Noah Maier tells people he graduated from high school on his back porch in Alpharetta, Georgia. That's where he was on the late-summer night in 2008 when he learned that, because of his sexual orientation, he would not be welcome at his small private Christian school for his senior year. It had already been a difficult week. Three days before, a friend's mother had outed him to his parents, who, he says, were "totally blindsided, never ever saw it coming." Though they accepted it, they were still reeling from the news when they got called into a meeting with the school, which had learned through a different friend of Noah's that he was gay. "They had decided there were two options for me," Noah says. "Option number one was they would allow me to remain in the school, but they wouldn't want me to associate with my classmates or do any of my extracurricular activities. I just had to go to class and leave." His other option was to withdraw. Noah's parents left the decision to him – but it was clear to everyone that it wasn't really much of a decision. "They wanted to keep their place of education as pure as it possibly could be."
To this day, Noah does not understand why his friend reported his sexuality to the administration. But what is clear is that despite how involved and popular he had been ("I had a great group of friends, played basketball, yearbook editor, all the honor societies"), he suddenly found himself a pariah. No one from the school contacted him – no teacher, no administrator, not even the students with whom he'd thought he was close. (The school and church declined to comment.) It was almost as though he had never attended. "I lost a lot of friends," he says now. "I don't speak to anybody from there."
Equally upsetting was the fact that this happened two weeks before he was to begin his senior year, and although he already had enough credits to graduate, he says the school refused to give him a degree, or even return his family's calls. He'd been accepted to Mercer University, but without proof that he'd completed high school, he wouldn't be able to enroll. The turn of events was crushing: "I don't remember almost anything from those couple months, except for just being devastatingly, unbearably sad." Though he'd never been suicidal before, he suddenly found himself lured by harmful thoughts (a 2011 study in Pediatrics found that gay youth are five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide). "I'd be driving down the road and thinking about just swerving my car over and hitting other cars. I grabbed a bunch of pills and tried to figure out which ones were better to combine to try to kill myself. I never felt that way before I got kicked out of school, but that was the level I was at. It was down to a couple minutes."
Ironically, Noah had recently started coming out to his friends because he'd finally been able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith. Like many children raised in conservative, religious environments, he'd originally believed his attractions to be sinful and, since he couldn't help having them, had been plagued by a lot of internalized shame.
As he began to research homosexuality and its Christian context, he soon learned that not all Christians agree that gay people are destined for hell – a discovery that allowed him to consider that he might one day embrace his sexuality. "My faith was very, very important to me. I wanted to be sure that Christianity and my orientation could mesh, and if not, then what I was giving up would be homosexuality – it wouldn't be Christianity," he tells me matter-of-factly. "So I read a lot of books and websites to try and figure these things out. And when I felt like I could mesh them and defend them, well, I came out." As an example of what he discovered, he mentions Romans 1:18-27, one of the most popular of the so-called clobber verses, biblical passages that are commonly used to condemn homosexual activity. "This verse that talks about abandoning our God-given nature and going after these perverted, lustful things?" Noah says. "Well, my God-given nature is my attraction for men. I would be acting counter to Romans if I went after women, because that goes against the very nature of what I am – not just sexually, but romantically and emotionally."
Thanks in large part to the Internet, many gay kids are now able to access opinions about homosexuality that diverge from those of their immediate community. Like Jason, Tristan professes to be Christian and says that he doesn't see his homosexuality as antithetical to his faith. "In Leviticus, it says that if someone shaves their head you're supposed to stone them," he says, shrugging. Even Emily, who experienced complete rejection from her church after the Bible-camp incident ("Whenever I came in, people's moms wouldn't let me play with their kids and stuff like that"), is "kind of on the fence about it," not entirely ready to disavow a religion based solely on the actions of some of its adherents.
This, however, makes LGBTQ kids no less vulnerable to the judgment of the community's value system. "This is not just your religion, it's your culture, too," says Jeff Chu, author of Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. "Christianity in so much of America is so strong – that's the community, that's the network. It's church, it's Sunday school, it's youth group, it's potluck dinners, it's 'Where do you go to church?' And if your answer to that is 'Nowhere,' you're an outcast. So how many levels of outcast do you want to be? You can't just flick a switch and think, 'This doesn't matter.'"
Still, by the time he started coming out, Noah had convinced himself that he could make others see things his way. "At the time, I was very naive about the whole thing. I assumed my friends would just be my friends, my parents would just be my parents, the school would just be the school, and life would continue on. Maybe everybody would disagree with me and have an intellectual debate about it, but that's fine. That's the most I was expecting. I wasn't expecting all the rest."
When I visit the state capitol building in Atlanta, it's the type of sparkly spring morning that makes one feel as though somewhere, somehow, the wheels of democracy must be brilliantly turning. Sunlight gleams off the building's golden, neoclassic dome, tour groups gawk in the soaring marble lobby, and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a key player in the passage of HB 1133, greets me in his wood-paneled office with booming, old-school Southern congeniality and the assurance that the SSO law is entirely humanitarian, meant to help Georgia's students and parents avoid a failing public-school system that's too unwieldy to quickly turn around. "What I tell the opponents is, 'You sit down with that parent and that child, and you tell them to stay in that system, and "Hang in there, we'll get to this and fix it." ' Most parents are thinking, 'My child's got one educational life to live. I can't sit around and wait for you to fix the problem. I need a choice.' " As for the charges from the Southern Education Foundation ("So-Called Education Foundation, is what I call them," scoffs Ehrhart) that the money merely helps out kids who could afford private schools to begin with, Ehrhart assures me that the portion of SSO money that's going to underprivileged kids is "probably close to 99 percent. It's all need-based."
His support for this claim, however, is mostly anecdotal. He mentions "this little sixth-grade trumpet player with big glasses that just wasn't prospering in some of the gang environments in the big middle school," but Ehrhart isn't sure how to locate her and can't remember her name. He argues that it costs the state far more to educate a student in the public-school system than that same student would receive through any SSO scholarship (the SEF denies these figures). And as proof that SSO money is not just going to privileged kids, he finally asks, "Why would schools turn around and give the scarce financial aid that they have to the kid of Goldman Sachs' president? It just doesn't work that way."
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