Exclusive: Lauren Brown Talks with PQ Monthly about St. Mary’s Academy Headlines

Update, 12:05 p.m. Thursday: In response to St. Mary’s Academy, Lauren Brown has released the following statement:

“The students, parents, and alumni of St. Mary’s Academy should be so proud today. In 24 hours, they came together to speak up for what they know is right. This success shows that together we really can move mountains. I hope other places in the U.S. and around the world will take notice and feel encouraged by what happened here in Portland. We are all agents of change when we put forth the effort. No one can erase the past, and the last month of my life has been very difficult. Many people want to know if I will get my job back. Unfortunately, St. Mary’s stated last night that they filled the position with someone else, but also that they will be reaching out to my attorney and me in hopes of “reconciliation.” Although we have not yet been contacted, I am open to listening to what they have to say. I know now that my intuition about St. Mary’s Academy was true all along. The St. Mary’s community is a safe, loving environment for students, and I am humbled that those students took such a strong stand for me. I only wish the administration’s change in heart had happened a month ago so I could be working with these inspirational students this year. Nonetheless, I am glad to know that what I experienced will never happen again at St. Mary’s, and I am overjoyed that the current LGBT staff members can now feel secure knowing they can be out at work.”

Ed. Note: On Wednesday evening, St. Mary’s Academy posted the following update to their Facebook page. Shaley Howard’s interview with Lauren Brown, conducted earlier Wednesday, follows the statement:

Important announcement from St. Mary’s Academy President Christina Friedhoff and the Board of Directors:

This evening the board of St. Mary’s Academy voted unanimously to support the administration’s recommendation to amend and broaden St. Mary’s policy on equal employment, bringing our employment policies in line with our mission and beliefs. Effective immediately, St. Mary’s has added sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity policy.

St. Mary’s is a diverse community that welcomes and includes gay and lesbian students, faculty, alumnae, parents and friends, including those that are married. We are proud of our work preparing the next generation of women leaders for service and leadership. We are still deeply committed to our Catholic identity.

By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly

In their mission statement St. Mary’s Academy, a top college-prep Catholic school for women in downtown Portland, claims to encourage diversity and social justice. According to recent actions by St. Mary’s President Christina Friedhoff, Principal Kelli Clark and Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, that does not include openly gay LGBT.

Lauren JugglingLewis & Clark graduate and 27-year-old Lauren Brown recently accepted a job at St. Mary’s as a college counselor but had the job offer withdrawn a few months afterward because she is openly gay.

Shortly after Brown’s job offer was withdrawn, the school sent out a letter to parents of St. Mary’s students. In it Friedhoff said:

“We understand that others may hold different values, and we respect the right of individuals in a society to do so. At the same time, as a Catholic high school we are obligated to follow current Catholic teachings regarding same sex marriage in our employment practices. … This is not an easy situation. As with all matters of faith, we strive to live out the values of the Gospel while struggling with the complexities of today’s world. We serve a diverse community of young women of all faiths and will continue to be a welcoming place for your daughters.”

As long as they’re not openly gay.

St. Mary’s students, alumni, parents of students and the community are overwhelmingly up in arms about this decision, with the school being inundated with phone calls and messages of disappointment. Even Mayor Charlie Hales released a statement today, saying,

“Portland is a city that embraces rights and opportunities for everyone. Those aren’t just nice words. They are also the law. We believe St. Mary’s Academy, and every other public, private and nonprofit organization in the city, should follow the letter and the spirit of the law, and our shared values.”

PQ Monthly spoke with Brown and her attorney, Gloria Trainor, about how she found the job and what has happened with St. Mary’s.

PQ Monthly: How did you find this job and do you have a background with Catholicism?
Brown: I don’t have any background with Catholicism. I’ve been with Lewis & Clark for the last five years and worked primarily with private schools that quite often were all-girl Catholic schools. I created lasting relationships with the counselors and students at these schools and thought there would be a great environment for me to work in. I really wanted to be a college counselor. In fact, it’s my dream job. I only found the job at St. Mary’s by looking on their website and saw the college counselor position. This was a great opportunity for a wonderful school and community that really focuses on social justice. I was not required to be Catholic to apply for this job. They seemed really progressive and focused on social justice.

PQ: You were offered and accepted the position back in April. How did the retraction of the job position occur?
Brown: I received the email with questions intended as a sort of biography [to] be used as a way for employees and the community to get to know me. In it they asked me to tell them about my spouse and children, etc. That raised the question of my sexual orientation. I didn’t think I was expected to be closeted but I did think, being a Catholic school, they would have some sort of rules or guidelines I would have to follow when it came to my sexual orientation. In the first phone call with the principal I told her that I had a girlfriend and asked what was their policy. Her first statement to me was, “It’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy.’”

I had never had those words directed towards me and she just kept repeating them. I said I look very straight and people ask me about my boyfriend all the time. So from my perspective people are going to ask. What should I tell them? Do I have to go to school functions alone? What if I get married? I never said I was married or going to get married. I was just inquiring what would happen if I did. Initially she said, “This is a new generation. We’ve never been here before but you have my full support.” So from that first conversation I thought, okay, I can be patient; I can be an agent of change and be a great role model. She also said I would not be the only gay staff member at St. Mary’s—when those staff members bring their partners to staff functions, everyone is happy to meet them. They introduce them as their “friends.”

PQ: What happened in the second phone conversation on July 30?
Brown: That’s when Principal Kelli Clark told me it may not work out. When I asked her about the other gay staff members and the fact that you told me they have partners that come to events, Clark’s response was they had never told her they were gay. So since I told her using words that I was gay, she had to report it.

Letter to parents St Mary'sPQ: What was your reaction when you found out the job offer was withdrawn?
Brown: I freaked out. I got really nervous because during that second phone conversation she said the job may not work out. They congratulated me and welcomed me to St. Mary’s back in April when I got the job. I left my job at Lewis & Clark July 6 to take the job at St. Mary’s, so at this point I was out of a job and the job I thought I had was being withdrawn. During that phone conversation she wouldn’t tell me one way or another why exactly my job offer was being retracted. We ended up scheduling a meeting for August 4 with Clark and President Christina Friedhoff. That was the first time I found out what was happening to my future. It was three-and-a-half hours long.

PQ: What happened during that three-hour meeting on August 4?
Brown: I’m not an easily offended person but I felt very hurt. When they kept trying to get me to sign the separation contract and kept saying, “What will make you feel whole again to go on with my life?” They acted like money was the only option they were allowed to offer me. I questioned why they were offering me money and they said they didn’t have to give me money; they were doing this to be nice. But I knew the money was in exchange for signing the contract and silence.

They wanted me to tell people it just didn’t work and we just went our separate ways. I told them I can’t say that. People would not believe I just walked away from this job without reason, especially since I was very excited and told all my friends and family back in April this was my dream job.

PQ: Was there anything in the contract referencing your sexual orientation?
Brown: In the first draft of the separation contract there was nothing in it that had to do with sexual orientation or why I was being fired. I wasn’t okay with that. Then they said I could tell people since I had said I intended to marry a woman that it went against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The thing is, I’m not engaged, I’m not married. I never told them that. I just asked the question, “What if?” It was never about marriage until the contract showed up. Before I said anything, they were apparently okay with people being gay or marrying someone of the same sex on staff as long as no one came forward and said it publicly. The principal told me that they have LGBT staff members there. I asked about their status. She said they also don’t have the right to work at a Catholic school.

PQ: How much pressure did you feel while in the meeting, especially after being offered such a large amount of hush money and benefits?
Brown: That’s a lot of money. I had to stand up for myself a lot. They had a check already made out in my name for over $40,000 if I signed. My girlfriend and I were looking into buying a house before all of this and had even talked with a broker. Looking at that check that they had with my name on it already, I couldn’t help thinking that’s a down payment, that’s paying off student loans, that’s so much. They said it would be great if we could sign this contract today. And I said no. They did not expect a fight.

Gloria Trainor, Brown’s attorney: It’s also really difficult to imagine how many people can’t walk away from a year’s salary and benefits so they might have to stay silent. She is amazingly brave and has a lot of integrity. And that’s one thing that is not lost on her in terms of being entitled—the ability to say, “No, I’m not going to take more than $40,000 and a year of health insurance and benefits to be silent.”

PQ: What happened when you wouldn’t sign their separation contract?
Brown: They seemed nervous. They said they thought I was smarter than that (in regards to possibly suing instead of signing the contract). I asked them about the Eastside Catholic school up in Washington where a vice principal was fired after being outed as a married gay man. Clark said that is not St. Mary’s. They said my legal suit would not hold up in court because it’s very different than what happened at Eastside Catholic.

PQ: They are claiming to have LGBT staff members and students yet they do not openly support them?
Brown: They told me they support their LGBT students but not the LGBT staff members. I asked how and they said they have a “club” and it’s called the geography club. Thinking it’s some secret LGBT club I tried to find it but it’s not listed on their website. But I was told by two sources that yes, they do have a club and it’s called the geography club.

PQ: In light of everything that has happened, is there a message you would like to share?
Brown: The support from the students and alumni at St. Mary’s has been humbling. My focus right now is making sure the students at St. Mary’s are supported. This decision sends a hurtful message to them. These girls need to know that every one of them is worthy and every one of them deserves happiness, success and the right to the future they wish to create for themselves. I have been truly blessed and humbled by the support and call to action from the St. Mary students and alumni. Students, you matter. Please continue to be yourselves no matter what. You have a voice. Make your voice heard.

This is honestly my first true experience with discrimination. I came out in a really privileged time. It breaks my heart to know this is happening all around the world. In our schools that should be a safe haven for all students and staff members. But I do believe in the golden rule—to love your neighbor as yourself. I believe I do that but I don’t believe they are doing that right now.