Since age 26, Dr. David Wain Coon has been open personally and professionally about his sexual orientation. “I wanted my students to have the role model I didn’t have when I went through my education.”
But his application for the presidency of Evergreen Valley College more than five years ago marked the first time he disclosed his orientation during the hiring process. He decided to do so in the first round of interviews when he was asked by search committee members if he’d ever been discriminated against and how he’d dealt with it.
“I told them that as a gay man, I’ve been marginalized many times,” Coon recalled. “But despite having this pink background behind me, I also have White male privilege and I’ve used that to bridge gaps.”
He said that right after he’d said “gay man,” he intentionally paused and studied the faces of his interviewers. “No one looked away or got uncomfortable. I didn’t lose anyone. This was a good sign. I also think I would have had no cultural capital if I hadn’t come out.”
Coon’s remarks came Thursday during the annual leadership congress of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). The four-day convention, held in San Francisco, offers education and training programs. ACCT is composed of more than 6,500 elected and appointed trustees who govern over 1,200 community, technical and junior colleges.
Among the workshops and panels was a session entitled, “My CEO is Gay! Or Lesbian!?” There, trustees and high-ranking educators of two community college districts discussed the importance of encouraging presidents and chancellors to be open about their being gay or lesbian.
“Secrets can be used against you,” said Rosa Pérez, chancellor of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District. “Secrets can kill.”
Pérez added that remaining closeted can lead to unnecessary isolation among executives at her level, resulting in alcoholism, addiction and in some cases, irreversible tragedy. “I knew one excellent college president who took her own life.”
Trustees speaking Thursday agreed that gay and lesbian executives are de facto role models for students and members of the community. One example, they said, is Dr. DeRionne Pollard, president of Las Positas College, a Black lesbian with a partner and child.
Hal Gin, board president of Chabot-Las Positas Community College District, recalled remarking to someone during the presidential search how Pollard clearly shone as a candidate.
“That person reminded me that Livermore is an old cowboy town,” Gin said, referring to the conservative California city perhaps best known for the scientific lab focusing on nuclear weapons research. “But DeRionne has been a true educator since she came to work for us. She has educated the entire community about tolerance simply by doing her job. We look to her as a beacon of hope because we know there’s an invisible population out there.”
Randy Okamura, board president of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, said when governing boards support their openly gay executives, the latter are better able to focus on their jobs. “In our district, we support students who are undocumented residents, which is a hot issue in of itself. I don’t need for Rosa to worry about someone hassling her just because she is lesbian. I don’t need for someone to hassle David just because he might be seen at a gay bar.”
Pérez conceded that executives who are ethnic minorities often face additional complications by coming out. “Many of us have religious or cultural backgrounds that keep us closeted. And with so much anti-immigrant sentiment in this country right now, there’s pressure to keep intact the dignity of our families.
“But you are no less Latina if you come out,” Pérez said. “You are no less of a college president if you come out.”