'Queers will burn': Gay Kansas teacher quits and moves because of threatening letters

Gay Kansas teacher moves after receiving threatening letters

Michael Hill, a visual arts and theater teacher at Nemaha Central High School in Seneca, Kan., quit his job and left the state after he received threatening letter.
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Michael Hill, a visual arts and theater teacher at Nemaha Central High School in Seneca, Kan., quit his job and left the state after he received threatening letter.

In February, Michael Hill left Kansas, the state where he grew up and where his two sons and other family members still live, to move to Palm Springs, Calif., because of three threatening letters he received after he came out as gay last year.

He posted the letters to Facebook this week, gaining national attention for his story.

"Queers will burn and so will you," said one letter, signed "a concerned patron."

For fear of his safety, Hill quit his job as visual arts and theater teacher at Nemaha Central High School in Seneca, a town of about 2,000 residents in northeast Kansas.

As news of his story spread, Hill posted a message on Facebook Thursday night to thank people for their support.

"I also want to point out that I don’t believe Seneca to be a bad place," he wrote. "There are outstanding people there and the students were terrific! I enjoyed the time I taught there and I’m saddened that someone in the community thought so much less of me simply because I’m gay ...

"Thanks again and keep fighting for equality!"

The school board accepted Hill's letter of resignation on April 9. He had taught in the district for at least a decade.

"Mr. Hill was our art department," said Superintendent Darrel Kohlman. "He was the director of our plays, and he did a very good job as a classroom teacher. We're sorry not to have him anymore."

Hill's post about the letters has been shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook and inspired just as many reactions and responses, most of them from people angry at what's happened.

"I decided I needed to put these out there because people need to know this kind of ugly hatred still exists in the world only by confronting it can we end it," Hill wrote in his post on Tuesday.

"This was part of a pattern of harassment that started back in October 2017. As a result of this I made the difficult decision to pack up and make a huge leap of faith and moved to Palm Springs, CA."

Hill reported the letters to the Seneca Police Department on Jan. 5, and police are still investigating, said Chief Jordan Weaver.

"He brought it to our attention, and we're currently looking into it," Weaver said Thursday. "I can't really say too much since it's an open investigation."

Weaver said he talked to Hill about pressing charges if police find the letter writer or writers.

Hill's relatives suspect they came from a student's parent. However, a few people on Facebook questioned whether the letters were real.

Kohlman verified them, as did Hill's son Hunter, 19, a sophomore theater major at the University of Kansas. Hunter graduated in 2016 from the high school where his dad taught.

“I have no doubt that he received all three letters. He came to me after each one," Kohlman said. The superintendent urged Hill to tell the police.

"People want to say that it’s fake because people don’t want to believe this kind of of hate still exists," said Hunter. "I think my dad, in sharing those letters, his intention was to spread awareness that this hate still exists, and that for anyone who has experienced this to know they're not alone.

"And, to spread the idea that everyone needs to love everyone."

The first letter was addressed to Hill at the high school. The postmark offered little clue, because it didn't indicate where the letter was mailed.

"I told him this should not be taken lightly," Weaver said. "I said we’re going to look into it as far as we can and see what we can come up with, and if he has any more interactions or receives any more mail or phone calls, or anything more happens to him — but of course he’s moved away since then — that he let us know right away so we could look into it.”

Hill told the Topeka Capital-Journal that threats started coming his way shortly after he came out on National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11.

His Facebook page doesn't show any posts in October — none until Nov. 16, when he posted a photo of himself wearing a Lady Gaga T-shirt. But Hunter said that his dad came out in a Facebook post and that, at first, people were supportive with their comments.

Then "things got ugly and I started to fear for my own well-being," Hill told the Topeka newspaper.

Hunter said someone slashed a tire on his dad's car and wrote the word "faggot" in the dust on his car.

Another time, his dad was at dinner with a friend and "a couple of students working at the restaurant started taking pictures and started circulating them around on Snapchat, which upset him a lot," Hunter said. "He told the manager and the manager dealt with the situation."

Hill became so afraid that the owner of the apartment where he lived installed a security camera that Hill could monitor remotely with his cellphone, Hunter said.

When he received the first letter, he sent a picture of it to his sons. "He just wanted us to know that things had started to turn," said Hunter.

The first letter read, in part: "Homosexuals should not be teaching our kids, in fact I don't believe they should be teachers at all they are perverts and predators.

"The Bible does not condone your behavior and I do not want my kids exposed to this type of immorality, you should be encouraged to leave as soon as possible and I'm writing to administration to express this too."

The last and most aggressive letter read, "I know where you live. I know a lot about your schedule. You need to watch your back cause I aint alone."

Hill told the Topeka newspaper that the school district allowed him to take seven weeks of unpaid medical leave in mid-January. Then he chose to resign early; he had already turned in a resignation letter effective for the end of the school year.

Kohlman is bothered that whoever wrote the letters is out there, somewhere in society. "They do not represent the majority of our students, our district or staff, or community," he said.

People in other Kansas towns, including the Kansas City area, have apologized to Hill on behalf of the state.

"So sorry for this happening to you. Not everyone in Kansas is this way please do remember that," wrote one woman on his Facebook page.

One person offered to help Hill track down the culprits and give them a "beat down."

"I'd be happy for my children to have you as a teacher," wrote another.

"That’s terrible. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. But welcome to the west coast. There are haters everywhere, but there are less of them here," wrote one man.

Weaver, who grew up in the area, said that in his three years as police chief, this is the first case of its kind he's handled.

“It’s appalling that this stuff is still happening," he said. "I thought that today as a society that we are getting better and the hatred is getting less, but clearly there is still hatred in the world. And it was shown through this, this avenue of being secretive in sending letters anonymously.

"I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish in our society we were more open to people's views and the way they live their life."

Weaver said it's been "difficult, I wouldn't say impossible," to track down the author of the letters.

"I still hope that we can somehow get some information to help us in the investigation from somebody outside his circle that knows something," he said.

Weaver suspects it came from someone in town.

"Just because one person is like that, the whole community shouldn't be labeled" intolerant, Weaver said. "Seneca is a really great community and has great people in it, so for one person to tarnish that image isn’t fair to the community, because overall the community is very welcoming."

Hill's son has a bit of a different take on the town.

His father — a liberal thinker in a not-so-liberal town — put a lot of time into Seneca between teaching at the high school and starting a community theater, Hunter said. "That a community could turn on him so quickly over something so small, it was disgusting," he said.

Hunter said before his father left Seneca in February, his dad's side of the family had a going-away party. "We were both crying."

In a Facebook post on Feb. 9, Hill told his friends that he was beginning the drive to Palm Springs.

"Today is a big day," he wrote. "It’s hard to move away from family but with everything that has been happening at the hands of some ignorant, small minded bigots it’s the right decision. Looking forward to starting fresh!"

A beautiful desert evening! Just what the Dr. ordered!!! #palmsprings

A post shared by Michael Hill (@mhillartguy) on

Palm Springs, a city of about 48,000 residents in the Sonoran Desert in southern California, has more same-sex couples per 1,000 households than any other city in the state, according to the Los Angeles Times.

With the election of a transgender woman and a bisexual woman in November, every person on the city council is now a member of the LGBTQ community.

"With its tolerant culture, Mid-century architectural style and lively arts scene, Palm Springs has for decades been a mecca for the LGBTQ community," the Times wrote in November.

Hunter plans to go to California for a visit after he finishes up the semester at KU.

In Palm Springs, Hunter said, his dad feels safe to be himself.