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Sunday, May 24, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ex-Nun Comes Out Of The Closet

For all of her life, Mary Dispenza has lived out a secret.

She's been a nun, a teacher, and even a principal. Dispenza is now the director of Pastoral Life Services Department for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle. She is also a lesbian.

Dispenza, 51, is taking English 489, a gay and lesbian English class at the University of Washington, to break out of her own cocoon.

"I'm learning about a culture I had divorced myself from," Dispenza said. "It's as if I'm learning about life all over again."

Dispenza came out of the closet Jan. 6. On that day, she told her therapist about her feelings toward women. Dispenza says she came to terms with herself after growing tired of hiding her sexual orientation.

"It's been a long journey for this truth and acceptance," Dispenza said. "There's an urgency now to learn all I can and come to understand myself more fully and to gain appreciation of what I don't know. I want to do it as quickly as I can. I've already missed out on so much."

Another reason for coming out, Dispenza says, was her concern that younger lesbians and gays did not have role models.

"Models are so important to the younger people. Until some of us are willing to come forward, they will never feel comfortable."

Dispenza learned about English 489 during her search for information about gay and lesbian culture. She read an article about the course and enrolled.

An educator with nearly two decades of experience, Dispenza says a classroom is familiar territory, a place where she is accustomed to leading.

In 1988, the U.S. Department of Education honored her with a "National Distinguished Principal" award.

But Dispenza admits nowadays she's more like an excited kid trying out her first bike than an award-winning educator.

Even the first day of class was scary. Dispenza, who hasn't taken a college class in almost a decade, was anxious. But instructor David Roman lightened the mood by playing '70s disco, which gays helped popularize in the nation's dance halls. The classroom atmosphere was almost jovial.

"It was exciting," Dispenza said. "Having been a teacher myself, I was happy and excited right away. There weren't enough chairs in the room and some people were standing waiting to get in. It was confusion in a good sense."

Although Dispenza is easily one of the oldest people in the class, she says she is also the most naive. Even simple things like dancing seem different.

When a classmate took her to a gay and lesbian country-and-western dance hall, Dispenza found herself intrigued by the two-step.

"It was a glimpse of what the world could be," Dispenza said. "There were men dancing with men. Women dancing with women. And there were mixed couples. Now I think it's rather boring in the heterosexual world. There is a lack of variety."

The class has also brought home issues that once seem so distant. Her classmates have shared stories of rejection upon coming out. Dispenza has since told her father and brother, both of whom have accepted her.

But Dispenza says she is fearful of losing her friends, colleagues, and even her religion. A lifelong Catholic, Dispenza says that thought is worrisome. Her office is decorated with scriptures - "Dios Es Amor," "God is Love," - and photos of Mother Teresa.

"In the Catholic Church, you are told you can be homosexual in orientation," Dispenza said.

"But you can't act on that. I don't believe God would give us this gift and then ask us not to live that out. The greatest gift is an appreciation of what we receive. How do we as gay Catholics reconcile with the church? I don't know that yet," Dispenza said.

"I look at the class and all these young adults and I see goodness. I see beauty and sensitivity and I say to myself, `Why do people see sexual orientation as disorders?' "

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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