Wilson High School Principal Pete Cahall came out to his students as gay at a school-wide Pride Day event Wednesday, shaking as he said that he had “hid in the shadows for the last 50 years” but was inspired by his students to declare his sexual orientation openly.

“I want to say publicly for the first time because of your leadership, care and support that I am a proud gay man who just happens to be the principal of Wilson High School,” he said in the packed atrium at the D.C. school, flanked by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and David Catania (I), the D.C. Council’s first openly gay member.

The second annual lunchtime festival brought together more than 20 community organizations and government agencies that offer support and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Last year, students signed pledges to respect their LGBTQ colleagues.

Students greeted Cahall’s announcement Wednesday with a loud, long cheer.

“I feel really proud of him, even though obviously he’s an adult,” said Marla Solow, 16, a junior who helped organize the Pride event. “I teared up … if it inspires other people to come out, that’s great.”

“I have so much respect for him to be able to do that,” said Tao Marwell, a 17-year-old senior who said she identifies as queer. “It’s a very brave thing to do.”

Gray congratulated Cahall for “going public with who he is” and encouraged students to feel comfortable doing the same.

“There is nothing worse than walking around having to hide who you are,” Gray said.

Catania, who came out as gay when he was 20, said he knew the “silent, quiet, isolating sense of desperation” of living in the closet, and said Cahall’s announcement sent a message not just about acceptance and courage, but also about honesty and integrity. “I think this is the most important lesson that these students will learn this year,” he said.

Students hugged Cahall after his announcement, and he said he felt relief, “like a ton of bricks lifted.”

“I’ve hid all my life,” Cahall said. “In this community, with these kids, I’d be a big hypocrite if I didn’t speak my truth.”

Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based organization best known for anti-gay picketing at military funerals, announced that it would protest Wilson’s Pride Day, though that protest is scheduled for next week, on Monday. Westboro announced plans to protest at other Washington institutions that the church believes have been too supportive of gay marriage, including the Supreme Court, the White House and Capitol Hill.

“You should be hanging your heads in shame for such a thing,” the church wrote on its Web site.

Nearly 1,000 Wilson students have signed up for a peaceful counter protest.

Gray called Westboro’s message a “disgrace.”

“In my best Biblical reference, they can go straight to hell,” Gray said.