Student who penned coming out op-ed deals with sudden fame

Sean Simonson, Ann Simonson
Sean Simonson (right) talks with his mother Ann Simonson about the effects of an op-ed he wrote about being a gay teen for his school paper gaining widespread attention.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

In November, Sean Simonson, a student at Benilde-St. Margaret's High School in St. Louis Park wrote an editorial, "Life as a Gay Teenager," for his Catholic school's student newspaper that touched off a controversy and ignited Twin Cities media and the blogosphere.

At year's end, MPR News checked back with Sean about the aftermath of telling his story so publicly. Sitting with his mother Ann Simonson at the dining room table of their Edina home, they talked about all that's happened since Sean penned his op-ed for the school paper that began "I have considered suicide."

His piece was a personal response from a gay teen to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' DVD mailed to parishioners before the election urging a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Sean had told his parents a year ago he was gay and Ann Simonson said she was supportive of her son, but the exposure in the school newspaper worried her.

"For people of my generation, coming out and being public, especially so young, not only meant possible isolation, or being bullied, but I mean you could be beat up and be killed," she said. "And so for Sean, I'm clearly supportive of him, but I wasn't initially as supportive of his story only because I wanted to protect him, and once a story's out there, hands off. I can't protect him."

Sean's story and the flap caused by the administration's attempt to clamp down on online comments took off in a big way. It was a natural for journalists -- we any love story with even a whiff of censorship -- and blogs and social media spread it far and wide. Sean felt the strangeness of the student journalist becoming the news.

"I'm clearly supportive of [Sean], but I wasn't initially as supportive of his story only because I wanted to protect him."

"I remember just Googling my name and going to the news and I had 208 articles like that just featured my name," he said.

And in the true measure of impact these days ... friend requests poured in on Facebook. Sean estimates 80 to 100 complete strangers tried to add him as a friend.

"I think there was like a person from Korea, and someone from like Norway," he said.

What was more stunning to Sean though, was the reaction closer to home.

"I got one handwritten letter left for me in the main office from a teacher. And then I got like three or four emails from teachers basically saying they support me," he said. "It was teachers I wasn't close to and so that kind of surprised me."

Sean said a school administrator told him it was worth what the school had gone through if just one kid benefited from what he had written.

If the point of Sean's piece was to get a dialogue going about supporting gay teens, he succeeded not only among his peers, but also among adults. Ann Simonson said she was caught off guard by the reaction in her social circles.

Grand Knight
Sean Simonson (far right) with escort Emily Beh on Dec. 6, 2010, where Sean was named Grand Knight at Benilde-St.Margaret's Holiday Ball.
Photo Courtesy of Sean Simonson

"I even had to take a couple days off just to respond to the all the emails and phone calls I'd received from friends," she said. "It was just ringing off the hook. It was quite amazing. You find out who your friends are, that's for sure."

In the days that followed, Sean found his anonymous detractors, the online commenters, melted away. The Knight-Errant student newspaper instituted a new comment policy: no anonymous comments and writers must use valid emails.

And he found he had even more friends than he thought he did. In early December, he was elected Grand Knight, the equivalent of the prom king, for Benilde-St. Margaret's winter formal.

"It was almost surprising to hear my name called, that I was a candidate even," he said.

And the student suddenly famous for coming out as gay invited a girl to the dance.

"I don't really have a guy to ask," he said. "And I love going to these dances. They're a lot of fun. I picked someone that I knew I'd have fun with."

Over winter break, Simonson's celebrating his early admission to Georgetown University. He's in the early stages of planning a Gay-Straight Alliance for Catholic students in the metro area. And he's been attending meetings of another Gay-Straight Alliance at a Lutheran Church in Minnetonka.