Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not clearly enough explain Wilson High Principal Pete Cahall’s announcement. He was referring to Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s leadership as one reason that he was able to make the public declaration that he is gay. This story has been updated.
The principal of one of the District’s largest and most sought-after public high schools came out as gay to the school at a Pride Day event Wednesday, his hands 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,” said Pete Cahall, referring to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who along with David A. Catania (I), the D.C. Council’s first openly gay member, flanked him during the announcement.
Students in the school’s packed atrium greeted Cahall’s announcement with a loud, long cheer.
For generations, homosexuality was a fireable offense in schools, and gay educators took pains to hide their private lives. But now many gay teachers and school administrators are open about who they are. Cahall’s announcement came five years after the District legalized same-sex marriage, a once-controversial move that city leaders now widely embrace.
Cahall said he was inspired to go public in part by the recent coming-out of professional athletes Jason Collins, who plays basketball for the Brooklyn Nets, and Michael Sam, who was drafted by football’s St. Louis Rams. Their decisions were considered indicative of the increasing tolerance of homosexuality. Cahall also attributed his decision to a moment of introspection provided by his recent 50th birthday.
His announcement Wednesday provided catharsis and relief, Cahall said, “like a ton of bricks lifted.” Others said his honesty accomplished much more, sending a powerful signal of acceptance and hope to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“He’s a role model for everyone,” said Aidan Parisi, 17, a senior who helped organize the Pride Day event. “He’s always been there for us, and he’s always been supportive. But saying he’s gay might make a lot of other people feel comfortable” coming out.
Tao Marwell, another 17-year-old senior, said: “I have so much respect for him to be able to do that. It’s a very brave thing to do.”
Cahall has led Wilson since fall 2008, when then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee recruited him from Montgomery County to lead the large neighborhood high school in Northwest Washington, one of the city’s top-performing schools.
He has said that when he arrived, the building had not one working clock. In 2010, Cahall shepherded Wilson through a top-to-bottom renovation that required students to relocate to the University of the District of Columbia for a year.
Wilson’s new building became the envy of schools across the city, and enrollment has swelled to more than 1,700 students.
Within two years, Cahall replaced 40 percent of the staff and broadened access to Advanced Placement courses, part of an effort to encourage African American and Latino students in a school where academics have had the effect of segregating students by race and class. He also tightened Wilson’s dress code.
Cahall, a onetime wrestling coach and college football player, has a 6-foot-4 frame that makes him an unmistakable presence in Wilson’s hallways. With his weekly data-heavy letters home about the progress of Wilson’s students — or scholars, as he always calls them — he also is a regular presence in parents’ e-mail inboxes.
Cahall stirred some controversy among parents in recent years by doling out prizes — including gift cards and off-campus lunch passes — to hundreds of students for taking the city’s annual standardized tests, and last year, he threatened to bar students from participating in school sports if they failed to show up for the tests.
Cahall said he was looking for a way to encourage students, who have no stake in the outcome of the tests, to take them seriously. But he later backed off the ban because it was “not in line with the District of Columbia Public Schools,” he wrote to parents in April 2013.
His news Wednesday, delivered a few days before the city’s 39th annual Capital Pride parade, triggered a blizzard of Twitter messages and text messages, including expressions of support from D.C. Council members and Wilson parents.
“We’re incredibly proud of Principal Cahall and the students at Wilson for creating such a tolerant, supportive environment at the school,” said Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the school system.
The announcement was an unexpected and emotional addition to the school’s second annual Pride Day, a lunchtime festival that brought together more than 20 community organizations and government agencies that offer support and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Chris Obermeyer, a faculty adviser for the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, said the festival is meant to give students a way to seek information without singling themselves out.
The event is unique among high schools in the District, which, for all its gay-friendly policies and politicians, remains, like much of the country, a harrowing place for many LGBT youth.
About 15 percent of D.C. high school students identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning, according to survey data that city officials released Wednesday. Those students are far more likely than their heterosexual peers to report being bullied at school, and they are more likely to miss class because they’re afraid of being beaten or harassed.
Twenty-eight percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students reported that they attempted suicide within the past year — more than twice the average among heterosexual students. Thirty-three percent of the city’s middle-school LGB students reported attempting suicide, a rate five times higher than their heterosexual peers.
Suzanne Greenfield, director of the city’s bullying-prevention program in the D.C. Office of Human Rights, said Cahall’s announcement was a courageous and important step toward changing those statistics.
“We have the principal of a major urban public high school saying, ‘This is my life, too,’ ” said Greenfield, whose daughter attends Wilson. “Does it change everything for kids? No. . . . But it’s a wonderful opportunity to have the more difficult conversations we need to have about making everyone feel safe.”
Kim Westheimer of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group, said that although more educators are coming out at school, few are doing so in such a public and high-profile way.
“It’s usually not an announcement at school,” Westheimer said. “Students learn during the normal running of the day in class. The same as heterosexuals in committed relationships, same-sex couples are being open about their lives in a parallel way.”
Cahall’s announcement drew expressions of concern from groups that oppose gay rights and that say homosexuality should not be a subject of discussion in the nation’s schools. Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the District-based Family Research Council, said the public school has no business having a Pride Day to begin with.
“I think it is inappropriate for a principal or any staff member to be publicly discussing their sexuality to begin with,” Sprigg said. “But I, of course, would say the entire event was inappropriate. I don’t think a school should have an event to express pride about sexuality. I think sexuality is a private thing and should not be made such a public issue.”
In D.C., same-sex relationships and rights have for years been a part of the political fabric and a very public issue. Standing before Wilson students Wednesday morning, Gray congratulated Cahall for “going public with who he is,” and he encouraged students to feel comfortable doing the same.
“There is nothing worse than walking around having to hide who you are,” said Gray, who was D.C. Council chairman when the city approved same-sex marriage and who as mayor has pushed insurance companies to cover sex-change operations.
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. He 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,” Catania said.
In his speech, Cahall said he had not been out before “because I did not want my kids to think of me differently or not respect me.” But he said his 50th birthday a few weeks ago was a watershed moment that made him want to come out of hiding, a move he said felt possible because of the support of political leaders, other faculty members and, especially, Wilson students.
After the announcement, Cahall was still shaking as students approached to offer him hugs. “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 known for anti-gay picketing at military funerals, plans to protest Wilson’s Pride Day on Monday. Westboro also plans to protest at other Washington institutions that the church contends have been too supportive of gay marriage, including the Supreme Court, the White House and Congress.
“You should be hanging your heads in shame for such a thing,” the church declared on its Web site before Wednesday’s event. Westboro Church officials on Wednesday did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Nearly 1,000 Wilson students have signed up for a peaceful counterprotest.
Gray called Westboro’s followers “backward-thinking” and their message “a disgrace.”
“In my best biblical reference, they can go straight to hell,” Gray said.