Collingswood's Jim DeSimone is an active member of PFLAG, a master preschool teacher in Camden and a member of the Sacred Heart parish in the city. This week he shares his thoughts on education, faith and the ongoing fight for gay rights.
Collingswood Patch: How has being a part of the Sacred Heart parish in Camden enhanced your life?
It's a pretty incredible place. I first went there probably over 10 years ago and it was about two years ago that I decided that that would be my home. It's a place of peace for me in Camden, because Camden is such a turbulent place and such a challenging place to work. It's good to go someplace where everybody is there for positive reasons and everybody is doing good things.
I feel like it's a place where I can be comfortable. I'm accepted as who I am. Within the Catholic church, it's not common that you find that. It's a place where I can be a part of the community. I've gotten to know so many different people who are doing so many incredible things.
Patch: What would you say to people who don't believe your Catholic faith is compatible with your identity as a gay man?
The first place to start is by saying that the majority of Catholics are in favor of gay rights. Overwhelmingly, that's what research tells us. The problem is that the Vatican is not necessarily there, and the people in the upper echelons of the church are not there. Some parishes are more accepting than others and individual priests are sometimes more accepting.
Being Catholic is not just your religion, but there's also a culture to it. I could choose to go to any other church, I could choose to convert to another religion, but it's not the same for me. Being Catholic is part of who I am, just as being gay is part of who I am.
To me, it's not really that they're incompatible. And if you want to get into things biblically, Jesus never said anything against being gay. All Jesus told us to do was to love one another and to do right by one another.
They way I look at it, if I do my best to live the gospel and live the way Jesus said we should live, then there's nothing incompatible about my being gay and Catholic.
Patch: Did your faith play a role in your decision to go from a career in mortgage banking to being a preschool teacher in Camden?
I guess in pretty much every decision that happens in my life there's an element of my faith. From the time I was a child, I had always wanted to go into the city of Camden and make a difference; I can remember as young as 12, wanting to do that.
Working in mortgages was never a career goal for me. As a matter of fact, I wanted to be anti-corporate; I always felt that corporate wasn't for me. When I started working for the mortgage company I was like, “Oh my God, I've sold my soul to the devil!” And what I realized that working for the mortgage company was a way for me to get my education.
I worked there for almost 10 years and they paid my way to get my bachelor's degree. They had a great tuition reimbursement program and I took full advantage of it.
When I finished my degree in 2006, I was reminded of my original goals of going to Camden and making a difference and I thought that teaching was probably a pretty good way to do that.
So I was emailing back and forth with a friend of mine and she said, “Why don't you look into Teach for America?” Well, I went online and Googled it in the morning, and by the afternoon I had already started my application.
When I received my acceptance letter for Teach for America and it said "Camden," I was so excited, because I had pretty much said to them, “If you don't give me Camden, I'm going to find another way to teach there.” But then I looked down further and it said Early Childhood, and I was like, “Oh no!” All I could think of was changing diapers and runny noses.
But I just went with it, and what's incredible is that I was once so vehemently against working in early childhood, and now I'm such an advocate for early childhood education. I recognize how important it is. Yeah there's some runny noses and changing of diapers, but I've fallen in love with the kids.
Patch: You are currently taking classes to earn a degree in educational leadership? Why is it important to make the jump from being a teacher to being an administrator? Do you feel you can effect a larger change from that position?
Absolutely. It's definitely a way to effect larger change and greater change and I feel there is a need for a change in leadership in many places. I've seen that there have been many years of us failing our students.
I feel that too often administrators are too far removed from the community, and they're also too far removed from teaching. I recognize that I am very active in the community and working with the teachers in the classrooms.
To me, the focus should always be on what's best for our students. The focus should always be based on research and knowledge about learning theory. Too often, decisions are made by administration that are based on intuition. Too often I hear administrators say, “I think.” Intuition is the lowest level of knowledge, and unfortunately, when we make decisions based on intuition, we fail students.
There are certain things we have no control over. We have no control over law or over how much money we have access to. But, we certainly have control over doing our best for our students within those confines.
Patch: You have a unique perspective on the city of Camden, one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. You teach there, you attend church there, and you serve as secretary for District 1 of Camden District Council Collaborative Boards, a public safety organization. How can people in this area help to revitalize Camden?
I think that it all comes down to people coming together. There are a lot of great things that happen in Camden. And I find that often there are small pockets of people who are doing great things, and then I find that there's another small pocket of people doing the exact same thing and they don't even know about each other.
There's a lot of racial and ethnic divide in Camden too and sometimes that's a part of it. Say this racial or ethnic group is doing this project and another racial or ethnic group is doing the same project, but they don't communicate. They don't have a connection.
Even from the city government side to the education side. There's not much collaboration between the board of education and the city. Education is a key to revitalizing any city. It goes hand in hand, your education system definitely talks about the value and worth of your community and I don't think there's enough collaboration between the people who are the key stakeholders. They don't work together, they don't even know each other, necessarily.
For example, the city council meetings are held the same night as the school board work sessions. Often times there's a conflict that you can't even go to both if you wanted to.
Patch: You have been an activist for LGBTQ rights for years, you're an active member of Collingswood PFLAG, and served for a time as president of Dignity Philadelphia, a religious organization for LGBTQ and allied Catholics.
Being so close to this movement, what is your sense of how things have changed during the last 10, 20 years? Has there been a lot of progress toward equality in your opinion? What are the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQ community currently?
I would definitely say that we've come quite a long way over the past 10-20 years. We had three states pass marriage equality [in the last election]!
And public opinion polls show that people, at least in our state, overwhelmingly favor gay marriage. That's just one indicator, I think.
But the fact that I talk to school teachers in other districts and they're okay with being out, at least with their colleagues, sometimes even with their students—that says a lot.
One of the things that's unfortunate though, when I look at Dignity. It used to be a very big organization back in the '70s and '80s because it was one of the few places where LGBTQ Catholics could go and worship. I went to Mass there last night and there were under 50 people there.
Patch: Do you think that's because they're being absorbed by other parishes or do you think it's because there's just generally been a falling off in Catholic worship?
I think it's probably a couple different things. One thing is, because other denominations have really opened up and embraced the gay community, I would say that that has taken away a lot of the need for an organization like Dignity. What I also find is that Dignity is more on the progressive side and some people who are LGBTQ Catholics and they really want to be traditional Catholics, they aren't really looking for something so progressive.
Also, I think a lot of gay youth are really turned off by the thought of a Catholic church. They don't want anything to do with a Catholic church or a Catholic organization. I think a lot of membership has dropped off because people are going elsewhere and they're able to go elsewhere.
When I served as president of Dignity, I used to say, “We need to be ready for our own extinction, because if we've been successful, then we're going to be extinct.” So we have to start looking at how we can be helpful. For me, a lot of it has to do with outreach.
Patch: Working in education, have you had any issues professionally because of your sexuality?
Camden has not come forward in the same way the rest of the state or the country has. In many ways it's similar to the way it was in the 1950s. There are teachers and administrators who will not come out, not even to their colleagues.
I'm out at work. A colleague outed me, but it was fine. He outed me to a parent who also happened to be gay, so it was a non-issue.
When I was working at the mortgage company I was out, but I had to make a decision, when I changed careers. I knew I was going into an atmosphere that was socially conservative. I had to think about what I was going to do. The last thing I need is some parent saying, “Oh he's gay and I don't want him around my child.”
I know that the laws protect me and the union should be protecting me, but at the same time do I need to go through the headache of dealing with that? So, I pretty much made the decision when I went to work in Camden, that I'd be honest; that if it came up, I'd be honest. But, of course, no straight person goes up to someone and says, “Hi, I'm straight.” So there's no reason for me to go up to someone and say, “Hi, I'm Jim, I'm gay.”
I kind of make sure it's not an issue. I mean, I'm secure enough that if it does become an issue it's going to be an issue for you, not me.
Patch: Do you have any advice for LGBTQ young people who may be reading this now and who are struggling with their identities, with fears that they may not be accepted by their friends and families? What would you say to them?
When we're in our PFLAG meetings very often those things come up. Sometimes it's a challenge when you have parents who come in and they are accepting or they want to be accepting, but they're struggling. Sometimes they're even frustrated with themselves. They say, “I feel like I'm mourning, but I don't want to be mourning, I want to be embracing.” There's a process of acceptance and a process of understanding that everybody has to go through.
The most important thing is to do your best to protect yourself. Understand emotional consequences and find your network. Find your people that you can be yourself with. If you truly don't feel like you can safely come out to certain people, then maybe that's the decision you have to make until you feel emotionally safe to do that.
I want to say, “Be true to yourself and come out and tell people who you are and be okay with it.” But, that's a hard thing to say. I can tell you that more often than not, I hear very positive stories. The majority of the time people are accepting and people are accepted.