Peter “Pete” Cahall, who has served as principal at D.C.’s highly acclaimed Woodrow Wilson High School for the past six years, became the subject of international news coverage in early June when he announced at the school’s LGBT Pride Day gathering that he’s gay.
Cahall’s coming out declaration came during his speech at a June 4 Pride Day event, which was held in the school’s spacious ground floor atrium. Several hundred students, faculty members, and administrators were assembled before him, and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), the first out gay person elected to the D.C. Council, were standing beside him.
“I have hid in the shadows for the last 50 years,” he said, adding that Gray’s outspoken support for LGBT equality and the warmth and support he has received from Wilson’s students, faculty and fellow administrators inspired him to “say what I need and must say today.”
Appearing nervous and exhilarated at the same time, Cahall declared, “Mayor Gray – I want to say publicly for the first time because of your leadership, care, and support that I am a proud gay man who just happens to be the principal of Wilson High School.”
In a June 16 interview with the Washington Blade, Cahall said his coming out was the culmination of a “long tumultuous journey” as a closeted gay man struggling with his identity beginning as a middle school student in New Jersey. It continued through his years as a high school and college athlete and early career as a physical education teacher and football coach in Virginia and North Carolina, he said.
Before recounting those early years Cahall told how much he was moved by the loud and prolonged applause and cheers he received by the students and his colleagues when he came out at the Pride event. Continued expressions of support in the days that followed lifted his spirits, he said.
“I can’t even describe how I feel now,” Cahall recounted while talking in his office. “I’m liberated, free, relaxed. And I just never expected how far reaching this has been,” he said.
“I’ve gotten emails from people in Australia, from Italy, from Canada. I’ve gotten emails and messages from educators across the country and from principals,” said Cahall.
“I’ve gotten a number of emails from parents across the country that have gay and lesbian kids that say how much their kid has been bullied and tormented and tried to commit suicide and I wish my son could be in a school like where you are with the acceptance in your community.”
On Monday, Cahall was recognized by President Obama at the White House during the annual White House Pride reception for LGBT rights advocates from throughout the country.
“Pete is here today,” Obama told the gathering in the White House East Room, drawing loud applause. “Because of his example, more young people know they don’t have to be afraid to be who they are; no matter who they love, people have their backs,” the president said. “So we’re proud of you.”
Cahall, 50, was born and raised in Mount Holley, N.J., an agricultural and factory town about 20 minutes by car from Philadelphia.
He recalls being bullied in middle school and subjected to anti-gay taunts before blossoming into a strapping six-foot, six-inch tall high school athlete who excelled on the football team and landed a full athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia.
“As long as I can remember I knew that I was gay,” he said. “I knew at five or six years old that there was something different with me. But I kept it inside.”
With that as a backdrop, Cahall said he remained deep in the closet during his college years and early career as a teacher and coach.
He remained in Charlottesville after graduating from UVA, beginning his career as an elementary school teacher in physical education. He soon began coaching at a nearby high school.
“I was assistant football coach, head wrestling coach and head track coach,” he said.
During his 10-year stay in the Charlottesville area, he returned to the university to earn a master’s degree in administration before taking a job as assistant principal at a high school in Greensboro, N.C. He was soon promoted to principal at a middle school in the same school district.
Two years later, Cahall said the administrator who hired him in Greensboro became superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md. With his parents’ health failing, he felt the need to move closer to the Southern New Jersey area where his parents lived to help them at a time of need. So he took a job as principal at Rocky Hill Middle School in Montgomery County.
He became principal at Watkins Mill High School two years later before being promoted to an administrative post in the district as director of school performance “where I worked less, got paid more and hated it,” he said.
“I was bored. I was dealing with adults with adult problems,” said Cahall. “And so that’s when I made it to Wilson High School.”
According to Cahall, then D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the controversial administrator who put in place major school reforms, hired him as Wilson’s principal at a time when the position became open.
Now, six years later, Cahall is credited with maintaining Wilson’s status as one of the city’s highest performing high schools, both academically and through its athletics programs. Although located in the city’s upscale Tenleytown section in Northwest Washington, Cahall is quick to point out that the school is among the most diverse racially and ethnically among the city’s public schools.
“We’re a magnet school that is the largest and most diverse,” he said. “We have 1,740 kids – 50 percent African American, 25 percent white, 16 percent Latino, 9 percent Asian. We’ve got kids from 80 different countries speaking 47 different languages. There’s no other high school like us.”
As Cahall and Alex Wilson, the school’s openly gay director of academic development, escorted a Blade reporter and photographer through the atrium toward the principal’s office, students flocked toward Cahall, yelling “Hi Mr. Cahall.” Several boys gave him the high five signal with their hands.
Wilson said that at least one of the students who greeted Cahall was among a group of students experiencing problems academically or personally that he mentored and closely monitored, meeting with their parents and doing all he could to boost their morale and desire to succeed.
“He calls them the Cahall kids,” Wilson said.
Although Cahall didn’t say so directly, his personal struggle over whether or not to come out during many years as an educator appears to have played a role in his interest in and empathy for students facing their own struggles academically or for other reasons.
“As a gay man, my quality of life was diminished because I could not be me,” he wrote in a two-page essay he shared with the Blade called “My Reflection of the Process of My Decision.”
“The last issue that I considered is my relationship with Jesus Christ,” Cahall wrote in his “reflection” essay. “Yes, I am a Christian. I have accepted Jesus into my heart and have asked for His forgiveness for my many sins.”
He added, “In all my formative years, I was told that homosexuals were going straight to hell. In hearing this I … kept asking myself, ‘If God created me as a gay man would he really then sentence me to hell?’”
Cahall credits a video he discovered just a few months ago that was produced by the gay son of a conservative preacher with debunking for him the “supposed evidence” that homosexuality is the ultimate sin.
He said the video’s producer, Matthew Vines, helped him get through the final impediment to coming out.
“After watching this video many times, I determined that the Word of God, The Bible, has been manipulated to support the religious contention that God hates homosexuals when, actually, God is a God of love,” he wrote.
“With that acknowledgement, I freed myself of the issues with which I struggled throughout my life,” Cahall said in his essay. “I was tired of living in the shadows. I was tired of not sharing my private life with my public life.”
He told the Blade that he’s committed as an out gay man – just as he was when in the closet – to continue to strengthen Wilson High School’s welcoming atmosphere.
“The one thing we at Wilson identify with is our diversity,” he said. “And we celebrate our diversity whether it’s sexual orientation, whether it’s skin color, race – religion. One of the things our kids do in our community is embrace the diversity and celebrate it and value it.”