Thinking Out Loud: A Lesson in Fairness

Abby Dees

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Abby Dees

By: Abby Dees*/Special for TRT–

Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Mitch and Devynn Stein, father and daughter, on L.A.’s IMRU radio. Devynn is 15 years old and has a new baby sister, Tuolomne, who Mitch and his partner, Hugo, adopted this year. They are the very reason why same-sex marriage and equal rights matter.

Several months ago, Mitch was fired from his position as assistant water polo coach at Charter Oak High School in Covina, California, for being gay. The principal would disagree with that assertion – she’d say that he was fired for inappropriate conduct for a teacher. It just so happens that the only thing notable about the conduct in question is that it looks kinda gay. Not kinky, not obscene, merely gay.

By all accounts, even the principal’s (who fired him), Mitch is a great coach. He raised more money for the school than anyone. He led the junior varsity boys team in an undefeated season. He got the pool deck renovated through volunteer support and in-kind donations. He says that it was all to give back to the same team that taught him to believe in himself as a teen and never give up. Despite his firing, he still raises money for the water polo boosters. Devynn is even on the girls’ team.

In a state that guarantees equal rights to LGBT people in the workplace, you might wonder how flamboyantly, outrageously gay must Mitch have been to get himself fired.

He posted a picture of himself on Facebook, dressed but wearing a bit of eyeliner, with a group of lovely drag queens. Oh, and there was also a picture of him eating a hot dog on a stick. The press said it was a corn dog, but Mitch was quick to defend himself: “I don’t eat carbs.”

Charter Oak has no policy on teachers’ use of social media, and the pictures were actually posted several years ago. They came to light when a disgruntled parent, likely upset about disciplinary action taken against his son, delivered them anonymously. Mitch was fired almost immediately, after no investigation. He was told that coaches are held to a higher standard of behavior, and that was reason enough. It was about the kids; it had nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Mitch sees it differently. “The only thing that these pictures truly show is that I’m gay,” he told me, a point he expressed repeatedly to the principal and school board. But their conversations went nowhere, and the school has restated its position since: the pictures were inappropriate and Mitch wasn’t fired for being gay. A court will soon determine who is right, but I’m betting on Mitch, who who’d rather have his low-paying job back than a fat check.

There’s a lot more to this story, of course, most of it pointing to the school’s blatant double standard for gay teachers. But what really caught my attention was how much homophobes use the excuse of protecting the family and children to justify behavior that is actually harmful to families and children. At the moment Mitch was fired, all he could think about was his daughter, Devynn, who was two days away from starting 9th grade at Charter Oak: “I just needed to get out of there and get to my daughter.” He considered only the repercussions this could have on her and was prepared to walk away from the whole thing and send her to a new school. But Devynn insisted that they both stay and fight. She stands by her choice today, as their fight has become publicized, and even after she endured bullying from some kids – though not the girls’ water polo team, who have been totally supportive, she says.

Mitch is standing up for the kids, as he has always done, and Mitch, Hugo, Devynn and Tuolomne all demonstrate that equality and respect are core family values. Meanwhile, Charter Oak is teaching that hypocrisy and fear are OK, and that parents can get their way through bullying too. So who’s looking out for the kids again? (For more on Mitch check out “Bring Back Coach Stein” on Facebook.)

*Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25+ years. She can be reached through her website:squeerquestionsstraighttalk.com.

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