Carlisle High School history teacher Kevin Allen Wagner successfully petitioned to create a Gay-Straight Alliance in 2002, making it the first school-sanctioned GSA in Pennsylvania. The openly gay 44-year-old said he was prompted to establish the group because of conversations he heard in the hallways among both students and staff, which included homophobic comments.
“I thought this was the perfect way to allow our district and our community to realize there are individuals struggling with these issues every day,” Wagner said. “I’ve always been one of those people [who said], ‘If you have a friend who is LGBTQ or if you have a family member who is a part of the LGBTQ community, then you are more likely to be supportive,’ and I thought this was one more way to help those individuals.”
Wagner’s establishment of the GSA and his leadership in Carlisle’s Model United Nations are among the reasons National Liberty Museum honored him with the 14th-annual Teacher as Hero Award. In partnership with State Farm, the museum presented the award to Wagner and nine other educators May 6.
Wagner’s husband, Terry Karanen, submitted the application for consideration and kept it a secret from Wagner until he officially received the award.
“He sets a very high bar for himself,” Karanen said. “For those of us who are excellent at what we do and dedicated to what we do, we sometimes set the bar a little higher than perhaps we should for our own good. But he does that and either meets it or exceeds it. In the process, he also sets an example for others. He shows his students what they can do, how they can come from nothing and make something of themselves.”
Wagner said he aims to be accessible to all students.
“Literally the door is always open and even when it’s not open, the door isn’t locked,” Wagner said of his office as social-studies department chair. “That’s my policy. I can’t even count between my two hands the number of times I’ve had a student just drop in with an issue they may be dealing with.”
Wagner recalled a student who came to him 12 years ago and talked about cutting himself as a way to cope with depression. He said he reconnected with the student over the past year and discovered he is doing well and has a partner of his own.
“[Students] know that door is open and I’m not going to judge them when they ask great questions or even the off-the-wall ones,” Wagner said.
A student struggling with his sexuality once said to Wagner, “I think I’m bi but I’m not sure. Can you help me out with that?” Wagner said he had a 30-minute lunch conversation with the student and offered some advice.
“This is the opportunity for you to explore who you are,” Wagner said, recalling the conversation. “I can’t tell you who you are. Your parents theoretically can’t tell you who you are, although you do live under their roof. I can guide and direct you and give you advice but in the end, you need to figure that out.
“I try to get them to see that this is a process and that they’re not going to solve it,” Wagner added. “They’re not going to answer that question of, ‘Am I bi or am I gay or am I straight or where do I fit on the spectrum?’ tomorrow. For all of us, it’s been a process of learning about who you are and the person you are to become.”
Wagner said he hopes to continue his work at Carlisle. He has been working in the district since 1997, making this his 20th year.
“My goal is to be the longest-running teacher in the Carlisle School District. I think the record is 42 years so I don’t know if I’ll make it,” Wagner said with a laugh. “I’m happy I’m there, almost.”
Wagner offered two pieces of advice for educators working with LGBT youth.
“[First], keep an open heart and open mind because you just don’t know what situation they’re coming from. They’re really trying to find their way. And I think the second [piece of advice] is probably the hardest one for any of us: Try to find it in your heart to set aside your own personal prejudices and just listen.”