She’s Here. She’s Queer. She’s Fired.
The residents of Bloomburg thought they had everything they could want in basketball coach Merry Stephens— until she moved in with another woman.
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In Bloomburg there isn’t a stop sign, or even a blinking yellow light, at the center of town—just a bend in a winding two-lane road that meanders through the woods toward the Arkansas state line. Every now and then a logging truck piled high with pulpwood rumbles by on its way to the paper mill, scattering twigs and pine needles onto the blacktop below. Otherwise the town is quiet. There is no Dairy Queen, or any diversions to speak of; the closest movie theater is thirty miles away, in Texarkana. Even Bloomburg’s 1A high school is too small and too poor to have its own football team. But every November, when teenagers scrawl “Go Wildcats!” in white shoe polish on the back windows of their pickups, the boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball teams try to make the town proud.
Bloomburg never had much to brag about until six years ago, when the school district hired a young coach out of Arkansas named Merry Stephens. She was the first female coach in Bloomburg history, and also one of its toughest. When just seven girls tried out for the Lady Wildcats during her first year in Bloomburg, Stephens had them practice by playing against the boys. If they were used to making fifty layups at practice, she told them to do twice as many. It wasn’t long before the Lady Wildcats started winning. Stephens led the team to the state playoffs three times, and in 2004, when the team had grown to 25 players, the Lady Wildcats made it all the way to the final four. “Half the town went with them,” said one parent of the six-hour drive to Georgetown, just north of Austin. “We’d never had a team do so well.” The Lady Wildcats didn’t win the championship, but they were welcomed back as heroes. When the team’s bus pulled into town, people stood on their porches and cheered, and the volunteer fire department led an impromptu parade.
But even after the local Wal-Mart named Stephens Teacher of the Year and the district had chosen her as its Coach of the Year no fewer than three times, many residents felt uneasy about her. Stephens, it was rumored, was a lesbian. And in an area where ministers preach against homosexuality from the pulpit and tracts denouncing the theory of evolution sit next to cash registers in convenience stores, Stephens’ sexual orientation was not an issue that most residents of Bloomburg, or its school board, could overlook. In December, just nine months after the Lady Wildcats had gone to the finals, Stephens was abruptly put on leave. The woman she lived with, a teacher’s aide and school bus driver named Sheila Dunlap, was dismissed. The board’s actions made this otherwise placid town of 374 people erupt in controversy and became the central issue of the school board election in May. “It’s divided this town,” said history teacher Thresha Jones. “You’ve got people who feel that Merry and Sheila were done wrong. And then you’ve got people who think that what the school board did was the only right thing to do.”
ANYONE WHO HAS LOOKED through the classifieds for a job is familiar with the fine print at the bottom of most help-wanted ads: “We do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Employers can add the words “sexual orientation” to the list, but Texas law does not require them to do so. In fact, Texas offers no legal protections in the workplace from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sixteen states have amended their employment laws to offer such safeguards, and seven others have mandated these protections just for their state employees; the Texas Legislature has not. Indeed, at the Capitol this spring, the mood was hardly magnanimous when it came to homosexuality. Both the House and the Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment, which voters will decide on in November, to ban same-sex marriage. (State law already prohibits it, but legislators want to go further by adding a provision to the constitution.) And while issues like school finance and balancing the budget languished, the House made it a priority to pass an amendment to the Child Protective Services reform bill that both required foster parents to disclose their sexual orientation and barred gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents. (The Senate version of the bill removed this requirement.) Of the four House bills that would have outlawed employer discrimination against gays and lesbians, all died in committee.
In Bloomburg, Stephens did not become the target of employer discrimination until several years into her tenure there, after she had been made the school’s athletic director. But the whispering started not long after she began coaching the Lady Wildcats, in the late summer of 1999. Stephens was pretty and vivacious, and at 34, she was old enough to have a husband and kids. So why wasn’t she married, people wondered? “They would ask me, ‘Is your boyfriend coming to the next ball game?’ or ‘When are you planning on settling down?’” Stephens said one afternoon this spring as we talked in the two-story log house outside town that she shares with Dunlap. “I’d have to change the subject or talk about the last boyfriend I’d had. If I told the truth, I knew my career would be over.” Still, as months and then more than a year passed without any sign of a boyfriend, the tomboyish Stephens remained the subject of gossip and innuendo. When she began spending a lot of time with Dunlap, it only fueled speculation. Who had sent her that bouquet of flowers at school? And what about her and Dunlap? Hadn’t they been sitting awfully close to each other at the last basketball game? “The talk of the town was ‘Are they or aren’t they?’” said Anna Doll, the owner of a local beauty salon, Style’n. “It’s been a five-year-long gossip session.”
Secrets are hard to keep in a town whose residents are nearly all related by blood or marriage. At Style’n, and over morning coffee at the Shell Mart, the talk was that Stephens and Dunlap were an item. Dunlap was an unlikely person to have the town talking; a reserved mother of two who was born and raised in Bloomburg, she had never lived anywhere but her hometown. She had married her high school sweetheart during her junior year, when she was seventeen; at the time, she was a forward for the Lady Wildcats. But she had been unhappy in her marriage for many years, and at the end of 1999 she filed for divorce, separating from her husband of 24 years. A year later, Stephens moved in. “We had become friends at school, and then we started spending a lot of time together outside of school,” said Dunlap, who was in charge of keeping the scoreboard at the Lady Wildcats games. “It just got to where we didn’t want to be apart.” For a while, she and Stephens denied that they were romantically involved; the recently divorced Dunlap needed someone to share expenses with, they told people who were nosy enough to ask, and Stephens, who had been commuting from her home an hour’s drive away, needed a place to live. “People knew, but they didn’t know for sure,” Dunlap said. “Besides, it wasn’t nobody’s business but ours. We went to school, we did our jobs, and we came home.”
But at least two members of the school board, Jimmy Lightfoot and Ronnie Peacock, made it their business. Lightfoot, who is Dunlap’s uncle, was not happy about the fact that Stephens had moved in with his niece. “Jimmy Lightfoot and I would walk laps around the track at school when I moved back here from Texarkana,” said Suzanne Bishop, a well-liked grandmother who challenged Lightfoot for his seat on the school board this spring. “He said, ‘Merry Stephens has to go.’ He told me several times that he didn’t think Merry Stephens should be teaching kids because she had broken up a family.” (Dunlap denies that was the case.) Peacock was equally blunt. In a deposition taken this February, former Bloomburg school board president Derous Byers recalled that Peacock had told him several times that the board should terminate Stephens’s contract because she was a lesbian. “I’ve told him that you cannot fire anyone based on their lifestyles,” Byers testified. “He made the comment that we’re bonded or insured for a million dollars apiece and that we ought to fire her and see what happens.”
LIGHTFOOT AND PEACOCK would find an ally in Jerry Hendrick, the school’s guidance counselor. When Bloomburg’s superintendent retired in 2003, they supported Hendrick’s getting the job. Although he was not certified to be a superintendent, he quickly set a new tone, demoting Stephens from athletic director to coach and cutting her salary by several thousand dollars.
Stephens had not received a single reprimand during her four years in Bloomburg, but once Hendrick was promoted, she was called into his office or the principal’s on an almost daily basis. “They singled me out,” said Stephens. “I think they thought I would leave if they made my job miserable enough.” The harassment was also obvious to many of her colleagues. “The administration was determined to get rid of her,” said teacher Thresha Jones. “They would create things to write her up on so they could put it in her file.” Jones remembers when Stephens missed a day of school so she could attend her grandmother’s funeral; although the protocol was to inform the school secretary of a planned absence, which Stephens had done, she later received a stern written warning for failing to tell Hendrick himself. “If she ran to the store for five minutes, she was written up, but none of us ever were,” said Jones. “She was held to a different standard.” Some parents were troubled by what they saw as well. “She was put under the microscope at school, at basketball practice, at every game,” said Style’n’s Anna Doll, whose son graduated in May. “They made her life a living hell.”
By the end of the 2003—2004 school year, the pressure had become too much. Although Stephens was at the height of her career—the Lady Wildcats had gone to the finals only a couple months earlier—she was sleeping little, and for the first time in her life, she had begun to have panic attacks. Burned out, she decided to apply for a classroom position in hope of diffusing the situation. “I thought if I stopped coaching and got out of the limelight that the harassment would stop,” she said. “That was very hard for me, but I was desperate.” Stephens was given seven classes to teach starting last August, including an upper-level science course—an unusually heavy workload that often required her to put in eighteen-hour days to finish her lesson plans and grade homework. Dunlap became persona non grata as well. “Hendrick sent word through his secretary that my office was to be moved into a broom closet,” said Dunlap. “It had no heat or air and no room for a desk. Rain came in through the ceiling. I think Hendrick thought that I would quit right then and there, but I took it as a challenge. I decided I was going to do my job so well that they couldn’t fire me even if they wanted to.”
But on December 8, Dunlap was suddenly let go. “I asked Hendrick, ‘You’re firing me for what reason?’ and he couldn’t name one,” Dunlap said. Like most of the school’s support staff—from the custodian to the cafeteria workers—Dunlap was an “at will” employee and had no recourse; under Texas law, she could be fired without cause. After fifteen years of being entrusted to drive the district’s children to school, Dunlap was given less than an hour to pack up her things. Five days later, Lightfoot made a motion to fire Stephens as well. The school board voted 4—3 to begin proceedings to terminate her contract, alleging insubordination; Stephens was told to hand over her keys and grade book and was put on administrative leave. But when Michael Shirk, an attorney with the Texas State Teachers Association, began to take depositions in preparation for a hearing on Stephens’s proposed termination, it became apparent that the district had no case; unlike at-will employees, Texas teachers cannot be fired without cause. “What doomed these administrators from the start was their hubris and obvious bigotry,” noted Shirk. (Hendrick, principal Billy Don Frost, Lightfoot, Peacock, and other board members did not respond to interview requests for this story.) The district settled with Stephens and paid out the last year and a half of her contract after she agreed not to pursue any further legal action.
For Stephens, what stings the most is the belief held by some in Bloomburg that her sexual orientation made her unfit to teach. Helping to bolster this view was the fact that a former player of Stephens’s, who had since left for college, announced last year that she was a lesbian. In a move that Stephens believes sealed her fate with the administration, the girl’s parents met with the school board early last December and laid the blame for their daughter’s sexual orientation on her former coach. “I know that some people in Bloomburg think that being gay is contagious,” said Stephens. “And they think that whatever the school district had to do to buy out my contract was money well spent. But why on earth would I want any student of mine to be gay and have to go through the hell that Sheila and I have?”
IN THE END, THE SCHOOL board’s actions left many in Bloomburg uneasy. One of them was Tim Reed, the pastor at First Baptist Church. “Some folks here are proud of what happened,” he said as we talked in his office this May, two days before the school board election. “But there’s nothing to be proud of about what happened here.” Reed is not exactly liberal when it comes to social issues; for starters, he preaches that homosexuality is a sin. “But unless we’re going to remove every abomination from the school district, I don’t see why we should focus on one at the exclusion of all others,” he said. “Maybe we should have a crusade against gossipers too. Let’s cut their tongues out and run them out of town! There might be three of us left.”
In April, Reed had delivered a sermon that caused something of a sensation in Bloomburg. If Merry Stephens and Sheila Dunlap ever walked through the doors of First Baptist Church, he had instructed, members were to stand up, offer the women a seat, and make them feel welcome. “It’s easy to condemn people when you haven’t walked in their shoes,” he reminded the faithful. He went on to preach from John 8:7, in which Jesus cautions a mob that is preparing to stone an adulterous woman to death: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” Reed gave his flock a meaningful stare from the pulpit and asked, “Who among you can cast the first stone?” His message resonated in Bloomburg, where some had begun to wonder aloud why certain school board members, who had been all too willing to sit in judgment on Stephens and Dunlap, did not cast a more critical eye on their own human failings. Others were upset that the school board had voted to remove Derous Byers as its president shortly after he gave his deposition in Stephens’s case. And still others pointed to the fact that the district had urgent business to attend to; the district’s accountability rating had dropped from “exemplary” to “acceptable.”
The school board election on May 14 became a referendum of sorts. Lightfoot was up for reelection, and one of his challengers was Suzanne Bishop, who had criticized his handling of the firings. Perhaps sensing that it might be a tight race, Lightfoot ran a half-page ad in the newspaper, next to a letter written by his pastor at New Hope Baptist Church. The pastor didn’t mention Stephens and Dunlap by name, but he might as well have. “If we don’t stand for God’s standards, He will remove His blessing from the school and the city,” it read. “If Believers hide from the sin and pretend not to see it, God will send His judgment…If you live in the Bloomburg School District you need to vote and have your voice heard!!!”
At seven o’clock in the evening on election day, when all the votes had been cast, locals gathered in the parking lot of Bloomburg High School to await the results. Lightfoot nervously circled the parking lot in his car. Peacock, whose term will be up next year, watched the proceedings from his front yard, across the street. Stephens and Dunlap had decided to get out of town for the weekend; both unemployed, they had driven to a county fair outside Beaumont to operate a concession stand. It was a way to pay the bills, since moving is not an option; although Dunlap’s daughter is grown, her son, who lives in town with his father, is still in high school. And for all the second-guessing that had swept through Bloomburg about the way in which the school board had stripped Stephens and Dunlap of their careers, there has never been talk of giving either of them her job back.
“There are more people here than at a ball game!” one woman exclaimed as she surveyed the forty or so people in the school parking lot.
“We should have brought our folding chairs,” said another.
At half past seven, Jerry Hendrick strode outside and announced that Suzanne Bishop had won handily, with 135 votes. Coming in a close second was a more conservative challenger, Brian Cloninger, who would get the other empty seat on the board. A cheer went up from the crowd as each name was called out. Of the five candidates, Lightfoot came in a distant last.