While many of us have posted fun or silly photos of ourselves on Facebook, few would ever think that one of those photos could actually get themselves fired, but such is the case of Mitch Stein. An assistant water polo coach at Charter Oak High School in Covina, CA, Stein had just led the boys' junior varsity team through an undefeated summer season when he was called into the principal's office and confronted with a letter from a parent and photographs pulled from his Facebook page. One picture featured him hanging out with some drag queens, while another showed him getting ready to take a big bite from a corndog. While Stein saw the pictures as harmless, to the school administrators, they were deemed inappropriate due to their "sexual content," and he was let go from his position.
In the months following, Stein filed a wrongful termination suit, seeking both monetary damages and his old job back. While the incident raised questions for Stein around diversity issues within the Charter Oak Unified school system, Stein also experienced a groundswell of support from students and parents. In the wake of his firing, he was even selected by parents as president of the aquatics booster board, in a unanimous vote.
What many do not know is that, in addition to his daughter Devynn, who attends Charter Oaks and is a swimmer and water polo player, Stein and his partner Hugo Horta have been in the process of adopting an infant girl, Tuolumne, born addicted to crystal meth.
As a fellow gay dad, I was curious to learn more about how Stein's termination had affected both him and his family. We connected through our shared parenting group, Los Angeles-based Pop Luck Club, and Stein graciously agreed to take time from his family, particularly his seven-week-old daughter, to share his story.
Thank you so much for meeting with me, especially as you recently returned home from the hospital with your daughter.
It's my pleasure.
Let's start first with your termination. What was your reaction when you'd learned you'd been let go?
I'm the typical mother hen, and my initial thoughts were all about my daughter, Devynn, as she currently attends the school. I wanted to make sure that I got to her with this news before she heard it from anyone else. And my second thought was, how will this affect her? I mean, thinking back to how hard high school can be, imagine how it would be if one of your parents taught at your school and was fired for being gay. All that gossip and chatter...
You thought that might be difficult for her to deal with?
When I talked with Devynn, I first suggested she consider changing schools, because of the things people might say. But she said, "Dad, I don't want to change schools. And besides, if we change schools, they win." That's when it clicked in my head that we needed to fight this.
What were you feeling emotionally?
After the initial shock, we had a meeting with the assistant superintendent and the principal, and I asked a lot of questions: "Did I do something wrong?" "Did I break a rule?" "Did someone complain about my coaching?" When the answer to each was "no," I got very angry. I was being fired, simply for some old photos, taken in fun. I was a good coach, a great parent volunteer, and, I think, a pretty good dad. I just kept thinking, "Why is this happening to me?"
How did your partner react?
Hugo was very angry as well, wanting me to fight, but much of his anger was directed at the parent who had the issue with me. As a kid, Hugo had been bullied, and this experience of being made to feel "less than" really took him back to that same emotional place. At the same time, though, we also thought this would be resolved fairly quickly. Yet here we are, all these months later, still unresolved.
And now with a newborn baby!
Understandably, Hugo wants us to focus on our family, and I have to remind him that, for others out there, it will be easier for them if we see this thing through. If we don't fight this battle, we're just postponing it for someone else.
Prior to your termination, had others at the school known you were gay?
I don't hide that I'm gay, but I don't advertise it either. People have seen my partner at events, and we sit together, but if I'm coaching, it is all about the kids, and Hugo is up in the stands.
Had you experienced any other discriminatory incidents at the school?
Well, when Hugo and I went to Canada to celebrate our anniversary, we got engaged. When we returned home, some of the kids asked how the trip was and what we'd done, and I told them I'd gotten engaged. While no other specifics were given, another teacher came up to me and told me that my comment was out of line, as personal lives were to be kept completely separate from school. But just recently, the school's big outdoor sign announced the birth of a child to two of the teachers at the school, a heterosexual married couple...
So different rules do apply, depending on who you are...
Imagine, having such joy and all the emotions that come from pledging your life to another, as well as the possibility of having a baby with that person, and not being able to discuss it, when others clearly are allowed to.
I understand you've been contacted by others, including current and past teachers and students, who have also had issues at Charter Oaks.
One teacher contacted me who had a very similar experience, where it was made clear to him by the district that because he was gay, he wasn't wanted. Instead of fighting, he chose to go somewhere else. And he reached out to me to apologize, because if he had fought, perhaps this wouldn't have happened.
This whole thing is so odd to me, that you'd be fired for some photos of you with drag queens, or suggestively biting a corndog... I'm wondering, was there any unspoken fear that you were molesting kids or something? You know, the old belief that being gay meant you were automatically a pedophile?
You have to wonder... In my second meeting with the principal and superintendent, when we were discussing the photo of me with the drag queens, I asked the superintendent, "If this were a photo of me with some sexy cheerleaders, in their cute little sweaters, would we be having this conversation?" and he said, "No, because that is their uniform." When I pointed out that was discriminatory, the principal said, "Well, what if that picture was of a male teacher, posing with your daughter and her friends, all wearing wet swimsuits?" The fact that she brought up the link between kids and sexuality was really disturbing.
And these photos were taken several years ago...
Yes! And posted on Facebook and Myspace, then forgotten. But the larger point is, every single teacher at that school has gone to college. Every one of them has old photos, taken in fun, they'd rather forget. But I'm being singled out.
Aside from the parent who wrote the letter, do you have a sense if others don't want you there as well?
Everyone who has talked to me has been very supportive. Some may agree with him, but I'm not aware of it. What is interesting to me is that, when we held a vote for a new president of the aquatic booster board, this same man voted for me. I'm not sure if he had a change of heart, or it was peer-pressure, or what, but when everyone raised their hands to vote, he did as well, making it unanimous. People have to understand that when you put your kids into school, there will be kids there with gay parents -- that is a fact of life -- and we need to find ways to coexist with each other. We're not going away.
Given that nine months have passed since your termination, what affect has this had on your sense of self?
What was weird was that, prior to getting fired, I was feeling really great about myself and my role as coach. It seemed like the parents who saw me coaching their kids really valued my efforts, and I felt appreciated for who I am and what I contributed. You can't go undefeated, with a new group of kids, unless you are really connected with them. So to have all of that brushed aside, in a matter of minutes, was really devastating. But the immediate response from supportive parents afterward really helped me rally. People were calling, texting, emailing, wanting to know how they could help get me back.
Clearly, you'd made an impact with them.
The people who knew me had my back. But most of the people involved in all of this had never even had a conversation with me. The principal, for example, prior to firing me, had never met me! She made a snap decision, based on some photos taken years before. The assistant superintendent, prior to confirming my termination, had never met me. The school athletic director had never met me, as there had been a change in that position. All of this happened in a vacuum. Even the parent who wrote the letter and sent the photos to the school had never met me! But the people who knew me, supported me, and that made all the difference.
Given all of the stress you've been under and the attention you're getting from the press, what made you decide this was the time to adopt a baby?
With any adoption, you can't really control the calendar. Adoptions fall out all the time, so you just have to hope that it all works out. But having this baby has also helped me keep perspective. Yes, this lawsuit is important. Yes, we are going through with it. But I won't allow it to interfere with our family. Family comes first.
Tuolumne was born addicted to crystal meth, and had many medical issues as a result. Were you aware of the meth addiction, prior to the birth?
No. The birth mother was on probation and received random drug tests, and all the sonograms showed that everything was fine with the baby. But despite the clean reports, every bone in my body told me that this woman was a drug user. We had met the birth parents some months prior, but sensed some hesitation on the part of the birth father over putting the child up for adoption, and there were other red flags, which ultimately stopped the adoption.
So how did you reconnect?
The birth mom was then matched with another family, but five weeks before she was due, we got a phone call that the adoption had again fallen through. We were asked if we still were interested in adopting the baby, but we put some restrictions in place to ensure we were covered if any issues arose.
We insisted she go on MediCal, which ended up covering the hospital costs associated with the birth. If we hadn't had that, we couldn't have afforded the six weeks our baby was in the intensive care unit.
Was that all due to the meth addiction?
In addition to that, she experienced meconium aspiration, which caused hypertension in her lungs, which were shutting down. We think it was triggered by the birth mom, as the day before she delivered, she said that she was nervous and put meth in her coffee to calm down. We believe that is what put the baby under stress.
And after the birth?
Tuolumne was sedated for the first three weeks of her life, on a ventilator, and those drugs, combined with whatever she was dealing with from her birth mother, led to serious withdrawal issues over the next few weeks.
How is she now?
The good news is, the adoption has gone through, and the baby is getting healthier each day.
You've dealt with a lot over these last several months. As a gay parent, do you feel any added pressure to succeed?
Most people don't even think about how they live their lives, but as gay parents, we are aware that people are watching us. It is almost as if we have to be super parents. Some of that pressure we put on ourselves, of course, and some comes from others. With our newborn, for example, in the hospital she had to be fed every three hours. And I was at that hospital every three hours for two weeks straight to feed her. The nurses told me, "You are the first parent, ever, who has not missed a feeding." The bottom line was, it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman -- what matters is that you're a good parent.
And it sounds as if you are!
Well, the hospital liked us so much, they tried to get us to adopt another one!
Given all that you've been through, are you sure this battle with the school is one you need to fight?
You know, I look as this little baby and wonder, "What kind of world is she coming into?" We have to fight our battles and make life better for those who come after us. This is bigger than me. It's bigger than my family. It's about changing the culture at this school. We have a responsibility to make things better.
Follow Kergan Edwards-Stout on Twitter: www.twitter.com/edwardsstout