Wilson High Principal Pete Cahall: ‘It’s time to come out’ as gay

Pete Cahall slept well the evening of June 3.

When you’re the principal of a busy urban high school, on your feet for 10 hours a day, breaking up fights, appeasing overworked faculty and meeting with anxious parents, sleep comes pretty easy.

Even when your waking hours are marred by private torment.

Cahall didn’t know, as he laid down his head that night, that by the end of the next day, his cross of anguish would be lifted. That it would vanish the moment he said those words.

The words he’d never said before — to anyone. The words he would speak before the student body, mayor and film crews, who would put their footage on the Internet for all the world to see.

Cahall would sweat and stutter and shake like a child struck by fever before he got the words out. It would take all that — on top of 50 years of dread — for him to say it.

But then he did.

“I am a proud gay man — that just happens to be the principal of Wilson High School.”

Perhaps the most remarkable word in Cahall’s statement is “proud.” He didn’t just say that he’s a gay man. He said he is a proud gay man.

For most of his life, that has not been the case.

In Mount Holly, N.J., in the 1970s, Cahall and his family — he was the youngest of three boys — were twice-a-week churchgoers. Every Sunday and Wednesday, he recalls, they would sit in the pew, sometimes listening to their Southern Baptist minister rail against the immorality and evil of homosexuality.

Peter Cahall, principal of D.C.'s Wilson High School, joined Mayor Vincent C. Gray at a new conference shortly after he came out as gay to the school at a Pride Day event Wednesday. (D.C. Mayor's Office via YouTube)

This is what he knew about being gay: It was bad. And that it would land you in hell.

By the time he was in junior high, Cahall was certain that there was something different about him, but he couldn’t make sense of it. His classmates took care of that for him, he says, calling him out with words such as “fag.” He’d hated himself before the bullying started; now, he assumed that everyone who discerned his secret hated him, too.

But whatever it was that gave him away during puberty was gone by high school. He was 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, an all-star defensive lineman who also played basketball and threw shot put. He was voted class president three years in a row and had a pretty girlfriend named Sue.

In his office at Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington, where Cahall recently sat down for an extended interview, there is a Wheaties box doctored by some former graphic design students at the school. The front shows a teenage Cahall, broad-shouldered and handsome, with a mop of blond hair, staring directly into the camera and poised to make the tackle.

“I was being the person that I thought other people perceived me to be,” says Cahall, now 50, looking at the cereal box. “And that guy couldn’t be gay.”

But he did have a boyfriend. Or at least a friend who was a boy, who later turned out to be gay. Cahall would go to Brian’s house to play pool, and he certainly had a crush, but he never let anything happen between them, he says. He couldn’t. Then what he feared about himself would be true.

At the University of Virginia, he continued to date women, however half-heartedly. He was a junior when the football team was invited to play at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. He’d heard that there were gay bars in the city, so while his teammates hung out at night, he sneaked out to visit one.

“I just sat and observed, but it was mind-blowing,” he remembers. “It was like, ‘Oh, there’s a life out here.’ ”

But it wasn’t enough to persuade him to join in. After college, he had serious relationships with women, even lived with one, because that’s what he thought he was supposed to do. And because it kept people from asking questions.

But sometimes, while visiting his parents in New Jersey, he’d steal away to the gay bars of Philadelphia, have a couple of drinks and go home with a man.

There was no emotion in the liaisons, though, until a man named Al invited Cahall, who was working as a physical education teacher, to come over for a Super Bowl party. Then he invited Cahall to stay the night. Cahall agreed, but then fled in the darkness.

The next day, Al called with a question: “What were you scared of?”

And the thing that he was most frightened of was exactly what came next — he fell in love.

When most people fall in love, they want to shout it from the rooftops. And maybe, Cahall says, part of him wanted to do that, too. His life with Al “was wonderful,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the way it’s supposed to be.’ ” 

But a bigger part wanted to keep the relationship under wraps, hidden from colleagues and his family, who knew of Al, but only as “my friend.”

This is how life went on for decades, even after he moved on to another relationship. He moved to Greensboro, N.C., and then to Gaithersburg, Md., switching from school to school every few years. With each new position, his career advanced, but that wasn’t his only motivation for keeping his résumé fresh.

“I think I’ve moved every so often because I thought people were starting to figure it out,” says Cahall, who shaves his head smooth and walks with a limp from an old football injury.

“It’s always a buzz — that you’re gay, but people don’t know. Are they going to find out? It’s kind of like a recording in your head. It wears you down.”

As a principal at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg, Md., and then Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Cahall knew that he was in fairly progressive communities that accepted homosexuality. But it wasn’t enough to convince him to come out. There is still stigma against gays and lesbians working with youth, as evidenced by the Boy Scouts controversy over homosexual troop leaders.

But it wasn’t just other people who stopped Cahall from acknowledging the truth.

Throughout his adult life, he had prayed to God to “take this whole thing away.” It was his dream to wake up one day and be straight, to not have to lie or hide or fear that loving the people he loved was a sin.

But God never took it away. So the hulking man walked the linoleum halls and showed up at football games and chaperoned proms and then went home to wrestle with his shame and anguish and exhaustion.

“It made me depressed,” he says.

Michelle Rhee called Cahall in 2008. The hard-charging D.C. schools chancellor needed someone to run the city’s largest public high school — someone, she says, “who could take the school to the next level.”

“He was the kind of person I knew the students were going to really like,” Rhee says. “But I also thought that because of his experience, he’d be able to build a lot of confidence with parents, as well.”

Cahall, then serving as director of school performance for Montgomery County Public Schools, took a pay cut and showed up at Wilson High that summer with the goal of turning it into “the model urban high school in the United States.”

He immediately made his presence felt, greeting the school’s 1,700 students in the morning, picking up trash during lunch. And while his physical stature drew respect, his kindness engendered great loyalty.

“My freshman year, I had a very bad day at Wilson and I’d had it — I was ready to leave, ” recalls recent graduate Jocelyn Williams. “I was sitting down, and he came by and he just hugged me. He’s very supportive. He’s always there if you need him.”

His efforts to enact sweeping change were controversial among teachers, but test scores rose and disciplinary suspensions fell. And in 2010, Cahall met a man who became his next love. This time, his fears of discovery were countered by something else: the openness of several gay colleagues.

Alex Wilson, the school’s director of academic development, hung pictures of his partner — now husband — of more than 30 years in his office. International studies teacher Julie Caccamise spoke frequently about her lesbian partner.

And then there were the students. Last year, Wilson became the first public high school in the city to host a gay pride day. Cahall watched students such as Williams proclaim their homosexuality and find acceptance among their peers. This past year, a football player and track star came out on Instagram. “And it was like nothing ever happened,” Cahall says.

The principal was proud. And envious.

“I knew that they wouldn’t experience the pain and the torment, the isolation, the loneliness that I experienced,” he says. “So as happy as you were for them, there was a part of you that wished you had what they had.”

At last year’s gay pride event, he told students that they belonged to a community that didn’t care whom they wanted to date. Yet, he says, “I wasn’t willing to speak my truth. I was a hypocrite.”

Cahall turned 50 in May. “I always had something in the back of my mind — when I turn 50, if I’m not straight by then, it’s time to come out,” he says.

In a conversation with Alex Wilson a week before the school’s pride event, Cahall floated an idea: “Why don’t I just come out at pride?”

He was half-joking, but the idea gnawed at him. So he wrote a speech that referenced Lady Gaga, Jason Collins and Michael Sam. He showed it to Wilson and to his partner of more than four years, who didn’t really believe that he’d stand up and deliver it.

Cahall feared the repercussions of coming out. “There is still that thing in the back of my head. My religion. How are my parents going to react?” he remembers thinking. “What will people think of me?” And he worried about his connection with his students, especially “my African American boys.

“They come up and hug me, give me a man hug,” he says. “I thought, ‘God, if I come out there’s going to be a bubble around me.’ ‘Can’t be seen with him.’ ”

But on the morning of June 4, he woke up ready to slay his secret. Just before they went onstage, Cahall showed Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) the final line in what Gray was expecting to be a standard introductory speech. The mayor’s face lit up. “This is great!” Cahall remembers him saying.

So Cahall took the microphone and started addressing the crowd of more than 600 students, who at first seemed more interested in their own conversations. But as his speech went on, they grew quiet and fixed their eyes on their principal.

I have been inspired by my students . . .

To date, I have not made this declaration before . . .

I have hid in the shadows, but I am liberated today . . .

And then he said the words: I am a proud gay man . . .

Gray offered a high-five and then a hug. After a beat, the students re­arranged their dropped jaws into smiles and began to cheer.

“It was relief. Peace. About a thousand load of bricks off my shoulders,” Cahall says of the moment. ”

Cahall never anticipated what came next. He didn’t think those words would inspire thousands of letters and e-mails from all over the world. He heard from parents, alumni and strangers. He heard from a junior high classmate who used to bully him and wanted to apologize.

He heard from one niece — married to a Baptist minister — who said that he was going to hell. But he heard from other family members who told him that they were proud. His parents didn’t mention it, but Cahall is sure that they have known for years, and he detected a hint of pride in their voices.

The story was picked up by the national news media, and he was invited to the White House.”

And when folks from Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest, it gave Wilson students a chance to rally around their principal, their high school and one another.

Since that day last month, Cahall has reveled in his newfound freedom. If he had known how liberating it would be, he would have come out decades sooner. But the stigma around homosexuality hasn’t completely released its grip on his life. Cahall’s partner is African American and not out of the closet. He has a son from a previous relationship and fears that an already precarious custody arrangement could be made worse if people find out that he’s gay.

“As a society we’ve come a long way,” Cahall says. “But I think we still have a ways to go.”

So he is planning to draft a curriculum that can help administrators create a welcoming, tolerant environment for gay students and faculty at other schools nationwide, in the hope that no young person will ever have to feel the way he felt. “I was taught to hate myself,” he says.

“One of the things I used to think was, ‘If what I’m feeling is gay and gay means happy, well this is not a happy thing,’ ” he recalls.

“It wasn’t. It is now.”

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