texasmonthly.com: What kind of research or background information did you gather before going to Bloomburg?
Pamela Colloff: I made some preliminary phone calls, but most of my research was gathered once I actually got to Bloomburg.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you end up spending there?
PC: I was there for five days, and I stayed in the neighboring town of Atlanta.
texasmonthly.com: How many times did you try to contact the people who didn’t respond to your interview requests (superintendent Jerry Hendrick, principal Billy Don Frost, and board members Jimmy Lightfoot and Ronnie Peacock, among others)? Was everyone else you contacted cooperative?
PC: In most cases I contacted the people who did not respond to my interview requests several times. When Hendrick and Frost did not return my calls, I visited the school unannounced and told the secretary that I would like to speak with them. I was told that they were in a meeting and were unavailable. I left my business card with her but never heard back from them. However, Hendrick did send me the minutes to several board meetings when I requested them. Everyone else I contacted was happy to talk.
texasmonthly.com: Why is this story relevant to Texas now?
PC: I think it’s always relevant when someone in Texas is being discriminated against. Until I started working on this story, I didn’t realize that gays and lesbians have no protection under Texas law from employment discrimination.
texasmonthly.com: What would you say is the most interesting aspect of the story?
PC: I was amazed that the school board went so far as to fire both women, and that two board members were so brazen about the whole thing. Lightfoot and Peacock talked openly about how Merry Stephens should be fired because she’s a lesbian, and then the board fired her and her partner, Sheila Dunlap, within a week of each other. It wasn’t a particularly smart way to go about things. But in the end, Stephens’s detractors got what they wanted: She doesn’t teach in Bloomburg anymore.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging thing you encountered while writing this story?
PC: Not being able to interview members of the school board or the superintendent. I wanted to better understand the way they looked at the situation.
texasmonthly.com: Was the town still talking about what happened to Merry Stephens and Sheila Dunlap when you got there?
PC: Yes, it was talked about a lot during the days leading up to the school board election, which is when I was there.
texasmonthly.com: How are Stephens and Dunlap doing? With both of them unemployed, are they still making ends meet?
PC: They are getting by on the money that the school district had to pay Stephens to settle the case and what they make from their concession stand. But Stephens will probably have trouble getting hired at another high school, so her career has been cut short. And they are both very hurt over what’s happened.
texasmonthly.com: Even though some people are second-guessing the decision to fire Stephens and Dunlap, why do you think nothing is being done about it?
PC: My guess is that it’s a combination of things. I think most people in Bloomburg don’t want to stir things up again. But I think there’s also a degree of prejudice there as well.
texasmonthly.com: Do you know what’s next for Stephens and Dunlap? Will they stay in Bloomburg until Dunlap’s son is finished with high school and then take off or are they planning on staying in Bloomburg for good, despite the prejudices that exist?
PC: When Dunlap’s son graduates from high school, they will have to decide whether to stay or go. Stephens was pretty philosophical about it; she wasn’t sure that moving was going to solve all their problems. She said, “Well, isn’t it pretty much the same everywhere?”