In 1958, a New Jersey Catholic high school denied Tom Ammiano his varsity letter because of suspicions that he was gay, which he was. In fact, Ammiano grew to become a noted gay activist and politician. Over 60 years later, the school has made reparations by honoring him with the rightfully earned letter.
The New York Times reported that Ammiano was bullied in high school for being skinny and effeminate— especially by other athletes and coaches. He developed a love for long-distance running, and at age 16, Ammiano won the one-mile for his school, earning his varsity letter. The Times continued:
“‘That last win put me over the top,’ Mr. Ammiano said, and when he was told he had earned a varsity letter, Mr. Ammiano recalled, ‘I went to seventh heaven.’ But before the awards ceremony, he learned that the last meet would no longer count. Mr. Ammiano, then 16, was never given an explicit explanation, but he never doubted the reason: ‘I was weird and different.’”
Ammiano later said that the experience of not receiving his varsity letter stayed with him and became a “transformative moment.” It helped motivate him to become a close collaborator with Harvey Milk, who inspired much of his activism. Ammiano moved to San Francisco and became known for his ‘in-your-face’ approach to politics. As a city politician, he called for gay rights, police reform, and developed a program for universal city healthcare.
The process of returning his denied varsity letter began when Ammiano was interviewed on San Francisco public radio station KQED.
One of KQED’s listeners, a Jewish cantor named Stephen Saxon, was particularly moved by Ammiano’s discussion of the shame and pain he still felt from his high school experience. Ammiano had said, “It’s something that still hurts, even a hundred years later.”
Saxon said, “I’m not gay. I’m not Catholic. I’m a cantor,” but that “sticking up for people who are not like me is part of my responsibility” as a Jew.
Saxon subsequently wrote a letter to Ammiano’s high school, Immaculate Conception High School, Montclair, suggesting that they award him with “his varsity letter in the interest of healing old wounds and paying respect to one of your alumni who has lived a good and positive life.”
“The school soon responded, and a couple of weeks ago Ammiano received a letter in the mail informing him that the varsity letter would be awarded to him 63 years late. A representative from the school had even done a little digging, contacting a surviving coach from that era, Ed Kirk, now in his 90s, who confirmed that Ammiano deserved the letter. And a former teammate and team captain said the same.”
According to The New York Times:
“The letter was forwarded to the school’s alumni association and its director, Nora Bishop, said: ‘It saddened me that an alumnus had that experience. I would have hoped for better.’ Ms. Bishop told Mr. Ammiano in her note that ‘we are in the process of having a letter custom made for you and greatly look forward to awarding this varsity honor to you, although well past due.’
“She also noted his work in education, civil rights and politics, saying, ‘You are an inspiration.’”
In response, Ammiano wrote on Facebook:
“I’m really touched by their words, and as an aside at almost 80 I’m glad this happened before I left this mortal coil, and plotz, a real Hail Mary.”
The denial of Ammiano’s varsity letter by his Catholic school was a tragic example of the homophobia of the time. Catholic schools have unfortunately participated in many wrongs against the LGBTQ community, whether implicitly or explicitly. However, his eventual reception of the letter is a symbol of good will and repentance from the school. As time goes on and the church continues to recognize the positive lives of LGBTQ Catholics, many more moments in which the Church redresses its past wrongs and moves towards a full acceptance of the LGBTQ community will be needed.
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, March 8, 2021