Iowa teacher, pupils share national exposure
Written by William C. Winslow
© Mike Garvey
Tutt is definitely a "Type A" personality. His voice crackles with excitement on the telephone. He exudes so much energy you expect the phone cord to burst. It goes a long ways toward explaining why he's a phenomenal teacher who was recently singled out as a National Milken Educator with a cash award of $25,000.
No wonder Newsweek snapped up this photogenic, popular elementary school teacher from Des Moines, Iowa, for its cover recently, showing him standing with a policeman, a soldier, a doctor and a UCC minister. The words emblazoned across that cover, however, might have brought some readers up sharp: "Gay Today."
When the magazine hit the news stands, Tutt wasn't sure what the community's response would be. He had "come out" at the age of 21 and had attached his name to a number of pamphlets on gay/lesbian issues that other teachers and parents had seen. But he hadn't shouted his sexual orientation from the roof tops.
So he braced himself when the parents of one of his students asked for a meeting. The conversation began with the usual parent/student concerns. As it drew to a close, the mother said, "Oh, yes, there's one more thing." Here it comes, thought Tutt. She turned to her husband. He pulled out a manilla envelope and withdrew two Newsweek covers.
"This is so cool," he gushed. "Will you sign one for me and one for my daughter?"
Tim Tutt has been teaching third graders for 10 years now.
"They're old enough to talk with," he says, and there is "a sense of naivete that you don't see with secondary students."
He uses his minority status as an African-American, gay man in a predominantly white, straight society to teach tolerance and understanding of others.
Sometimes the kids surprise him. Like the time he told them the true story—he is a master storyteller—about a young woman and her family who were herded into a Nazi concentration camp because they were Jews. Then Tutt told his class that Hitler sent homosexuals to the camp as well.
"For a moment there was sheer silence," he remembers.
Then little Sam piped up.
"Mr. Tutt. That is really dumb. There are a lot of great people who are gay, and this doesn't make any sense."
For once the teacher was speechless.
Tim Tutt grew up in a fundamentalist church in Kentucky whose pastor preached about the fire and brimstone that awaited homosexuals. Fortunately, in later life he discovered the UCC and in particular, Plymouth Congregational UCC in Des Moines. A friend invited him to worship and he heard a sermon on Nelson Mandela just after the South African had been released from prison. Somehow the pastor, the Rev. James Gilliom, had also worked into his message something about the suffering and isolation of gays.
"This is my kind of church," thought Tutt, who promptly joined. It didn't hurt that the choir had an international reputation and he joined that, too. Subsequently, he helped steer Plymouth into becoming an Open and Affirming Church.
Today, Tim Tutt is vice moderator of the national UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.
"I'm content with my life," he says.
Pretty good for a man whose mother thought no one would ever accept a black, gay teacher