SAMMAMISH, Wash. (RNS) A lifelong Roman Catholic, Mark Zmuda took a job as a teacher at Eastside Catholic School in part because he believed he could be a good Catholic role model.
He was dismissed in December from his job as a vice principal and swim coach, precisely because he did not measure up as a Catholic model: Zmuda, who is gay, married his male partner.
“I do model Catholic teaching, and my religion is very important to me,” Zmuda. “I don’t believe I did anything wrong.”
The 38-year-old schoolteacher has never been involved in gay advocacy; neither did he want to call attention to same-sex marriage. He wed for the most obvious of reasons:
“I got married,” he said, “to give my heart to the person I love.”
But of course, the matter isn’t that simple.
Zmuda’s story is one in a series of firings and forced resignations of gay and lesbian teachers and administrators in Catholic schools around the country. There have been close to a dozen such sackings in the past two years.
The dismissals have been wrenching for dioceses and Catholic schools, and most especially for the men and women who have lost their jobs.
In Zmuda’s case it has forced him into the limelight and into the kind of activism that he has always eschewed.
Zmuda has launched “Stand with Mr. Z,” a foundation to fight discrimination. Friday, (Jan. 31) the foundation launched its first event: “Z Day.” Students and friends who support Zmuda and equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people were encouraged to wear orange and tweet “I Stand With Mr. Z” with the hashtag #Zday.
Born in Virginia, the eldest of four children, Zmuda moved around with his family because his father was in the Navy. But Sunday Mass and religion classes were required no matter where the family lived.
“I come from a family of teachers — an aunt, my grandparents — and I enjoy helping people,” said Zmuda. “Teachers have always made differences in my life, and I want to make differences in students’ lives.”
He also envisioned himself marrying, especially since his own parents’ love for each other was such an inspiration.
“I thought when I got married, the person standing next to me would be a woman,” Zmuda said. “It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered I’m gay.”
Zmuda received a bachelor’s degree in math education from Virginia Tech and a master’s in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Texas at Arlington.
He taught at several schools before landing a job at Cardinal Gibbons, a Catholic high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In 2010, mutual friends introduced him to Dana Jergens, now 32.
In Florida, the two eventually registered as domestic partners, later moving to the Seattle area to be closer to family. The couple moved into a tidy condominium and lined the walls with photographs of themselves, their family and friends.
Zmuda began his job at Eastside Catholic; Jergens worked as a physician’s assistant.
Eastside’s 74 faculty members are required to sign an agreement in the employee handbook saying their public behavior must be consistent with Catholic teaching. The church does not recognize same-sex marriage.
When Zmuda signed the handbook in 2012, Referendum 74, which allows same-sex couples to marry, had not passed, he said.
The possibility that getting married would result in his dismissal wasn’t on his radar, Zmuda explained, adding that he regards his personal life separate from his professional one. The State of Washington allowed him to marry and he took advantage of it.
Zmuda and Jergens married in a civil ceremony at a golf club in Newcastle, Wash., seven months after voters passed Referendum 74.
They didn’t invite any Eastside faculty to their wedding: “I didn’t want to put any of them in an uncomfortable position, even though I was close to a number,” Zmuda said.
After word got out that Zmuda had married and the president of Eastside Catholic forced him out, hundreds of students walked out and staged a sit-in. They subsequently circulated petitions seeking Zmuda’s reinstatement that garnered signatures from around the world. One with at least 21,000 signatures was presented to the office of Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Mark Zmuda,” said Wendy Woodward, who has a sixth- and a ninth-grader at Eastside Catholic, and was president of the Middle School Parent Teacher Fellowship in 2013. She added that her daughter was on the swim team Zmuda coached, “and he was fabulous.”
Arlene Naganawa, who teaches humanities in the middle school, noticed Zmuda’s dedication to his job. She recalled that on a Friday this past fall, one student wrote something highly objectionable to another. Zmuda worked with the parties through the weekend, then brought them together on Monday, eventually effecting solutions acceptable to all.
Soon after Zmuda’s dismissal, Eastside President Sister Mary Tracy and Board of Trustees Chairman Gene Colin both resigned.
These days, Zmuda is looking for a new job in either a public or private school.
Would he go back to Eastside? “Absolutely, if they were willing to hire me back,” he said.
While school officials speak of Zmuda as “a popular teacher,” the Eastside Catholic board issued a statement to parents making clear that will not happen.