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

Rolling Stone/October 10, 2014

By Alex Morris

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.

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."

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.

For Tristan, access to the "secret gay society" allowed him to finally accept his sexuality, when the only message he'd received up to that point was that it was sinful and wrong. "I won't come out to my family because they think that homosexuals should be lined up and shot. My mom thinks they're an abomination, and my stepdad thinks we have a disease, like a neurological disorder that can't be passed on." Before he learned that other kids at his school were gay too, Tristan would have agreed that something was truly and disturbingly wrong with his attraction to other boys. "For a while, I did think that I was sick. I thought my brain was messed up, and I was thinking about going to ask my mom to take me to the doctor or something and get medicine. And then, before I even got the chance, I got that message."

We're in God's country here, a land where steeples rise up beyond the strip malls and people bless you when you sneeze, and half the radio stations seem devoted to affirming one's quotidian engagement with a personal lord and savior. As the rest of the nation edges ever closer to demanding equal rights for LGBTQ citizens and legalizing same-sex marriage, it's no surprise that the conservative Christians who dominate this landscape would hold tight to an issue that has become a rallying point in their war against the culture of tolerance, or that students like Tristan, Jason and Emily would get caught in the cross hairs – able to find acceptance in a network of peers and yet "terrified," as Jason puts it, to reveal their full identity to authority figures around them. But what does come as a surprise is that despite an explicit anti-gay program, their school benefits from diverted public funds while its LGBTQ students must hide their sexualities and live in constant fear of condemnation and rejection.

Georgia, along with 11 other states (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Rhode Island, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, New Hampshire, Louisiana and, most recently, Alabama), has adopted laws – sometimes referred to as "neovouchers" – to grant dollar-for-dollar tax credits to people who donate money to provide children with scholarships to private schools. In theory, such a plan has the potential to help a lot of students, but in practice, especially in deeply religious places like Georgia, it has also meant that millions of dollars have been redirected from public funds to privately run Student Scholarship Organizations, which can then funnel the money to schools with strict anti-gay policies. Because the money goes straight to the SSO and never actually enters the public coffers, it's free and clear of being considered a "public fund" – allowing church and state to technically be kept separate. All of which may sound fishy, but consider this: It's fully legal because the laws make it so. And, as the school-choice movement gains ground, it's certain that other states will soon pass similar legislation.

It's unlikely, however, that any of these laws will be as freewheeling as Georgia's, where conservative Christian schools constitute the largest segment of private schools in the state. Georgia House Bill 1133, which introduced the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit, is the only SSO legislation in the country that was formulated without requiring organizations to take family income into account when choosing who will receive a scholarship, nor does it keep track of who gets them. A 2011 amendment makes it a criminal offense to disclose who donates SSO money, how much they donate, or which schools receive these donations, making any knowledge about where the money goes so shrouded in mystery that the Society of Professional Journalists awarded HB 1133 the Black Hole Award, for "the most heinous violations of the public's right to know."

Nevertheless, after the law went into effect, more than $230 million in tax credits have been awarded to taxpayers in Georgia who have made SSO donations. And since at least 115 private schools affiliated with SSOs in the state have explicit anti-gay policies or belong to associations that condemn homosexuality, it's clear that much of that money has gone to private schools that consider homosexuality not only a sin but also a perversion from which the rest of their students must be shielded. Meanwhile, two of the seven agencies that grant private schools accreditation promote an anti-gay sentiment.

That the schools have come to rely on this money is apparent in the aggressive way they go after it, imploring parents to take full advantage of the SSO program before the cap is reached and it's too late. A flier from North Cobb Christian School stated in bold print, "If only half of our families contributed the maximum credit allowed, NCCS would qualify for $750,000 in additional financial-aid funds!" Elsewhere, the flier reminds parents that this money can "free up funds from our normal financial-aid pool."

Unsurprisingly, SSO laws have received staunch criticism from outlets that see them as a means of helping children who need it the least at the expense of those who could truly benefit. In Georgia, the most vocal opponent has been the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes better educational opportunities for underprivileged youth. After HB 1133 was passed in 2008, the SEF began closely reviewing the legislation. "We started looking at the law to see if we could become a Student Scholarship Organization," says vice president Steve Suitts. What the SEF found instead was that the law's wording allowed for too much potential abuse. "It may have been sold to the public as a way in which to help low-income kids get a last chance at a good education, but it was not in fact designed for that," Suitts says. "It was designed in order to simply start building a publicly funded, publicly supported private-school system in the state."

Which is particularly problematic to Suitts when he considers both the implications for gay youth and the statistics pertaining to school segregation. As of the latest data, from 2010, only 10 percent of white students in Georgia's public-education system attend a virtually segregated school (in which white students constitute at least 90 percent of the overall school population); yet for white students attending a private school affiliated with an SSO, that number rose to 53 percent. Kick LGBTQ kids out of the equation, and the school population only becomes more and more homogenous – at the expense of millions of dollars that could be going into the public-school system. The SEF has therefore lobbied extensively for legislative changes and filed petitions before the Department of Revenue to counteract the SSO laws. In a small victory this spring, the state amended the law, forcing SSOs to consider wealth disparity. But in the same vote, the Assembly raised the annual cap from $51 million to $58 million.

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."

Certainly Ehrhart has to be at least partially right; it's hard to imagine that all schools are consistently denying underprivileged students in favor of ones whose parents have means. But Ehrhart is also clear that he's as much behind free choice as he is in support of poor kids; he comes across as the particular type of Southern man who has been bristling at the federal government's dogged insistence on meddling in his affairs since well before the Civil War (a small rug in his office commemorates Georgia's Civil War sesquicentennial). As such, he firmly believes in a government that expands, rather than limits, the options of its citizens, especially when it comes to how they spend their money. "I am unabashedly a free-market Republican. And again, it's really not a loophole," he says of HB 1133. "If you take advantage of a tax regulation on your federal income taxes, that is the law. It was set in there so you could utilize that. I didn't hide this. I said what it is. I said, 'It is a quasi-voucher.' I'm proud of that – I wrote it in there on purpose. Deal with it, change the statute, but don't tell me I'm playing a game." In fact, Ehrhart is so behind the legislation he's helped pass, he's founded his own SSO, Faith First Georgia.

When it comes to the issue of supporting schools that very much don't support their LGBTQ students, Ehrhart points out that "the SSOs do not preclude a homosexual group starting an SSO that gives money only to groups of schools that promote that concept." The fact that such an SSO would probably not provide scholarship support to a Christian school, and that many LGBTQ students attend such schools, is less a problem to Ehrhart than a solution: He believes that gay students would feel more comfortable attending schools that are more supportive of their sexual orientation anyway. By way of illustration, he asks, "What if you were in a Muslim, a madrassa school? And you're a woman? I would think you'd choose a different school." In other words, schools should be segregated by school of thought.

To a certain extent, this line of logic is valid. Indeed, all of the students I spoke with said that they were, at some time or another, deeply hurt by their school's unabashed stance on homosexuality, which is often incorporated into the curriculum. The Accelerated Christian Education's 11th-grade science materials include a section on "Man's Corruptions," in which students are taught, "In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal." A biology textbook published by the Bob Jones University Press begins a section on homosexuality by quoting Romans and goes on to say that "God calls homosexuality a sin and condemns those who engage in it." Such textbooks, and others with a similar stance on homosexuality, are part of the core curriculum in Georgia's Christian schools.

Furthermore, at an institution where such concepts are taught as "science," it's not hard to imagine that the prevailing attitude of the student body would be at least somewhat homophobic. When it comes to whether or not homosexuals are destined for hell, "it depends where their heart is," one student from Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn, Georgia, tells me when I meet him after school at a nearby Chick-fil-A. "If you know it's a sin and you continually decide to make that choice, then yes, I would say you're probably not going to go to heaven."

Yet when I ask Noah about Ehrhart's advice to gay kids at conservative Christian schools, he doesn't quite agree. "Coming from an outsider perspective, a comment like that might make sense: 'Oh, just change schools,'" Noah says. "But it's very hard to just change schools. There's a whole lot of chaos involved in picking up and leaving." For Tristan, changing schools would require him to provide his parents with some explanation for doing so, which he desperately fears would force him to out himself to them; he says that he's far less afraid of being expelled than he is of what expulsion would mean in terms of revealing his sexuality to his family. Just in case that happens, he's got a backup plan. "I have a friend whose parents would take me in," he says. He has no doubt that if his family knew about his sexual orientation, he would not be welcome in his home.

But ultimately Ehrhart believes that separation of church and state is exactly what makes any pro-gay objection to the SSO system null and void: He points out that it would be unconstitutional to bar religious organizations from the tax benefit to which they are legally entitled just because of something they believe. What does he himself believe about homosexuality? "I mean, I sit in church every Sunday with people who sin in all kinds of different ways. It's not mine to judge."

At the end of what should have been his senior year, Noah decided to go to what would have been his high school graduation. Once he arrived at the church where it was held, he pulled out his phone and pretended to text so that he wouldn't have to make eye contact with anyone. It felt so awkward to be there, surrounded by people who had rejected him, and yet he needed to see it, to imagine what might have been. He took a seat in a pew as the ceremony started. "Everyone's got blue graduation robes," he says wistfully. "I was really depressed, honestly, but I was glad that I went. It gave me some sense of closure, I guess, to be able to say, 'So this is what it would have looked like had I walked across the stage.'"

Part of him now feels that withdrawing from his high school was cowardly, that he should have held his ground, stood up to the administration and forced them to actually expel him. Then again, the end result was the same, and however it happened, the matter helped him to embrace his sexuality, to publicly own it. He stares down at the silver promise ring his boyfriend gave him, engraved with Roman numerals to symbolize the passage of time. He hopes one day they'll get married, even if they can't do so in Georgia.

No longer a liability, his sexuality now helps ground him, even guide him. He is currently the finance director for the campaign of a local Democrat. And in May, he finally got to wear a cap and gown when he graduated from Mercer University, where he majored in gender studies and was president of Common Ground, the school's gay-straight alliance. When I last saw him, it was during the anticipation of finally having a graduation ceremony of his own. "I'm going to put on my robe, I'm going to wear my hat, I'm going to walk across the stage, and it's going to be the most meaningful experience of my life," he says. "And everyone I love is going to be there, and I'm completely honest about who I am, and everyone in that audience knows who I am. Everyone knows that I'm gay, and they're all OK with it."

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