Compassion missing in dismissal of gay teacher

Marney Rich Keenan

For so many reasons, and on so many levels, it's hard not to be passionate about Barb Webb, the gay Marian High School teacher who was terminated a couple weeks ago after the administration learned she was pregnant.

Webb, who taught Advanced Placement and Honors Chemistry for nine years and coached various athletic teams to league wins, posted the firing on her Facebook page. "Marian was unwilling to offer me any type of leave and of course they were not willing to grant me the same right that a half dozen other teachers are enjoying this year while starting their families," she wrote.

At issue is a morality clause in the teacher contract that stipulates he or she "will not publicly engage in actions, or endorse actions or beliefs contrary to the teachings and standards of the Roman Catholic faith and morality."

Webb, who is married to another woman, says she tried to negotiate a maternity leave or leave of absence to avoid making the pregnancy "public," but she was told there were no options. She was asked to either resign and agree not to disclose the details of resignation or be terminated. She chose the latter.

"Their offer of resignation included health care through May," she wrote. "Of course they claimed it was to help their conscience after firing a pregnant woman for no other reason than for being pregnant and getting pregnant outside the Catholic way ... but really I think they were interested in the gag order that came along with it. ... Well, you're damn right I wasn't going to sign something that said I was willing to leave, and their $4K of health insurance wasn't enough to buy my silence."

It's profoundly sad that the miracle of creating a new life, the profound joy that is pregnancy, is now marred by scandal. And this is from an organization that values life above all else. As a Marian High School alum — Class of '72 — it's disappointing that the IHM nuns — religious women whose boots-on-the-ground ministries avail them firsthand knowledge of real-life problems and real-life suffering, especially as it pertains to women — couldn't find a way to do right by this family. Yes, family. An unconventional family, but no less a family. As one student pointed out: "After all, Marian was named after a woman with a nontraditional pregnancy."

It's one thing to be fired because of poor job performance, yet another to be dismissed because of who you are as a person, as a human being. I can't fathom the humiliation.

And, as an adult who was once a floundering, scared, angry-at-the-world teenager in need of compassion, guidance and discipline (all of which I received at Marian), how could this same institution leave its LGBT youth untended, hiding in the proverbial closet, confused at best, condemned sinners at worst.

As one LGBT alum posted on the "I Stand With Barb" Facebook page: "I am the secret my mom kept from Marian."

Jean Olshefsky, a class of '81 Marian grad who came out as a lesbian in her senior year, says she worries about the message Webb's firing sends to students. "I can't imagine the shame and fear any LGBTQ students at Marian must be feeling now," she said. Olshefsky lives in Atlanta and is an assistant director of a mental health facility. "Not knowing if they can trust any of the staff or, for that matter, their peers, with their 'secret,' has the potential to drive a student into a deeper abyss."

If there is any doubt that it is discrimination against Webb for being a lesbian, the question becomes: How many teachers in Catholic schools have been fired because they became pregnant using artificial insemination — which is morally contrary to church teachings?

On Facebook, close to 1,600 signatures had been collected (as of this writing) for a petition asking Marian administration to change its policies regarding LGBT staff, to allow for a student LGBT group at Marian and to offer a public apology to Barb Webb. School administrators have declined comment.

When asked if she would return to Marian if circumstances changed, Webb said in a recent 97.1-FM (WXYT) radio interview with Cynthia Canty: "If it were a sincere offer and I felt I was being accepted for who I am, then I would take it."