Did Calif. School Fire Coach for Being Gay?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday September 24, 2011

A water polo coach fired from a Covina, Calif. high school says there was only one reason for his dismissal: He happens to be gay.

School officials at Charter Oak High deny the allegation, but assistant summer water polo coach Mitch Stein's firing came about after a disgruntled parent complained about the punishment that another individual, swim coach Howard Hyde, handed out to team members who refused to comply with a requirement that they obtain medical approval to participate in the sport, reported Glendora Patch.com on Sept. 23.

The firing also came about after printouts of photos posted online arrived at the office of the school's principal, Kathleen Wiard. The photos had been posted at MySpace and Facebook. One showed Stein jokingly posed with a corndog he was poised to bite into; another showed him posing with a group of men in drag, reported local newspaper the Whittier Daily News.

Stein has filed a complaint against the school alleging anti-gay discrimination.

"According to the complaint, the letter's author called Stein 'unfit to coach' and threatened to go to the school board if he was not fired immediately," the Whittier Daily News article reported.

Though Stein offered to delete the photos from his online pages, the principal refused to entertain an alternative to his firing. When Stein challenged the firing and asked whether a heterosexual man would lose his job if he posted a photo of himself together with scantily clad cheerleaders, he was told that cheerleaders in uniform were acceptable company in a photograph.

Attorney Brad Kane, representing Stein, told the media that the following day Stein was summoned to the office of Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Terry Stanfill, who made it a point to tell Stein that he was not being fired for being gay, but because he had made "offensive" photographs public.

"When someone tells you 'Oh, by the way, we're not doing it because you're gay,' there's some question," Kane told the Whittier Daily News. "It appears to be at this stage sexual-orientation-based discrimination."

District Superintendent Mike Hendricks said that Stein would not have been fired out of homophobia.

"I can say, and so can any other superintendent, that there are laws that protect -- that ensure -- that we do not discriminate against any individual," said Hendricks, who declined to specify just why Stein had been fired, citing privacy statutes.

Under Stein's leadership, the team enjoyed a summer of unblemished victories and benefited from a grant that Stein secured from Kohls department store. His firing prompted a response online, with a Facebook page called "Wipe Out Homophobia on Facebook" being set up and a push for Stein's rehiring crystallizing around the page.

Parents stepped up also, with many writing letters and making phone calls in support of the fired coach.

"He's a good parent and a really nice guy," the president of the Aquatics booster club, Rod Munoz, told the media.

"What he was fired over was not offensive at all," a fellow coach, who declined to be identified, said. "He's a terrific coach and a great organizer."

Kane also took the step of sending the district a letter in which he asked that Stein be hired back, but the district refused.

Stein is an alumnus of the school, and his daughter also attends Oak Charter High. Stein told the media that when he was fired, his first thought was for his daughter.

Indeed, the young woman has been the target for homophobic bullying since her father's firing. But she says that she has no intention of going to school anywhere else.

Stein has filed the requisite paperwork to bring suit over his dismissal, the Glendora Patch article said.

"I just want to coach," Stein said. "I didn't do this for the money. It was always about spending time with my kid and getting back to the program."

There have been a number of instances recently in which gay and lesbian coaches and teachers have been yanked from their duties by schools that disapprove of gays. In one instance, a lesbian soccer coach, Lisa Howe, left her position at Belmont, a private Christian university, after disclosing that she and her female partner intended to become mothers.

Members of Howe's team told the media that Howe had been pressured into leaving her job. Howe and the university's administration would only say that her departure was a mutual decision.

Belmont adopted gay and lesbian-specific nondiscrimination policies in the wake of Howe's controversial departure. The coach herself praised the university's actions, saying, "I am grateful to the Belmont board for recognizing that being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive."

Similarly, a gay coach in New Zealand was abruptly fired last year for being gay. The coach's name was not disclosed in media reports, but he spoke of the shock and pain of having lost his job at Middleton Grange School due simply to anti-gay prejudice.

"It's hard enough to go through finding yourself and accepting yourself and being 'out' in the first place," the coach, who had gone on to secure a position at another school, told the press. "Having to go through discrimination doesn't help."

Speaking to his firing, the young coach added, "At first I was shocked. I've never felt so small in my life... I started to kind of blame myself."

But the young man pursued justice, eventually reaching a settlement with the school. The fired coach was awarded monetary compensation; the school board was instructed to take a course in human rights.

"I am glad it won't happen to anyone again at that school," the young coach told the local media. "It was definitely a hard thing to go through."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.