From Gay Teacher Who Left Kansas For Palm Springs, Lessons On Empowerment

Michael Hill did not expect the news of his departure from Kansas to go viral.

Hill was an art teacher and theater director at Nemaha Central High School in Seneca, population 2,048, up near the Nebraska border. On April 17, he posted Facebook photos of anonymous letters he’d received and wrote:

“I decided I needed to put these out there because people need to know this kind of ugly hatred still exists in the world only by confronting it can we end it. This was part of a pattern of harassment that started back in October 2017. As a result of this I made the difficult decision to pack up and make a huge leap of faith and moved to Palm Springs, CA.”

People shared his post, the papers around here wrote about him and soon it was national news.

“Mr. Hill was our art department,” the school district’s superintendent, Darrel Kohlman, told the Kansas City Star. “He was the director of our plays, and he did a very good job as a classroom teacher. We’re sorry not to have him anymore.”

The Seneca Police Chief, Jordan Weaver, said he believed the letters were real (because some commenters had suggested they weren’t), and that his department was taking the threats seriously and investigating.

Michael Hill letter 1The torment had begun after another Facebook post, last October, when Hill officially came out.

“I was guarded about what I posted, and I had several people who couldn’t see posts, so it didn’t get shared publicly, it didn’t get shared with friends,” he tells me. “But shortly after that is when some things started happening.”

Michael Hill letter 2

Besides the letters, someone had slashed his tires and written “faggot” in the dust on his car.

“It got to point where I was genuinely fearful of leaving apartment and going out after dark,” he says. “I lived off an alleyway and it wasn’t well-lit. I was genuinely afraid of leaving and going out and doing things.”

Under increasing stress, he took a few weeks of unpaid medical leave over the winter and then he resigned. By the time he posted the letters on Facebook, he was already gone.

Michael Hill letter 3

 

“I kind of figured some people around my former hometown would remark about it, but I never dreamed it would strike a nerve with people and that it would get that much attention,” Hill says. “I was shocked, surprised – a lot of thoughts went through my head.”

One of them was concern, because he wasn’t sure how the media attention would affect his search for a new job in California.

“But then I just felt very supported,” he says. “For the most part, people’s responses were, ‘Sorry you had to go through this.’”

It was hard for Hill to leave his home. He’s extremely close to his son, now a student at the University of Kansas, and his parents.

“But in the conversations that I had with them, they kept saying, ‘You need to go someplace where you can be safe. Go and be happy. That’s what we want for you.’”

Like some of the other people in No Place Like Home who grew up in small Kansas towns (in Hill’s case it was Sabetha, pop. 2,500), Hill married young and had children. He went to college for a couple of years, sat out for a while, and then finished school and started his teaching career.

“I had kind of always known about my sexuality but wasn’t ready to admit it to myself,” he says. “I had known even in high school in the 1990s that I’m gay. But it’s not easy to be gay in small rural communities.”

The good news is things have changed since Hill was in high school.

“For a younger person it seems like it’s more accepted,” he adds. “But for someone my age to come out who was married, that made it more challenging.”

Hill is in his mid-40s. He waited until his divorce was final to make his coming-out post on Facebook. He wasn’t in a relationship, but he was happy. Still, even without the ensuing harassment, he knew he would have to leave his home state.

“I knew that staying in small, rural Kansas wasn’t going to work for me. I knew I couldn’t be myself,” he says. “I would never have felt comfortable walking down street holding hands with somebody

A friend had invited him for a visit to Palm Springs last November. He fell in love with the place, and the friend is now his boyfriend. I’ve been to Palm Springs a few times, and I can confirm that in some ways it’s LGBTQ heaven. I’m actually a bit jealous.

But now there’s one less adult who could save a queer kid’s life in Kansas.

Here’s why Hill decided to come out:

“I had been reading a book called One Teacher in 10 (Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories), and was feeling very empowered by it,” he says. “I wanted to help my students who were LGBTQ or who were struggling with their identity and coming to terms with themselves to know they had someone they could turn to, could talk to, relate to.”

Hill says one student at Seneca High is openly gay.

“And then, shortly after I came out, I had a couple of students approach me and come out to me as well. They were trying to figure out how to come out to their parents. One girl said she was out to her parents but not to her friends. Another student is still very much struggling with how to come out to parents, friends and other people and just be her authentic self. So they confided in me.”

Hill’s service to the state’s educators went beyond being a confidant for those kids.

“Kansas and Seneca have lost a strong voice for their community,” says Amanda Voth, a member of the Kansas National Education Association board of directors. Hill had been a rising leader in the KNEA before he left, and Voth says he was one of the most caring teachers she’d ever met.

“He wanted what was the best for the teachers of the state of Kansas and his students. He was a consummate professional.”

“He’s a very talented guy,” adds Linda Brungardt, who taught for 23 years at Junction City High School (90 miles southwest of Seneca, near Manhattan) and, like Voth, got to know Hill while working him at a regional subgroup of the KNEA.

“I came to appreciate his intelligence, his creativity, his dedication to whatever he takes on. And he was fun.”

The last few years have been hard for Kansas educators, who’ve endured budget cuts and epic legislative battles and lawsuits over how the state funds public education. Brungardt says they need leaders like Hill.

“We’re losing teachers like crazy anyway because of poor pay and working conditions,” she says, “and not getting respect.”

And no matter what some anonymous Christian in Seneca might say about Biblical teachings, there are always going to be queer kids in Kansas who need adults they can trust.

GLSEN kids get photo taken
LGBTQ kids from Wichita high schools rally at the Kansas Statehouse in March 2018. “We’re doing this so that the trans students in northwest rural Kansas, in a town with a population of 1,000, can feel safe, valued and respected in school,” said one of their chaperones, Liz Hamor, of the Wichita chapter of GLSEN.

Brungardt knew there were LGBTQ kids at Junction City High School, even before she retired five years ago. She remembers a transgender student – struggling a bit for the right language, she describes this person as “a guy who wore dresses and lipstick” –  about 16 or 17 years old, who hung out in the library.

“I remember this person specifically because they were trying to be who they were,” she says. “They weren’t hiding it. That’s tough.”

She even remembers a young man in her daughter’s class who was gay. “I don’t think he came out until after graduation. I thought he was going to marry my daughter,” she says with a laugh.

When he first left Kansas, Hill says, he worried the LGBTQ kids at Seneca High would feel abandoned. But his anonymous tormentor might actually have strengthened their resolve.

“I’ve had a chance to talk to a couple of them since,” Hill says. “And I think they feel a little bit more empowered to stand up for their rights, to say, ‘He’s not the only one around here who’s gay and it’s terrible what somebody did.’”

And just a little current-events reminder: The future belongs to pissed-off high school kids.

C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

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