those who speak with honesty and clarity, our church should be honoring these people for helping us as a community to move closer to the truth.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles

Star-Tribune:  Gay teacher no longer employed at Totino-Grace

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

The Wild Reed: Thoughts on the Firing of Kristen Ostendorf

Huffington Post: Kristen Ostendorf, Minnesota Catholic School Teacher, Allegedly Fired For Being Gay

Pioneer Press: Another gay educator out at Totino-Grace High School

Minnesota Public Radio: How Totino-Grace discovered, then fired gay veteran teacher

10 replies
  1. will
    will says:

    This must be doing so much damage to the church and the school – and it it must be connected to the extremely hateful views of their Archbishop (Nienstedt) recently reported here too.

    A large part of the catholic laity support equal marriage – probably a majority in many places in the US. And of those that don’t, many have problems with redefinition etc and are otherwise well-disposed towards LGBT people and would not support firing a gay teacher.

    Isn’t it time the laity delivered a message to the hierarchy?

  2. Lydia Lombardo
    Lydia Lombardo says:

    Many years ago when I returned to college at 40 to fulfill my degree, I chose a liberal Catholic College on Chicago’s North side. I was very surprised when a nun became too friendly, but gently declined her invitation. Another teacher, a lay person who mentored me, also was generally known to be Lesbian, but there never was anything but a collegial relationship between us. I was a married women with 7 children and a good marriage of my own. As graduation neared, I noticed that groups were meeting for farewell parties and I was not being invited. Finally two close friends revealed to me that because I was my mentor’s favorite, it was assumed that I was Lesbian and thus being punished by the other women. I was hurt more by their assumption and bias than anything else, but I survived. It struck me then, as it does now, that it wasn’t the school authorities that were offended, nor did they take any action against the two women I mentioned. It was the “enlghtened” students themselves. Yes, we’ve come a long way in America, but not so far that gay people are not still bullied and tortured by their own peers whether it’s in a secular or religious institution. How very, very sad, but things are beginning to change and Good Pope Francis has helped immensely in his “Who am I to judge?” statement. I feel hopeful. but so badly for these good teachers who continue to be fired for being who they are. I wonder what Jesus’ reaction would be, don’t you?

    • Annette Magjuka
      Annette Magjuka says:

      You illustrate a good point. Instead of fighting with the institutional church, we could move on and talk about the subtle bullying, and torturing by peers you reference. We cannot even get close to this conversation if we have to fight the Catholic church itself over and over. These firings are unjust and must end. Catholics must demand it. People should keep talking about it and refuse to stop. If the firings are not just a small upset, but become a huge and public conversation about how the Catholic church fires people unjustly after years of service for no job related reason, then the Church may change. Because for the institutional church, image is everything.

  3. Martin
    Martin says:

    I’m gay, but this is a private school. They can fire and hire whoever they wish. Liberty is a two-way street. Ironically, the private school being allowed to fire her protects her own interests as a lesbian. Don’t people get it?

      • Friends
        Friends says:

        Indeed, I totally agree with Annette on this point, and I strongly suspect that Pope Francis himself would also agree. Unless Kristen engaged in any inappropriate public conduct, for the school to fire her because of the gender of the person she loves is hardly something that Jesus Himself would endorse. Was not His commandment to his followers: “Love one another, as I have loved you”? What part of “Love” do these school administrators fail to understand?

  4. Janet Hanson
    Janet Hanson says:

    I had a friend fired from a Catholic school and though she was never told why, it was likely because she was not commanding her Student Congress participants to only be “for” for a “bill” about abstinence only sex education.

    It was a breath taking example of bad teaching process (failing to let kids examine issues on their own within the confines of the Student Congress rules), bad employment practice (firing someone without even having a conversation with them about what the issue was; she never got to tell her side of the story) and just a failure to act with love and acceptance towards others.

    Except for a very small group of us, her firing went unremarked. Though she was not the first teacher fired shot-gun style like this over the years.

    It was a terrible testimony to the students of how you should honor teachers, employees, lay people. It’s the message about Catholic community life that speaks the loudest to my son, still, almost 4 years after his graduation.

    Whenever a child in a high school sees a teacher fired for being LGBT, they know that their parochial school has given them a clear message about how to show acceptance towards LGBT individuals. If you (a student) are LGBT or have LGBT siblings or friends, that is devastating. It also perpetrates a culture of “love thy neighbor (unless they are LGBT)”. It norms god blessed discrimination.

    I appreciate her courage here.


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  1. […] references the dual departures at Totino-Grace High School of William Hudson and then Kristen Ostendorf in his home state as part of the ‘obsession.’ He then asks why the bishops and […]

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