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‘It’s not education’: Christian Academy alumni detail decades of anti-LGBTQ discrimination

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J. Tyler Franklin
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Last month, a screenshot of a homophobic school assignment from Christian Academy of Louisville (CAL) went viral on social media. The topic: a letter to a friend “struggling with homosexuality.”

“In at least 8 sentences,” the middle school essay prompt reads, “try to show the friend from the Bible, reason, and your personal friendship

  • -that God’s design for them is good
  • -that homosexuality will not bring them satisfaction
  • -that you love them even though you do not approve of their lifestyle.”

Many were shocked by the writing prompt, but LGBTQ alumni of Christian Academy weren’t surprised.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg, truly,” CAL graduate Maggie Smith told WFPL. “The people who think that is crazy—I want them to hear about what else happened at that school.”

Smith is among several LGBTQ alumni who talked to WFPL about their experiences at CAL. They all describe a similar school environment: one that is hostile to LGBTQ students with homophobic practices advocates call dangerous to the mental health and lives of LGBTQ youth.

Tell him not to ‘act gay’

The first time Nick Evans heard about same-sex relationships, he was in a fifth-grade classroom at Christian Academy in the mid-1990s. His teacher introduced students to the term “homosexuality” in their Bible study class.

“It was basically the concept introduced to me that, like, two men could have sex with each other, two women could have sex with each other, and it was something vile and disgusting and just really not OK,” Evans said.

Evans wasn’t really sure what sex was then. He was 10 years old. But he got the message: Gay = bad.

A few weeks later, his parents got a phone call from the teacher. A classmate had noticed Evans’ behavior was “effeminate,” Evans said, and reported it to the teacher.

“Apparently it was enough for my fifth grade teacher to call my parents and voice concern that I might be gay, and to—I guess—not act gay,” Evans said.

Evans was devastated.

“I just remember it bringing such feelings of just like anguish and shame and just this guilt that I shouldn’t have even had at that age,” he said.

It wasn’t until high school that Evans figured out he was gay. He started coming out in his senior year, but only to people outside of the CAL community.

Evans graduated from CAL in 2004, and he says back then, teachers and staff spent a lot of time focusing on the purported ills of same-sex relationships, especially in high school and especially when LGBTQ issues were making national headlines.

“We had a six-week study, particularly on homosexuality, where for 45 minutes a day, we talked about nothing but homosexuality,” he said.

He says students had to memorize statistics teachers gave them about gay men’s supposed number of sex partners and alleged propensity to contract sexually transmitted infections.

“Just basically presenting gay people as just these AIDS-infested, disease-ridden others,” Evans said.

“It breaks my heart to think that there are kids today, every year, going through that school system with that same struggle,” he said.

Unlike public schools, private religious schools are legally allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ students, families and employees.

Many use an exemption in Title IX, the federal sex discrimination law, which says the law “does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

“I understand they are a private school; they’re a Christian school,” Evans said. But he thinks much of the community is in the dark about the extent of the school’s homophobia.

“I don’t think many parents are aware just how nasty their negativity towards homosexuality is.”

“Dangerous” practices

Evans graduated almost 20 years ago. But more recent graduates described a similarly homophobic environment.

Silas Wendelin is a transgender man who went to Christian Academy until 2018. When he was there, he hadn’t figured out yet that he was trans, and he identified as a lesbian girl. The administration made it known that was not OK.

“I had in multiple classroom environments, teachers who actively argued for the efficacy of conversion therapy,” Wendelin said.

“It was profoundly, profoundly damaging to my own mental health,” he said.

Wendelin wanted to leave CAL. But he felt trapped.

“Being sent to that school was very much a choice made by my parents rather than myself,” he said. “And obviously, like I couldn’t explain why I wanted to leave without outing myself to my parents—which wasn’t an option.”

Eventually a counselor outed Wendelin to his family. Later, the school expelled Wendelin after he refused to take off necklace with the double Venus sign – a lesbian symbol.

“That kind of environment forces you to learn how to survive,” he said. “I had to learn to argue for my own rights. I knew that there wasn’t going to be any adult there who was going to stand up for me.”

The threat of being outed was common among the LGBTQ CAL students who spoke with WFPL. Advocates say this practice puts LGBTQ youth at risk of homelessness, family violence and mental health issues.

“This is a remarkably dangerous practice, and CAL should be ashamed of itself for so many of its anti-LGBTQ practices, including this,” Fairness Campaign Executive Director Chris Hartman told WFPL News.

He pointed to a study suggesting 40% of all unsheltered youth in the country are LGTBQ, along with research showing LGBTQ youth are at much higher risk of depression, self-harm and suicide than other groups because of the stigma they face.

2018 CAL graduate Maggie Smith said an administrator threatened to out her to her family, and only agreed not to after Smith begged, saying she was afraid her parents would kick her out.

“The air left my body,” Smith said. “I had just turned 18—I was an 18-year-old girl who genuinely thought I would not have a place to live if my parents found out.”

The administrator repeated warnings Smith often heard at CAL: that the Lord would “convict” gay people and send them to hell.

“In her head, she’s saving me from eternal damnation. But in reality, she traumatized me,” Smith said.

Years later, Smith is still dealing with that trauma. She still thinks about a handout a teacher created with a list of rebuttals to “arguments for homosexuality.” Smith kept a copy, and provided it to WFPL. The document compares LGBTQ identities to bestiality, pedophilia and incest, and suggests the government regulate LGBTQ “behavior.”

“I don’t think any student should have to go through what I went through, or what any student goes through at that school,” Smith said. “It’s inhumane, and it’s not education.”

WFPL reached out for comment to the teacher Smith said created the handout, but never heard back.

Below are three pages Smith saved from the handout. They contain homophobic material which some readers may find upsetting.

Opportunities denied

Two LGBTQ CAL alumni who reached out to WFPL said the school denied them opportunities because of their sexuality or gender identity.

Smith said the administrator who threatened to out her to her family also refused to let her participate in the school’s annual service trip, “because I would lead people away from Christ.”

The same thing happened to 2019 graduate Malcolm Jones, who wanted to go on a mission trip in Honduras. The administrator interviewed him, but told him he wouldn’t be allowed to go.

“She had a conversation with me about, because I am gay, and open with that … that I was not fully equipped to share the Gospel with people,” Jones told WFPL News, his voice shaking with emotion.

“Getting excluded from things like that for just being who I am is just not a good feeling,” Jones said.

The administrator did not respond to request for comment.

Asked about the schools’ homophobic practices, including the 2022 homework assignment, Christian Academy Schools Superintendent Darin Long sent a statement reiterating the school’s stance against same-sex relationships.

“Christian Academy of Louisville is a Christian-based private school system that partners with families that desire a Christ-centered educational environment,” Long wrote. “We teach all content with a biblical worldview which is defined in our Statement of Faith and Theological Documents which are provided at the time of student applications, during family interviews, and in our school and parent partnership agreements.”

“We believe that God created the marriage covenant to be between one man and one woman. We believe that sex is a good gift of God, to be celebrated within the confines of the marriage covenant, agreeing that all other sexual expressions go against God’s design,” the statement continues.

Hartman, with the Fairness Campaign, acknowledged CAL has a legal right to teach those ideas.

“The unfortunate reality is that private schools, religious schools, have broad leeway to discriminate against whoever they like,” Hartman said.

But even though Christian Academy is a private institution, it has received public funding. CAL was awarded nearly $3.7 million through the first round of the federal Pandemic Paycheck Protection program in March of 2021.

In 2020, Christian Academy also got a share of Jefferson County Public Schools’ federal pandemic relief funds under federal guidance issued by then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Jefferson County Public Schools says Christian Academy received more than $117,000 in the first round of federal CARES funding.

The school stands to take in more public funding if a now-blocked tax-credit scholarship program is allowed to go into effect. That program, known as the Education Opportunity Act, uses a tax-credit scheme to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools, including religious ones.

The law includes a provision that prevents the state from requiring schools to alter their “creed, practices, [or] admissions policy,” in order to participate. Critics say it will allow religious schools to continue to discriminate, even while receiving would-be tax dollars.

In addition to tax dollars, Christian Academy receives philanthropic support from a number of community organizations. In 2019, the school received:

  • $21,495 from the Community Foundation of Louisville
  • $10,000 from Norton Healthcare, Inc.
  • $5,000 from the Humana Foundation

Paving a path for future students

Today, Jones is a STEM major, studying at Western Kentucky University.

“I like it a lot better here,” he said. But he still struggles to let go of what he was taught at CAL.

“I’ve had to unlearn a lot of internalized homophobia,” he said.

Smith, the 2018 graduate, is also still working through her feelings from her time at CAL.

“You feel like you don’t get to be a kid,” she said. “I missed out on so much because I was too focused on being scared of my administration at my school, or scared of the kids I go to school with, or just scared of God.”

Years of therapy are paying off, Smith said. She no longer wakes up from nightmares of hell, or of being back at Christian Academy.

She’s a preschool teacher now—a path Smith said she chose because of her experience at CAL. She never wants other kids to have to go through what she did.

“I want to make sure that I instill in my students that you are allowed to be different,” she said. “I don’t want any of my kids to leave my classroom and feel like they have to hide a part of themselves, or that they need to change a part of themselves to be accepted by their teachers or their peers.”

Smith, Wendelin and Evans all went to a rally at the end of May outside Christian Academy’s entrance to show support for current LGBTQ students as they left campus.

“It feels amazing just to be able to say, ‘I’m queer as hell,’” Smith said, glitter gleaming on her eyelids and pride flags waving in her hair. “They can’t expel me, they can’t stop me … it’s so freeing,” Smith said.

Standing alongside the road with his fellow alumni, Evans hoped that if any LGBTQ students were watching, they’d feel supported.

“I just put myself in my shoes from when I was a senior at Christian Academy … and just how much of a sense of comfort and security that would have given me,” he said.

Some students and parents ignored the crowd as they drove by. One driver in a black Mustang flashed a middle finger and sped off.

But a lot of students rolled down their windows, pumped their fists, and cheered along with them.

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