Local media coverage of a tweet by alumna Tami Sawyer (‘00) alleging her outing a teacher during her time at St. Mary’s falls unsubstantiated by Tatler’s investigation.
Sawyer pictured in the 2000 Carillon at Derby Day.
Several of Shelby County commissioner and mayoral candidate Tami Sawyer’s (‘00) years-old tweets were uncovered by local press last month — including one insinuating Sawyer’s involvement in the outing and resulting resignation of a teacher at St. Mary’s when she was in high school in the late 1990s. The 2014 tweet read: "We had a teacher that was a closeted lesbian. Decided it was our duty to out her. She quit after a semester,” followed by the hashtags: #meangirls and #pocprepchat.
"The Memphis LGBTQ community deserves to know how and why her views changed if, indeed, they did.”
The Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, released a statement in response to this tweet (and others they perceived as homophobic) that said, “What changed between 2014 when Commissioner Sawyer was bragging about outing lesbians in the workplace and the last couple of years? The Memphis LGBTQ community deserves to know how and why her views changed if, indeed, they did.”
In an interview with Tatler, Sawyer explained that the tweet was part of a larger conversation on Twitter, “which was a reflection on my time as a black girl in a prep school talking to other black people who had … gone to prep schools. It was a Twitter thread about our experiences. We were asked questions, and we were giving answers.”
The TEP statement also said, “But the Tweets in 2014 contain more than words. They describe an incident of outing a teacher. And they exhibit an outrageous satisfaction in that teacher losing her job. It is still legal to fire people in Tennessee based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“We didn’t out anybody; she didn’t get fired,” she [Sawyer] said she’s been telling those in the community.
“I think I used ‘outed’ in a much more casual way than I believe … the triggering nature of that word,” Sawyer said. “I was more sharing that one of my biggest memories was that there was someone whose identity didn’t match what we were used to in our teachers at St. Mary’s.”
She said that “it was a very casual conversation I was having on Twitter. Had it been a more formal setting, a deeper conversation would have happened with context.”
She said that the question to which she was responding was about her early experiences with gender and sexuality.
Since the revelation of the tweet, Sawyer says she has focused on talking to and apologizing to people in the LGBTQ+ community, especially those she knows personally, including in a Facebook Live panel with LGBTQ+ Memphians. She's been trying to set the record straight.
“We didn’t out anybody; she didn’t get fired,” she said she’s been telling those in the community. She said that she has since learned that the teacher did not leave during the middle of the school year. “That was just a bad memory of mine.”
Sawyer recalled her memory of her experience with that teacher: “When I remembered that time with that teacher … my class just wasn’t the greatest to her … and I’ve actually talked to fellow alums who were in that class with me — we just weren’t the nicest,” she explained.
Sawyer described that many of the teacher’s differences — including her atypical gender expression — set her apart from other St. Mary’s teachers. “She wasn’t from the South; she was young; she wasn’t married. There were lots of other things,” she said. “But to me in that moment and in that second in time on Twitter what it felt like was that we made it our mission to be like — and I don’t mean like we were in the bathroom taking notes, you know, talking about how we were going to make her life hell — I just meant she would never get a break from us.”
Despite her phrasing of the tweet, Sawyer said, “It wasn’t even [gossiping] about her sexuality; that’s the thing that in all of this coming out … has been hard.”
Sawyer continued, “I don’t recall us calling her names or talking behind her back or talking about her sexuality behind her back. What I do remember is that we pushed to get away with everything,” Sawyer recalled. She explained that she and her classmates saw in the teacher’s differences — her young age and inexperience among others — an opportunity to take advantage of her, for example, by distracting her to avoid taking quizzes. In fact, Sawyer said this often involved gossiping with, not about, the teacher instead of paying attention to her lesson.
“Asking ‘who are you dating?’ That’s what I remember most … and where I think the ‘outing’ came from,” Sawyer posited. She shared an anecdote about the class trying to guess the teacher’s significant other’s name by yelling out male names and “her kind of going red.”
“Note to all St. Mary’s girls: you can never delete all of your social media.”
About writing that now-infamous tweet, Sawyer said it was never about bragging, “When I remembered that in my 30s, I felt like ‘gosh, if I were that woman, I would’ve, like, hated us.’”
“The whole thing has been taken out of context,” Sawyer said. “Note to all St. Mary’s girls: you can never delete all of your social media.”
Of her casual use of social media, she said “I grew up online.”
Kate Wichlinski, president of the class of 2000 during their senior year, did acknowledge homophobia within the St. Mary’s community — as well as society as a whole — when she was in high school. She said, “It really was not ‘ok’ or accepted to be a lesbian at St. Mary's back then.”
Sawyer (top left) pictured in the 2000 Carillon as a National Merit Commended Student. Also pictured is Wichlinski (middle, second row.)
However, Wichlinski described Sawyer, stating “I have only known her to be an impassioned and thoughtful person who fights to give a voice to many whose voices are ignored.”
Wichlinski remains a supporter of Sawyer, but she admitted that, as a lesbian herself, she was offended by some of Sawyer’s recently unearthed tweets.
Of the allegation itself, Wichlinski said, “I don't know anything about actions that Tami took when she was at St. Mary's to ‘out’ a teacher or get her fired.” However, she does recall that “it was rumored that a certain teacher or another was a lesbian, and it was a derogatory accusation.”
Ms. Hogan, a lesbian teacher who was teaching at St. Mary’s at the time, knew the teacher in question personally, and she believes that the teacher was not a lesbian. Nor does Hogan believe the teacher left because of any pressure from students or on anything but good terms with the St. Mary’s community.
“Tami’s tweet was 15 years after the memory she describes. That memory is incorrect,” Hogan explained. “No teacher left during the year or was fired that I’m aware of. I firmly believe that the teacher in question left of her own choosing.”
Sawyer’s senior picture in the 2000 Carillon
About the culture at St. Mary’s during her time in school, Sawyer remembers the homogeneity of the student body and faculty. She doesn’t remember overt homophobia as part of her experience, but she said that gender and sexuality issues were not openly discussed at the time.
"Throckmorton and Dr. Steakley have asserted that St. Mary’s today is committed to diversity and inclusion and supporting all students..."
“What I did learn at St. Mary’s was to be loving, to be very giving, but I do think it is a very homogenous place,” Sawyer explained. “I don’t know what the culture is today, not being a student anymore, but in my time it was hard to be out of the box, regardless of what part of your identity was out of the box. And I also think that was the world in 1997.”
Head of School Mr. Throckmorton was not at St. Mary’s when Sawyer was in high school; however, he stressed that the school is legally prohibited from discussing personnel issues. He said, “While I can’t comment directly, I have found no evidence of any teacher experiencing [what Sawyer described in the tweet or its interpretations: being outed, being forced out or fired].”
The Head of School in the 1990s until 2001, Tom Southard declined “with regret” to answer questions related to the departure of the teacher to which Sawyer is believed to be referring and about the climate of LGBTQ+ inclusion at St. Mary’s at the time.
Throckmorton and Dr. Steakley have asserted that St. Mary’s today is committed to diversity and inclusion and supporting all students, particularly with the creation of MoSAic, the creation of the role of a diversity and inclusion specialist held by Ms. Jenkins and opportunities for students and faculty to attend conferences on diversity and inclusion. (See also “MoSAic,” Skipper)
Throckmorton expressed frustration with local media’s lack of fact-checking because he does not believe the press coverage represents who St. Mary’s is as a community, especially now.
Hogan said that the events as remembered in the tweet by Sawyer are “not representative of St. Mary’s then or now.”
Sawyer said, “If I could have protected St. Mary’s more, I would have.” She expressed no desire to speak negatively of her experience at St. Mary’s or of the school as a whole. “It hurts me to even think that St. Mary’s would be embarrassed by this or be struggling with this. What I do hope is that maybe some conversations have happened internally about how to better support the LGBTQ+ community.”
She said, “I’ll also ... be reaching out to the administration just so they understand that I was not making an allegation that the school fired someone for their sexuality. I was not making an allegation that my class [bullied] this teacher in a way that should’ve been picked up on by the administration.”
Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) faculty sponsor and alumna Julie Bielskis (‘89) believes that progress has been made in the St. Mary’s community since she was a student and in the 20 years she has been a St. Mary’s teacher. She stressed that while progress has been made, there’s always room for improvement. She said, “I feel really proud … and really humbled to be with these kids, but that’s not to say that there isn’t room to be more: room to be better, love better, listen better, support better, respect better.”
She expressed the nature of the evolution, saying “For all the right reasons we’re not the same school we were in 1847 or 1947 or that we will be in 2047.”
Likewise, Livie Glazier (12) and Abigail Apple (12), two of the student leaders of the GSA discussed a shifting culture at St. Mary’s on LGBTQ+ issues.
Apple said, “I may disagree with some of the administration’s policy decisions, but I feel supported by the St. Mary’s community.”
“Fear fosters misinformation. We can only be better if we bother to ask questions and to know.”
Glazier said, “I feel the inclusion and progress has been driven mainly by the students and a few outspoken supportive teachers. Sometimes it feels like the progress is too slow, but I think we’re going as fast as we can be given fears ... from the larger community.” She mentioned that it’s the “small things” that can make or break whether a student feels included: “It’s the heteronormativity, whether the GSA is allowed to act like any other club.”
Glazier feels that the key to progress is education, as much of the fear and resistance stems from a lack of education about LGBTQ+ history and the personal experiences of LGBTQ+ people. “St. Mary’s is a bubble where students are relatively supportive of one another,” she said. “That is not representative of what [the lives of LGBTQ+ youth] are like outside this school.”
Bielskis echoed Glazier’s emphasis on education, saying “Fear fosters misinformation. We can only be better if we bother to ask questions and to know.”
Hogan also has been witness to and a part of the change here at St. Mary’s in the last 20 years. From the support of Southard when she came out to him, to the welcoming of her and her partner at St. Mary’s prom, Hogan said, “I have never felt anything but support from students and faculty.”
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