Ola Wolan planned for her senior prom at Lane Tech High School all school yearbecause she wanted to wear a tuxedo, not a dress. She researched how much the tux rental fee would be ($100) and planned accordingly.
And as the school's promheld Saturday night, June 8, at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel in downtown Chicagorapidly approached, the out lesbian opted to run for Prom King, not Prom Queen.
"Honestly, I don't fit the gender stereotypes of a girl and I'm not trans[gender]; I know who I am and wouldn't feel comfortable winning 'Queen' and then having to dance with a boy," Wolan said. "So I just thought, why not break gender expectations and stereotypes and run for 'King.'"
In fact, her initial plan was to run for King, while a gay male student was going to run for queenand that plan was OK'd by the school, but he was not the ballot at first.
So it was just Wolan, 17, seeking the King title, to be voted by students attending prom.
She ran against five straight boys.
"I wasn't really worried about their reactions because most of them were OK and supportive, and each actually told me I likely would win," said Wolan, a popular student who crosses into many student cliques. "I try to be really nice to everyone and really don't have a set group of friends; I just try to be pleasant to everyone."
Wolan attended the prom in her rented tuxedo with Amber Lynn Phillips, a junior at the school this year, who she has been dating since late March. Phillips wore a dress.
The two were part of a prom group of about 30, and they were the lone gay couple.
"I couldn't eat [dinner at prom] because I was so nervous," Wolan said. "I thought it would be a wonderful night, even if I didn't win [the title of King because] of my journey to self-acceptance and self-love."
She also didn't eat desert, though now admits it looked incredible. She still was too nervous for the announcement to indulge. After desert, it was time for senior notables, honors for such awards as Best Hair, Best Eyes, Best Smile, etc.
Next came the prom prince and princess, and the prince was selected from the list of king candidates.
"After they announced the prince, it probably was one of the most surreal moments of my life when everyone started chanting my name. Never in a million years would I have expected that, hearing so much love toward me for who I am and being open [about my sexuality]. It was incredible, a moment that will stick out in my head forever; I was tearing up," Wolan said.
Finally, the announcement came: The 2013 Lane Tech prom king is Ola Wolan.
Everyone started cheering.
"I was so relieved; that's the best way to describe it. I couldn't stop smiling; I was so thrilled," she said.
The prom queen (a straight girl) was then announced.
Wolan and Phillips danced, as did the queen and her date.
"I think that night shows how far things have changed, how the movement has progressed and how incredibly accepting my generation is going to be," Wolan said. "I think this school is the very epitome of diversity, acceptance and love; I think that's remarkable."
She is king
Wolan grew up in a conservative, Catholic, Polish home, where being gay was never a topic at the family's Belmont Heights home. But as a high school freshman, she now admits she "started getting the idea" that she might be gay. She learned that year that a senior girl liked her, and another friend suggested Wolan pursue the senior. But Wolan said no, saying she was not gay, that she was not attracted to girls.
Ultimately, they started talking and then it developed into something more, Wolan said.
"As a freshman, I went through a dark phase and wasn't very happy with myself for who I was; I never thought people would accept me, or like me," she said. "In fact, when I first learned about gay people, same-sex relationships, I was kind of traumatized; I thought, 'why is this happening to me?' I went through a 'Why me?' phase."
However, Wolan now says she knew she was gay in the sixth grade because, well, "I didn't like boys," she said. "When you're in grade school, you're sort of pressured into tagging along with the girls and talking about how cute this boy is, or how much you really want to like that boy, etc. You're sort of pressured into those things, those scenarios, especially if you don't know that you're allowed to be another way, that there's more that you can be. I don't feel like I found myself until high school because I wasn't exposed to it in grade school."
As a freshman, she started taking an interest in girls and didn't hide her feelings. But, she started telling people she was bisexual. "That kind of was my cover because I guess I kind of wanted a possibility that I could have a 'normal life,'" Wolan said.
But when she returned to Lane Tech as a sophomore, she came out as gay. She was open about her sexual orientation and outspoken about it, and she refuted the past claims that she was bisexual. "That was a turning point," Wolan said. "I decided it was just time to be honest with others, honest with myself."
And she's found acceptance at school ever since.
Well, other than from one senior girl, "Diana," who opposed a female running for king, based on her religious beliefs. Diana went through Facebook to state that she thought it was completely immoral and that she lost respect for Lane Tech for allowing it.
"I'm not oblivious to the fact that people are not always accepting [of same-sex relationships]. But it still hurt because that was the first time I felt personally attacked by someone," Wolan said.
The two students didn't know each other before Diana's social media postingand she quickly received backlash for her opposition to Wolan's run for king.
Diana then reached out to Wolan privately on Facebook to say that she did not mean to personally attack Wolan, just that those are her beliefs.
At prom, Diana actually approached Wolan to congratulate her. "She was very polite and nice about it," Wolan said of Diana, and she even danced with Wolan and Phillips.
At the end of the night, Wolan went up to Diana and hugged her.
Wolan and Diana continued to interact on Facebook after prom, and they soon learned they have similar interests, including soccer. Diana even asked if Wolan wanted to have lunch to continue the dialogue.
They did have that lunch.
"It was a learning experience for both of us," Wolan said.
Will they stay in touch? Maybe, Wolan said.
Wolan confirmed that the two are planning to go to a Chicago Red Stars soccer game together sometime this summer.
"We now have mutual respect between us; everything sort of worked out," Wolan said.
Wolan is heading to Normal in the fall, to attend Illinois State University. She's considering a career in law enforcement, perhaps as a detectiveor maybe as a gay-rights activist. "I am very interested in gay rights and civil rights," she said.
She will be a working this summer as a life guard, and of course spending more time with Phillips.
The two met on the school's lacrosse team, though they didn't truly bond until one day in the halls at Lane Tech.
Wolan went to the school library one afternoon on a half-day of school, but was told the library was closed. So she just sat in the hallway.
Phillips then tried to enter the library and the door was locked, so she asked Wolan if she could sit with her.
Wolan admits now she was nervous, worried that there might be that awkward silence between the two. Instead, they talked for two hours, "and the conversation flowed easily," Wolan said.
Phillips, who had a boyfriend at the time, asked Wolan a lot of questions about being gay because she said she didn't know anyone who was gay. They also talked about their families, and more.
They later learned that the library had been open the whole time.
"If we both went into the library, not both think it was closed [at the time], we probably never would have met," Wolan said, laughing.
A few days later, while at a pizzeria for a lacrosse team function, the text messaging between the two started.
And it hasn't stopped.
Wolan was a four-year varsity lacrosse player at Lane Tech and she said the team was "very accepting and loving" with a gay teammate. There were no issues, she said.
Wolan was not part of Lane Tech's GSA due to her sports commitments.
Wolan said she will once again be attending the Chicago Gay Pride Parade. In fact, she said it's "awesome and I'm very excited for that Sunday."
Courtney Feuer was all smiles when Wolan was named king, and still smiling at the honor weeks later.
Feuer is one of about 10 LGBT teachers at Lane Tech, she said, each out to varying degrees.
"I felt it was a huge thing. First, that it was safe for her to run, and second, that she won," said Feuer, married to fellow CPS teacher Kris Himebaugh. "I went to an all-girls private [high] school. I have since learned that six or seven [classmates] also are gay, and I didn't know about any of them [while in school]
"The fact that Ola was comfortable enough to do this … wow.
"Kris and I were so excited [when Wolan was announced as king]. I was so emotional about it."
Feuer and Himebaugh not only attended prom, but they also danced at times alongside Wolan and Phillips.
"That was incredible," Feuer said.
"Sure, the LGBT community still has a long way to go, with marriage rights and more, but the fact [Wolan was named king] and they were safe, and that I was able to attend with my wife … that's awesome."
Feuer and Himebaugh, together for nine years, had a large wedding, eight years ago this summer, performed by Feuer's sister and Himebaugh's best friend. "It was wonderful, fantastic; we had a blast … it's just not legal," Feuer said.
Same-sex marriage laws in Illinois will be different, eventually, for Wolan, Feuer said.
"By the time Ola wants to get married [to a woman], it won't even be something she'll have to think about," Feuer said. "Seeing Ola as the king made me really proud of the school. The cheers for her that night were just amazing."
Wolan and Phillips were confident at prom, and also have shared intimate moment on campus, kissing in the hallways at school.
Feuer busted their PDA, with a smile.
"It's a pleasure, sort of, to say to you two to stop that, which is something I say to straight couples too," Feuer said. "But the fact they feel safe to do it in school is incredible."
Lane Tech teacher out and proud
by Ross Forman
It's been a decade of extreme differences for Courtney Feuer, a teacher at Lane Tech High School on Chicago's North Sideon the personal front, that is.
During her first few years at Lane Tech, she hid her sexual orientation from almost everyonestudents, administrators, parents and even fellow teachers.
"I was very careful about how much [information] I shared about myself," said Feuer, originally from Columbus, Ohio, and a Chicago resident since 1997. "I definitely did not tell students [about my sexual orientation], and was very careful about what I told colleagues."
And when she brought Kris Himebaugh, her wife, to events, they were friends, that's it, nothing more. They didn't hold hands in public, and Feuer never introduced Himebaugh as her wife.
"I was careful about that for a while," said Feuer, 38, who came out as a sophomore at Miami (Ohio) University in 1994.
Feuer and Himebaugh, also a CPS teacher, have been together for nine years. They have twin children, two dogs and a cat, and live in the Edgewater neighborhood.
As Feuer built seniority at the school, she also started coming out more and more, perhaps to a student or a teacher here or there.
Then she became pregnant, and there was no hiding anymore, she said.
"I just thought, 'How can I bring children into the world and not be honest about my family?'" Feuer said.
Since coming out, the second time, "I have only had positive responses."
No negative responses from parents, students, faculty, or anyone.
"It's been surprisingly comfortable," she said.
In fact, a few years ago, a student came out to Feuerand she had no idea or even a suspicion that he was gay. He told her, "Since you've been so out about your life, I had the courage to come out to my mom."
Feuer added, "If that's the only thing [positive] to happen because of being out, that's fantastic."
Feuer participated in an It Gets Better video, produced by broadcast students. Himebaugh and their kids (Byron and Leona) also were in the video, filmed on campus and ultimately aired on the school news.
Feuer taught British literature and women in literature this year, her 10th at Lane Tech.
"The dialogue at school has gotten so much better," said Feuer, who has photos of Himebaugh and their kids on display in her classroom.
"I have never had an issue [being gay], which is so refreshing. It's also something that I never envisioned. When I first started here, I'll admit, I was terrified about being discovered as gay."
The principal at the school when she started was very religious, so Feuer said he felt forced to remain silent about her orientation. The next principal, "I think she knew [that I was gay], but don't know [for certain]," Feuer said.
When Feuer told school administrators that she was on going on maternity leave, she met with the assistant principal who was known for being very religious, very conservative. "When I left her office that day, she said, 'Congratulations and please tell your husband congratulations, too,'" Feuer recalled.
For the first time with an administrator, Feuer then came out.
Feuer said, "Actually, it's my wife."
The administrator was very apologetic, Feuer said. In fact, the administrator went out of her way to show how accepting she was with Feuer and her sexual orientation; she has repeatedly asked about Himebaugh and sent gifts when the babies were born.
Feuer's coming-out to students was spurred by the annual Chicago Marathon. She had been training to run the event with her sister in 2007, and was fundraising for a student group that she sponsors, which raises awareness of domestic violence.
Many students went to the marathon, even though Feuer was not able to run. They cheered for Feuer's sister, who many had met.
Himebaugh was there, too.
"After the race, a few students asked who Kris was," Feuer said. "I thought I had to be honest at that point. After all, these are kids who trust me with a lot of their thoughts, their ideas."
Feuer was admittedly emotional when she came out to students.
They were fine with a lesbian teacher. "To them, it was like, whatever," Feuer said.
Feuer is not part of the Lane Tech gay-straight alliance (GSA), mostly because of the time constraints due to her children. The Lane Tech GSA has been around for about 12 or 13 years, she said, and it was started by a straight teacher who just saw a need, she said.
Feuer estimated there are about 25 LGBT students at Lane Techequally split, gay and lesbian. She recalls at least one transgender student in recent years, though Feuer was not sure if the student had graduated.
There are about 4,500 Lane Tech students, and more than 250 teachers.
Feuer said there are other gay teachers at Lane Tech, perhaps about a dozen. One Spanish teacher, for instance, has a photo of himself and his husband on his desk.
"It's been pleasantly surprising," she said.