The Hidden War Against Gay Teens

Private Christian schools are exploiting local laws to raise money while expelling kids for the crime of being not straight

October 10, 2013 2:40 PM ET
The Hidden War Against Gay Teens
Illustration by Brian Stauffer

A strange thing happened to Tristan at the end of eighth grade: He received a Facebook message from someone he didn't know who seemed, somehow, to understand him better than anyone. "The message was like, 'Hey, I'm pretty sure you're gay. I just wanted to let you know there's some of us at this school. If you ever want to talk, let me know.'" Tristan was shocked that the message referred to his homosexuality, which he thought he'd thus far been keeping under wraps. In fact, he didn't think he had a choice. As a student at a private Christian day school in eastern Georgia, he knew coming out would spell trouble; as a Christian who'd been taught that being gay was an abomination, he had spent a long time not admitting his sexuality to himself. He tried dating a girl as a cover-up, though that didn't end well. "We went to a friend's house, and she tried to kiss me, and I pushed her away." He then started proclaiming himself asexual. "I was like, 'If I can keep telling people this, then they'll believe it, and then I'll believe it.'" Finally, he gave in and began dating a boy from another school whom he'd met at the supermarket; he thought his boyfriend was the only person in the world who knew his secret. And yet, here was this mysterious message from a stranger.

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At first, it was very disconcerting. "I didn't respond, because it really freaked me out," Tristan says. But then he got another message of support from another person. And then another. And then another. When Tristan realized they were all coming from older kids at his school who'd learned that he was gay after his boyfriend had inadvertently outed him, he stopped caring that other people knew about his sexual orientation and instead found himself relieved to learn that he wasn't alone. Up until then, he'd thought he was the only gay person in his whole K-12 school.

Now a sweet-faced sophomore with big blue eyes and a wry sense of humor, Tristan, who asks that we not use his real name, tells me this over fried cheese and Buffalo wings at a Chili's 20 minutes from the midsize Georgia town where he lives. He's here with two friends, a junior who asks to go by Emily and a senior who lets me use his real name, Jason, because he'll have graduated before anyone will read this. Though there's a Chili's closer to their homes, they've requested to meet here because if authorities at their school learned they were gay, they would not just be punished, they would be expelled.

Many Christian schools in Georgia and across the nation have similar policies, sometimes explicitly written into a pledge that students or their parents must sign when they enroll. At certain schools, a student need not even engage in acts of sexual "impurity"; simply identifying as gay or acting in support of a gay friend can lead to dismissal. "The Academy reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant and/or to discontinue enrollment of a student . . . participating in, promoting, supporting or condoning pornography, sexual­ immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity; or displaying an inability or resistance to support . . . the qualities and characteristics required of a Biblically based and Christ-like lifestyle," reads the "Academy/Home Partnering Agreement" at Providence Christian in Lilburn, Georgia, a school with religious underpinnings very similar to those at the school Tristan attends. "No 'immoral act' or 'identifying statements' concerning fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality or pornography will be tolerated," warns the Cherokee Christian Schools in Woodstock, Georgia. "Such behavior will constitute grounds for expulsion."

The assumption at such schools is that these provisions are equivalent to rules against cheating or stealing or premarital sex: behavior that, while wrong, is a choice that can be made or not made. But since homosexuality is an identity rather than an action, it cuts deeper and is believed to have a greater power to corrupt. Such a "choice" must be rooted out and eradicated. This stance has the potential to have a devastating effect, not just in Georgia (where pastors in Cobb County recently decided to sever their affiliations with the Boy Scouts of America after the organization made the decision to permit the participation of openly gay scouts) but throughout the country, where gay students in many states have faced disapprobation or even expulsion. When I meet with Rachel Aviles, a young woman who was pushed out of the Master's School, a private Christian academy in West Simsbury, Connecticut, after admitting to school authorities that she was gay, she speaks of the devastation she still feels two years later. "I would have moments when I would think about it, and I would just be like, 'What did I do?'" she says. "I didn't do anything. This one man made a decision that completely changed my life, and I got punished for simply being."

As religious institutions, these schools have the legal right to uphold and enforce any faith-based belief system they please. And parents who enroll their children – if not always the children being enrolled – understand the repercussions of such policies. However, by exploiting recent legislation, Christian schools in Georgia that openly discriminate against gay students have been receiving millions of dollars in diverted public funds as a result of a 2008 law meant to provide funding to help low­income children transfer to private schools. Tristan, Jason and Emily, along with about 500 other students, attend a school that participates in this program.

Jason was one of the kids who messaged Tristan several years back. "It's like you're in a secret society of gay people," he explains of the underground network of LGBTQ kids at the school. "I'll come out to somebody, and then they'll come out to me. They'll tell me about somebody else that came out to them. Just like a big puzzle. 'Pass it on.'" Adds Tristan, "You have to trust each other, because there's not that many of us."

And you have to be very careful about who is privy to the network, as Emily learned the hard way at a church retreat in the sixth grade. "There was a sermon about homosexuality, and the preacher was saying that they were going to hell, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, that's me,'" she says. Scared and seeking reassurance, she confided to a few of her friends that she thought she might be a lesbian. One of the girls told her mother, who in turn told Emily's mom, who in turn "freaked out on me and made me write a letter and apologize to the church. Basically, she made me say that I was sorry, and I just wanted attention."

Despite the fact that she now has a girlfriend (who attends a different school), it's a line that Emily has had to largely stick to – at least publicly – which meant keeping her mouth shut when a teacher tried to recruit students to protest at the gay-pride parade. Tristan faced a similar dilemma when a group of students threatened to go to the principal and report someone else for being gay. Looming large is the fact that someone actually was expelled some years back, under a school provision that is still on the books. "They found out she was a lesbian, and they made her go in front of the entire school and tell them," says Tristan. "And then they kicked her out the next day."

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For many students, however, what hurts the most is not any sort of witch-hunt tactics that might root out homosexuality, but rather the opposite: the blithe assumption that any pejorative statement or action is fair game because, when it comes to being gay, everyone is in agreement that it's wrong. The disapproval can be so tacit, so seemingly incontrovertible, that it not only shuts down communication between peers but also makes such feelings more likely to be internalized.

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