Perkins is a public high school teacher in Spokane. Like Jim West, he grew up in Eastern Washington in the late '50s - early '60s when there was little discussion, and less tolerance, of homosexuality. Like West, he had a "hidden life," unable to come out to friends or family. But unlike West, Perkins began to open up about his sexuality a few years ago and is now openly gay. He describes the pain of leading a double life, his slow process of coming out and his anger at West for his hypocrisy and support of anti-gay legislation. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Nov. 10, 2005
Update, Nov. 21, 2007: On Nov. 13, 2006, the day before the first broadcast of FRONTLINE's report, Peter Perkins was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of "accusations of inappropriate use of school district computers," according a Nov. 20, 2006 Spokesman-Review article. FRONTLINE learned of the allegations from that article but decided not to comment on the case until the end of the investigation. On Nov. 13, 2007, the Spokesman-Review reported that the school district had concluded in late October that there was probable cause to fire Perkins. Perkins has appealed the decision. Pending the appeal hearing, which has yet to be scheduled, he remains on paid leave.
[Where did you grow up?]
Well, I grew up in Walla Walla, [Wash.]. It's a small farming community south of here. ... It's a nice little Leave It To Beaver kind of community.
And did people talk about homosexuality at all?
I don't recall even hearing anything about homosexuality growing up until probably high school. I knew I was gay when I was 13, but there was nobody around that could tell me what that meant. There [were] no teachers that I knew were [gay]; I didn't know any other kids that were. ... Homosexual: I'm not sure I even heard that word in its entirety. Might have heard the word "homo" or "smear the queer" -- that was a game [similar to tag] that was popularly played out on the playgrounds at that time.
What about in high school? Did things change in high school?
No. I dated. I hid. I was headed toward becoming a Catholic priest. I'm one of eight kids. I wasn't the extra child, so to speak, but I was the one that people [would] say, "Well, you should become a priest. You're good with people; you're a good listener," those sorts of things. "Why don't you go ahead and become a priest?"
The dating was social, but it was this idea that I could go ahead and go into the seminary, and in some ways it was kind of like, well, then I don't have to deal with those other aspects of my life. Part of the reason I left the seminary, though, after a semester was I didn't think I wanted to hide in there. If I was going to make the choice, it was going to be for the right reasons, not to hide. ...
Do you think your parents had any suspicious that you were gay?
My mother did. I was about 35, 36 years old when I finally came out. My mom said she already knew. My father, he had been a clerk typist in World War II. He had been somebody [who] typed up the dishonorable discharge papers at Fort Lewis, [Wash.], for people who had been caught being gay, and you would think then he would have some idea, but he was probably the most clueless.
What was his reaction?
His reaction was he wanted to hug me. But I told him: "No, you have to hear what it felt like, the words that you said as it relates to being gay that hurt me. Then you can hug me." ...
What were those words?
I was watching a documentary on the AIDS [Memorial] Quilt, and I have a cousin that died of AIDS, also a gay man, and I was watching it with my mom and my dad and my aunt, and my aunt made a statement about [how] they deserved what they got, and my father said something along the same lines.
“I know how much energy it takes to lead two lives, to put a face to the world and then to have this other piece of your life.”
I couldn't sleep, and finally I went to my parents and said, "That could have been my name on a panel on that quilt." I said, "I'm gay." So that's when my dad wanted to hug me, and I said no. Finally, I hugged him and kissed him, and I hug and kiss him every time I see him now.
It was strange. When I was young, about the same time when I found out, about 12 or 13, I used to go into my parents' bedroom every night and kiss them both good night. I stopped kissing my father good night about that time. After I came out I kissed him again, and every time I see him I do. ...
What do you think the prevailing attitudes were about gay people 20 or 30 years ago?
Twenty, 30 years ago, I think we were still suffering the lingering effects from what happened 50 years ago here in Spokane. ...
In 1948, the police got a confession from a guy by the name of Donald Brown, [who] was a prominent businessman. ... Brown allegedly confessed to having committed sodomy with a 24-year-old from Portland, Ore. According to the newspaper accounts, there was also a doctor and some other people who were scooped up in this police net. The doctor eventually committed suicide. Newspaper accounts said that he did the right thing.
But it went to trial, and so by 1949 the prosecuting attorney, in his instructions to the jury, said, "If you don't convict him, this will become a city of sodomy." Brown was convicted on two counts, 10 years in the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. This was during the height of the Cold War and a year before Jim West was born. ...
Spokane is very insular. It has this idea of itself of being kind of a small town but having some of the advantages of being a larger town. People boast about it being a place where you can raise a family. ...
What you didn't have was a lot of people coming in from other places. [There was a] group of gypsies that came in, and the police escorted them out of town. If you were different, you were given, so to speak, the "bum's rush," get you out of town.
Was there a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" culture here?
I think there was some tolerance as long as it didn't bubble up to the surface, as long as you kept it quiet. ...
So put yourself in the place of a young Jim West, who's maybe starting to suspect he has homosexual feelings. Does it make sense to you that he would have suppressed those feelings?
Oh, yeah, because there's no outlet. There was nobody that would have been visible in the community. I mean, this was a community that took somebody who was a prominent businessman and threw him in jail for what is essentially a private act. So there's nobody that's going to risk that. Why would anybody else in the community after that say, "I'm here, I'm queer, got any questions"? There wouldn't be anybody on the horizon for that. There would be nobody to go to. ...
What about you? When you came to Spokane, you were in the closet. Why didn't you tell your friends and family and associates?
I kept it pent up for a very long time. I feared rejection. I think rejection is the thing that people fear the most. I feared rejection of losing my job. I feared rejection, that members of my family would not have anything to do with me, or that they'd tell their children to stop talking to me. I stayed in this area because of family, and yet it was the risk of exposure to family that was causing me a great deal of pain.
You didn't tell your parents for a long time. Why not?
Part of the reason why it took me so long to tell my parents is because they are very strong Catholics. ... The Catholic Church position is that you can be gay; you just can't do anything that's gay. In some respects, I think I accommodated to that, and I struggled with it, and finally just said, "I can't hide it; I can't stay in that closet anymore." And if it means that they say to me, "You can't come to church," I guess that's the worst that they can do. ...
I just came out to one of my brothers this summer, and he throws the Catholic line at me, tells me, "Well, we all sin." And I'm like, "Well, telling me that we all sin is one thing, but when the Catholic Church tells me that I'm gay but I can't do anything about it is like parking a Ferrari in my driveway but telling me I can't drive it."
Why did you wait so long to tell your brother?
He lives in a small town, a small, conservative town, and he has four children. I wanted to wait until those children were old enough that when they had the information they could decide if they wanted to have anything to do with their uncle. It was painful.
When I finally did come out to my brother, he said, "I already knew." It was a circumstance in which my nephew was going to be coming up and staying with me for a couple days. My brother had already told him, and my nephew says: "Well, I love my uncle. I want to go up there." That was important. It was difficult. ...
Aside from your family, did you have fears about what people would say to you, or fear abut holding on to your job or your rights?
Well, definitely fear about the rights, up until the city of Spokane passed an ordinance that banned discrimination in employment and housing. ... Here at school [it] really has only been about a year and a half where I've been much more visible. ...
When you first came to Rogers [High] about 20 years ago, what was the climate like here then? Were there any students who were out, any teachers who were out?
I came in and had no idea of the terrain. I wanted the job, ... but when I first came here, I didn't know who are my friends, who would be able to accept me, and so it was probably as far back in the closet as I've been. ...
How did you date? How did you lead your social life?
I dated through one of the dating services here in Spokane, one of those ones where you go into the books and you look at pictures. That was before you could do that online. I went in and paid $600 for it, and I was really balking at the idea of paying $600 for this, because I knew I was gay, but it was in that period of time [when I thought], well, maybe I can lead this other life; I can be normal like people want me to be.
I balked at paying the $600, and the lady says to me, "Well, the only reason you wouldn't pay the $600 is if you were gay." Well, what's she going to expect, that I'm going to tell her that I'm gay and leave? ... The cost of coming out to her was so high that it was easier to pay the $600 than to admit to her that I was gay.
[Did you meet anyone through this service?]
... I did meet somebody. She was a really nice person. But finally I had to go to her and say, "I'm gay, and I did this because I wanted to lead a normal life, but I can't live a lie, and I can't hurt you." This was somebody else that's a teacher here in this city. She was very nice about it, has since gotten married, has a great relationship. [I realized] I have to stop [doing] what others tell me that I have to do, and I just have to be me.
So all this time you never dated men?
I didn't date men until about two years ago. That doesn't mean I wasn't around men. That doesn't mean that I didn't meet men and talk to them at a bar and such like that when I would go to Seattle or even here in Spokane. But dating? No.
Is that because you didn't want to be outed?
Well, what I did for 14 years is I was the yearbook adviser here. I buried myself in my work. ... I spent incredibly long hours. I put on 140 pounds. I went from 260 pounds to 400 pounds. I was hiding myself in my work, and I was hiding myself in my body so I wouldn't have to deal with who I am.
Finally I had an accident here at work. I hit my head. The doctor said in talking to me: "You seem to be depressed. Do you know what's causing the depression?" I said, "Yeah, I know what's causing the depression." He said, "Well, what is it?" And I said, "I'm gay, and I haven't adjusted to it." And he said, "Well, if you want your memory back, you're going to have to do something about it."
So I went and talked to a therapist, and I began to become who I am today -- who I always was but had buried under everything else. Since then I've lost 80 pounds.
Do you think that self-destructiveness was a result of the homophobia of the Spokane area or of your own internalized homophobia?
Well, I think it's a combination of both. The internalized homophobia [for] anyone who is born in Spokane or eastern Washington, the red part of Washington state, is enormous. ...
[O]ne of my coping mechanisms sometimes was to divert attention away from me, and I regret some of the ways in which I did that. If there was any suspicion on me of being gay, I would attempt to divert that suspicion to somebody else, and sometimes that entailed saying, "Well, do you think so-and-so is gay?" ... Rather than facing the fact that somebody spotted something about me, I would then try to make them think, oh, that must be somebody else. ...
Did you ever feel like you were overcompensating in trying to cover up your homosexuality?
... I would make jokes. I would tell the hurtful jokes as it relates to gay people so that it wouldn't be about me. You know, growing up I was always the fat kid, and so sometimes what I would do is I would tell the fat jokes first; that way I wouldn't get hurt. Well, then it spills over into this other area of deflecting attention away from myself or taking the sting out first by telling those jokes myself. I would never tell those jokes today; I would never say those things today. But I know along the way I've had to have hurt people.
... Did you have negative ideas about gays? Did you yourself judge gay people back then?
Oh, yeah. I had negative attitudes toward people who were bisexual, homosexual, transgender, the whole spectrum. ... [T]he intolerance and hate had been layered on, and I had to strip it away like peeling layers of an onion. ...
Do you think people suspected?
I think there's a number of people that suspected, and there were actually some students and also some fellow teachers along the way that just came up and said, "Are you gay?" I lied, said that I wasn't. There were some students eventually that I finally said yes to, and I finally said yes to some friends of mine that were teachers, and they guarded my secret. ...
Could you have been fired back then?
Probably at some point. ... The first year I began teaching, 1986, Jim West, who was then a state legislator, introduced legislation to fire anyone that was a gay teacher or gay state worker. ... Even though that legislation wasn't successful, I was farther back in the closet than the mothballs as a result of that. ...
Once you decided to come out of the closet, what was your first step?
First real step was just venturing out, going to places in Seattle. ... I went to a couple places, furtively went in and looked and such like that. I needed to see folks. I went to the gay pride parade in Seattle. There's 100,000 people that go to it, and [I] saw the rich diversity of people there, which you didn't see here. ...
But see, being gay in Spokane, there's not much to do other than maybe go to the bar and maybe go to the bookstore and get a magazine or something like that. Or people would go to like, the Dishman Theatre, which today is Déjà Vu, which is a strip club, but back then it was a porn theater. ... I mean, there were other places in town. There's People's Park, which has been notorious as a place for gay people to go; Highbridge Park, things like that. But in the work that I'm in as a teacher, any kind of a morals charge like that you can be fired for. So if you're in a place where somebody might associate you with some activity, it's just better off not going there.
Sounds so lonely.
Yeah, incredibly lonely, incredibly lonely. I think it's debilitating. I think it cripples people, that loneliness. I had some friends who I could talk to, some people that I knew, but as far as a relationship, I've never been in any long-term relationship. I have a great friend right now, but yeah, it is lonely.
How old are you?
I'm 47. ...
So how did you finally come out at your school? ...
In February of 2005, I was talking at a conference. I was speaking there about homophobia and what to do if it occurs in a classroom, if it's from the teacher or from another student. ... There was a reporter from The Spokesman-Review, and he asked if it was OK to put in his [article] that I was gay, and I said yes.
So I was outed by The Spokesman-Review three months before Mayor West was, but mine was voluntary. I didn't have any problem with it. As far as I know, the school district only got one phone call objecting to my being gay, and that's all that I'm aware of. I had people come in to me; one of them said to me, "I always thought that you were a person that had integrity, and now I know you do." And I really appreciated that.
So did things change after you came out?
I didn't have to put as much energy into leading two lives. I could put more energy into me. I had already begun to lose some weight, but it became a lot more successful after that. I could put the energy into leading a more complete life. I have been able to balance my life now, and I don't stay the long hours that I used to stay. I do a lot more things, and I enjoy my life a lot more.
Yes, which is what Mayor West has been doing for a very long time. I know how much energy it takes to lead two lives, to put a face to the world and then to have this other piece of your life. It's tormenting. You pay a psychological toll for it.
I know in the paper he says, "I'm not going to psychoanalyze myself." Right, he shouldn't; he should leave that to professionals. But he should pay one. When he's done with all his other bills and such like that, he should seriously consider going in there and trying to repair all the damage, psychically, that this has to have caused him, living two lives. I know. I went to a therapist for a year. It was great. At the end she said, "Don't come back; you don't need to."
... [H]as it basically been a positive experience in the last year or two? Have you had any negative experiences since coming out?
... [With] friends and family I think it's been fine. But I had a student just a couple weeks ago -- not in my class, but I was subbing for another teacher -- say, "I don't talk to gay people." I have kids that are Mormon that I've noticed on a couple occasions, they look away when they see me in the hall. They can't even maintain eye contact with me, and these were people that I thought at some point that I had gotten along with. But I haven't done anything different. I'm the same person that I am, but they know something about me now. ...
Have there been any limits on you as a gay teacher? ...
I was the yearbook adviser for 14 years. I took students to San Francisco, took students to Denver, San Diego, places like that, all while I was in the closet. I wouldn't do it now.
I've had friends who were yearbook advisers at other places in the country who took students and were accused of having done things. When that began to happen, I began to think this is not worth the risk. Part of my reasoning behind getting out of doing the yearbook was I didn't want to put myself in a situation where I had as much after-school or away-from-school exposure to students.
Because you're gay?
Because I'm gay. I wanted to minimize that risk as much as possible that somebody could make an accusation. People are going to say things regardless, but I didn't want to continue to be in the position of being the yearbook adviser. ...
I loved yearbook. I did great things with yearbook. I was able to help kids with photography skills and computer skills and all those kinds of things. ... But at the same time, it opens you up to exposure of just being around them a lot and people wondering, "Well, why do they always spend that kind of time with the kids?," and those sorts of things. ... I began to decide I needed to have my life. It was one of the first things that had to go, and it was really painful to give that up because I was good at it, and it was something that really helped kids. But I had to give it up. I couldn't do all of it. ...
What is Gay.com?
... [I]t's a place where you can talk to people; you can possibly meet people. There's the adult portion of it, [for] which you can pay a subscription fee and see more explicit photos, and then there's the chat feature of it, where you have access to the more PG-rated photos and you can talk to people. They, of course, can send each other information, e-mail, those sorts of things. ... I've talked to people from Indonesia, the Philippines, Spokane, Seattle, all over the country, all over the world on there. ...
Why did you go on Gay.com initially? What were you looking for?
I was looking to be able to meet people. Other than going to the bars in Spokane, ... how do you meet people in this town? Like I said earlier, the only dating services in town were for straight people. There was no filtered service [with] good, respectable people that you could meet on there. ...
So what did Gay.com give you that you couldn't get elsewhere?
Well, it gave me the ability to be able to go ahead and to meet people and not have to go down to a smoky bar to meet them, to drink, to be in awkward situations. It gave an opportunity to find out about this whole world. ... All of a sudden, Spokane didn't seem to be that isolated. The world could come to Spokane in that sense, and I could go to the world, whereas prior to the Internet, it was much more difficult. ...
No. The name Cobra82[nd] on there -- now, I'm a history teacher; I know what a Cobra is. It's a helicopter. Because of the age of the person that was on there -- and I don't remember if it was the right age, but I think it was about in the 50s -- and a rough description, and then talking to this person, I could sense that this was somebody who had been in the military, somebody who was older. And I really was curious why he was talking to me, OK, because this was somebody that politically I didn't seem to have anything in common with. ... I think it was just dead time, filling time until he could talk to somebody else.
But the second time I talked to him, I just got so tired of him knocking the quote/unquote "gay agenda," which to me is the U.S. Constitution -- that's the gay agenda. I want the same equal access to rights as everyone else. [After] that, I just put him on permanent ignore. I didn't want to talk to him ever again. ... I didn't know who that was until the story came out in the newspaper.
Were you surprised?
No. Worst kept political secret in the state. People over in Seattle area have known probably [for a] much longer period of time, and people that I have talked to in the gay community in this area, same reaction.
It's very interesting. Everyone we talk to about Jim West says [the recall] isn't about his sexuality. They say he has little support; nobody wants him to stay in office. They all say this has nothing to do with him being gay. What do you think?
I think it's a flat lie for many people. Some of the folks that I see doing the "Recall Jim West" [campaign] I also see lining up, opposing [the] domestic partners benefits ordinance. ...
I'm ambivalent myself. Like I said earlier, this is somebody that made it so that staying in the closet became very necessary, because I had just joined a profession of teaching that this man was going to say you can't do. ... At the same time, I don't think anybody should be outed except by their own choosing. But I think in some respects, I am comfortable with what happened. He was no friend. He would have probably vetoed the domestic partners benefits ordinance if he had not been outed by The Spokesman-Review. ...
Putting aside the mayor's politics, ... do you think that [the] issues are legitimate ones, the issues that others are upset about: chatting with an 18-year-old online, offering internships, the allegations about pedophilia in the past. Do you think he should step down over that?
I think if he did these things, particularly the pedophilia, if he was convicted of harassing Ryan Oelrich, the 24-year-old that he put on the Human Rights Commission, if he did those things, yeah, I think he should be removed from office. ... He was playing with fire, and he ran, and now his entire political career is on fire, and I don't think he can put the flames out. My belief is that Spokane created Jim West, but it's Jim West who went ahead and self-immolated himself. He's the one that made the decisions that he made. ...
I think the attitude of intolerance that existed for a young man growing up, where if you're going to be gay you're going to have to lead a double life, you're going to have to keep that part of your life quiet. ...
I say that Spokane created Jim West, but they didn't control what his actions were later on. He grew up in an environment of intolerance, where [the general sentiment was]: "Those people don't think like we do. They're different than us -- crimes against nature, immoral," all those sorts of labels attached. That's what the period of time he grew up [in promoted], and that this was the only path to being happy: You go along this route; you get married; you do all those sorts of things.
So he got married. He did all those kinds of things that they asked of him, but if he truly is a gay man, the whole time there's this other part of him saying, "This is who you are," and he's having to fight, going in two different directions. How do you do that and not have some damage?
Do you think that aligning himself with conservative, anti-gay forces might have had something to do with that?
Oh, I think it's concealment. I think you conceal yourself among those folks who would come for you, come and be against you. You would conceal yourself in their midst. You're hiding in plain sight, OK? You can then, if they do come for you, point to somebody else. Part of my demeanor and who I am today is a result of that hiding. I tried to strip away anything that I thought would be a telltale to somebody else of who I really am as a human being. In part, I probably did have some internalized homophobia as it related to anything that appeared to be gay.
It's not unnatural to go to the extreme of proposing legislation to prevent teachers and other folks from becoming workers if they're gay by a man who is gay himself, because then [they can say]: "You did a great job. You got rid of those people. Therefore, you must be one of us." ...
So you understand it.
I do, I do. But it angers me that I do understand it. It angers me that I lived through that myself. It angers me that I wasted all those years putting up this false front to the world and hiding behind 150 to 200 pounds of extra weight that I didn't have to carry, which has probably shortened my life. I would like to have those years back. ...
So you've read the transcripts of the mayor's chats. People have used the word "predatory" to describe the mayor's behavior. I would put it in terms of a longing for intimacy. How did you read it?
Longing for intimacy but at the same time attempting to maintain concealment as much as possible. What does a predator do? It stalks its prey and conceals itself from the prey. He needed to conceal himself because of the high-profile position that he was in. At the same time, he probably, like anybody else, wants to be happy. I think that's the human urge, to want to be happy, to be whole, to be complete. Even as wounded as he was, there may have been this urge to want to be whole and to be complete.
[It was] predatory in the sense that people were like, maybe [he was going after] somebody that's away from the herd, somebody that's weak, vulnerable, those kinds of things. That's how some people look at his behavior, of going out for somebody who is a high school student, who might be vulnerable. ...
But he was probably looking for people who were approachable, and he would pay a minimum cost as far as his exposure was concerned. I mean, The Spokesman-Review outed him. He wasn't coming out, it sounds like, on his own, yet he must have been much more visible on the other side of the state, because folks said that they saw him over there quite a bit.
But not here. He had to leave Spokane to be able to go to a bar or possibly to meet someone. But if he'd done that here in Spokane, the only place where he could maintain his concealment and meet people from Spokane was something like Gay.com, where he didn't have to put his picture; you can lie; you can say that you're anybody who you want to be on there. ...
The gay community in Spokane has come down pretty unilaterally against Jim West. What do you make of that?
Well, I [liken it to] when it goes back to the parade, there was a headline that basically said, "Mayor West is not invited, but he can come." You're out and you're struggling, and we appreciate that, we understand that, because that's a painful thing, and there's lots of things that you've gone through. But there's this other piece of you, [that you] had a position of power; you could have helped. You could have done something, and you didn't. As a matter of fact, not only did you not help, you tried to get laws passed that would make it illegal for our employment in jobs in which we're able to help people, and you tried to make that impossible. …
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY
NEXT ON FRONTLINESolitary NationApril 22nd