When Sexuality and the Job Clash

If former RNC chair Ken Mehlman's being gay was an "open secret" in Washington, then why did it take so long to come out? Howard Selekman on his own story of spending his life in the closet—and why.

08.28.10 9:20 AM ET

If former RNC chair Ken Mehlman's being gay was an " open secret" in Washington, then why did it take so long to come out? Howard Selekman on his own story of spending his life in the closet—and why.

I was born the youngest of four brothers in 1948. At around the age of 4 or 5, I knew I was different—fundamentally, at-the-core different. Just like Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, probably knew he was different long before he came out this week, at the age of 43.

In October 2009, at the age of 61, I came out. Why I stayed in the closet so long is the same reason Mehlman did: for a job. I had an early “calling” for the teaching profession. I didn’t just “play school.” I taught an imaginary class from the age of 7 through the age of 13, anywhere from two to four hours at a time, five to six times a week. I had a blackboard on the wall. I made roll sheets, each “class” having about 30 students, every student given a name, and attached to a name were the made-up names of his or her parents and guardians. Phone numbers. Lesson plans. Substitute plans. Test creation. Report cards. I learned how to integrate the use of the blackboard in teaching, remembering to keep my eyes on my kids, and not on the blackboard.

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I felt in the early '70s, rightly or wrongly, that my sexuality and my wish to become a public-school teacher were on a collision course. My passion for teaching locked the closet more tightly. It so happens that the back of my house faced the back of a house, in which lived a young woman who was taking a course in linguistics and who needed a tutor. In April 1973, we talked about marriage. I told her I was gay. I told her I could not make any promises. She said that love will conquer all. We went to the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time. He was wonderful. Brutally honest, he painted all the possible scenarios that could happen in the future. He was very concerned with my decision to marry. But on June 12, 1973, we married, and from that first day guilt, fear, unwanted physicality, and growing discord came to live in our bed.

I wanted my own children in the worst way. By the end of 1980 we had two children, a girl and a boy, now adults, very successful, and, most important, wonderful human beings. To have each child took immeasurably hard work on my part, the details of which I'd rather forget.

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In August 1980, I got a great job in a highly respected public-school district. I was not a very good teacher at first, and I remained very guarded and hidden from colleagues. I remained silent during meetings. But I began to grow ever more comfortable exploring literature and language, and enjoying the unpredicted. I put the teacher's edition away. I used the student edition. Let me see what the kids have to say, and take it from there. For an educator, that is risk-taking. I enjoyed such freedom, and as I did, so did the kids. And I learned from my kids. And I thanked them. Our discussions became richer, deeper into what it means to be a human being. But never would I even entertain the notion of being really free about my humanity. That had to remain hidden. I found myself attracted to some very handsome men on the faculty. But I stayed distant and silent.

In December 1989, I became the Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. I have never congratulated myself. I don’t understand it. In January 1990, I received a call from the governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was appointing me the chairman, pending Senate approval, of a new and powerful commission, a teacher-majority commission that would have the sole authority to adjudicate all cases of K-12 professional educator discipline, including superintendents, principals, guidance counselors, teachers, nurses, home/school visitors, absolutely everyone with a state license in K-12 basic ed.

The honor of being made chairman of such a powerful commission only pushed me further into the closet. Consider, if you will, all the emotional drama going on within me. I was already clinically depressed, the patient of a psychiatrist, guilt-ridden over what I couldn’t accomplish in my marriage, and now, terrified of the very public image and duties I was now to create and perform. I remained hidden. For three years, I was determined to leave the chairmanship not just having met the mandates for the commission, but having met them with superlatives. I worked hard to establish a reputation of excellence, and I did. But what most people do not know is that those three years damned near killed me.

I found myself attracted to some very handsome men on the faculty. But I stayed distant and silent.

At the end of the 2006-2007 school year, after 28 years of public-school teaching, I had to retire unexpectedly, two years earlier than planned, because of debilitating back pain and impending surgery. In April 2008, I was driving home from a car-repair garage, and suddenly I felt completely lost. Lost to myself, and lost to everyone around me. I stopped driving in the middle of the road, which luckily was a residential street, and I couldn’t drive any more. I called my psychologist and my psychiatrist, and I said that I was lost in my car, and incapable of driving any farther. I simply could not put my foot on the gas pedal anymore.

As of late September 2009, my wife and I are separated. That, ultimately, is a good thing, but I am also grief-stricken. We lasted 37 years. Regardless of those years being fraught with conflict, accomplishment is there. I think the only people who understand that are my new therapist, an extraordinary human being, whose first words to me were, “Howard, you are different."

My heterosexual friends dropped me immediately, very bright people, a few of whom are very supportive of gay-rights movements. I told these friends that my No. 1 priority right now was to finally find gay friends with whom there would be mutual understanding, and that I could after all these years relax. That statement was contorted to mean that I did not want anything to do with my heterosexual friends anymore. According to my wife, they are no longer comfortable being around me. Yet within the anger I have toward these people, there is also love, and their loss is grievous. I miss them terribly. We were so close, and I enjoyed some level of companionship. I am beginning to feel very lost again.

And what about my life as a gay man? I am not putting myself “out there” as much as I could be. I have a terrific online friend who lives in another state, and is making leaps and bounds as he discovers and participates in gay life in New York City. I am editing the monthly Pittsburgh Prime Timers newsletter, and I have some acquaintances in this older gay men's group. But I’m no longer up to the daunting challenges these terrific people are committed to. I have attended two meetings of the Pittsburgh Gay Book Club, but I really do not want to be scheduled with my reading. Am I finding excuses? Maybe.

While I continue, now at 62, to find out about myself as a gay man, I can engage in something familiar. I can return in some measure to my beloved profession by way of student teacher supervision. After all, I’m just out.

Howard Selekman was formerly a public school English teacher in Pittsburgh, where he was voted Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year in 1990. He previously taught undergraduate courses in linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. He was the recipient of the Steven A. Freeman Award (1976) for the best published article to have appeared in 1975-76, awarded by the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Now in retirement, Selekman is a supervisor of student teachers and teaching interns at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.