Natasha Sullivan is married to a man.
That makes it easy for the La Follette High School teacher to “pass” as straight, even though she identifies as queer. That changed a year ago, when she took part in the Madison Metropolitan School District’s first National Coming Out Day video, which featured LGBTQ+ staff sharing their coming out experiences.
“I spent a significant portion of my professional career hiding my status,” Sullivan said. “To be invited to participate in something that celebrates my identity and broadcasts it to the entire district was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.”
The video was “a really positive stepping stone,” Sullivan said, and helped her connect with her students on a new level.
“For my students, when I showed them the video, we have a good enough relationship, they’re young and brave, so they asked questions,” she said. “That was a really interesting and really cool process to be part of. I feel like it helped them relate to me a lot more.”
This year, some of the school’s students are the ones sharing their coming out stories in a video that was shared Friday. LHS junior McKenna Howard, who identifies as pansexual and was interviewed for the video, said it “feels amazing that the school is trying to include more LGBT youth and spread awareness of it.”
“This is a good way to spread some positivity and inform students who don’t know much about the LGBT community, those who are closeted and are debating to come out, and those who are like me who just want equal rights for all,” McKenna said.
MMSD director of instructional technology TJ McCray was the first face and voice featured last year, and he said he’s excited to add student perspectives to the conversation about coming out — especially for the students who aren’t in the video.
“We learn better, sometimes, from our peers,” McCray said. “Last year it was great having the adults but this year I think it’s even better having student voices so students can see themselves.”
The video is one of a few initiatives the district has added in recent years to support its LGBTQ+ students and staff, including 17 designated Welcoming Schools. Those buildings offer books and curriculum while focusing on creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students.
This year, the district has also joined the Out For Safe Schools program, which is featured in the video that debuted Friday. Sherie Hohs, the district’s LGBTQ+ social worker, said the district has trained more than 250 staff members through the program since August.
The Los Angeles-based initiative gives staff “very practical information to be visible allies for our LGBTQ-plus youth,” Hohs said, and more staff have expressed interest in future training sessions.
“Our teachers are huge allies in this district,” she said. “They are coming in on Saturdays, even though they have many other things to do … because they care about being visible allies.”
The video last year was distributed to all of the schools, and parts of it were shown to many classes — though it wasn’t mandated, said district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson, a gay woman featured in last year’s video.
Strauch-Nelson said she is “very open about my identity at work” and “very much out,” but the video last year was a different opportunity to share her coming out story “in a way that can hopefully provide some support for youth.”
“As someone who has gone through the coming out process and known how important it is to feel like there are adults who care and who are there for you and support you and also who have been through what you’re feeling, I think that’s really important,” Strauch-Nelson said. “It felt powerful to be able to share my own story in hopes that it would have the impact that I know it would’ve had on me.”
She and Hohs mentioned growing up in smaller towns and the lack of support they had through school when they came out. While that’s changing in many places, Hohs said, “It can still be scary for folks to really be open and affirmed.”
“We didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate our coming out process in this way,” she said. “We didn’t have parades, we didn’t have clubs that affirmed our identities. We were pretty silenced.”
This year, they reached out to the Gay-Straight Alliances at La Follette High School and O’Keeffe Middle School to help find students to feature in the video, and Hohs said both schools were glad to be part of the project.
MMSD assistant director of student services Amanda Kidwell recalled her coming out four years ago — while married to a man who she had a young child with — as “definitely hard, but it was also one of the best decisions I could possibly make to be able to be a healthy, functioning human.” The video allowed her to hear other peoples’ stories and, she hopes, helped students know that coming out can be a good experience.
“It’s really powerful to see such a variety of staff, in different positions, in different places, a variety of identities,” Kidwell said.
Celebrating those varying identities has helped La Follette's Sullivan feel lucky to work in Madison.
“I’m really appreciative to live in a place that I don’t have to hide a portion of my identity that really means something to me,” she said. “In this particular case, this is about who I love. Denying that feels really wrong. Being able to work for a district that not only won’t penalize me, fire me for my identity, but will celebrate my identity, it’s an awesome feeling.”
Technology director McCray, a black man, said it was also important for him to be a model for students of color in the district. He’s glad the video isn’t a “one-time thing,” and seeing the investment in programs like Out For Safe Schools is a sign the district is being “ongoing and intentional with this work” while continuing to add voices to the conversation with the video.
“Next year I’m hoping that we even consider including parents and how parents supported students when they came out,” McCray said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it grows.”