UPDATE: You guys are amazing...
I had hoped to help raise the $6,500 needed to cover Joel's second semester... and people donated enough to make up the gap between Joel's financial aid package and his college expenses for the next four years. If you read this story and feel like making a donation, please consider making a donation to the Point Foundation, which offers scholarships to LGBT students who are struggling (often with parents who refuse to assist them), or the Ali Forney Center, which provides services and housing to homeless LGBT kids in New York City. There are lots of LGBT kids out there like Joel who need our help.
Earlier this summer, I heard about a kid named Joel whose conservative Christian parents disapproved of both his sexuality and his dream of dancing professionally.
Someone sent me a link to a Go Fund Me page that told his story. Joel was this homeschooled Christian kid who wasn’t allowed to take dance classes until he could get a job and pay for them himself, which he started doing at age 15. This was a kid who, with the encouragement of a dance teacher in a tiny town in Michigan, auditioned for and landed a spot in the highly prestigious dance program at Oklahoma City University (OCU), a well-regarded private Methodist college. Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara are both graduates of OCU.
“When Joel was accepted at OCU he was ecstatic,” read the Go Fund Me appeal. “His whole dance studio stood by as he opened his acceptance letter to OCU! The scholarships and aid combined to still leave him approximately $16,000 short for his freshman year at OCU. Initially, his parents agreed to help with financial aid so that Joel could get student loans for college. Joel is only 17 so he has to have his parents’ signature on loans and financial aid, even though upon graduation he is liable for it. And therein lies the challenge. Now that he is 30 days away from moving to Oklahoma City, they refuse to sign the final paperwork. Why? Joel is gay and plans to live openly as a gay man. Due to his family’s strict stance on homosexuality they will not sign or cosign anything to help him get to college.”
I hesitated to toss up a post about Joel or tweet out the link to his Go Fund Me page. This kid, the gay dancer with the homophobic/dance-phobic parents, was only identified as Joel. He had no last name.
And Joel’s hometown? The place where he was homeschooled and took dance lessons he paid for himself? Not named. The encouraging teacher who sounded suspiciously like Julie Walters in Billy Elliott? Also not named. Before I tweeted or posted anything, certainly before I made a donation myself, I wanted to make certain that this Joel kid actually existed. Whoever set up the Go Fund Me page was looking to raise a lot of money—$40,000—and in all honesty I thought the whole thing might be a scam.
Lyndi Wright is the woman who set up the Go Fund Me page for Joel. She's also the daughter of the dance teacher who encouraged Joel to audition for OCU as well as a graduate of OCU herself. Wright still lives in Oklahoma City.
“Joel stayed with me when he auditioned,” Wright told me by phone. “I knew his parents didn’t approve, and I knew that he had gone through struggles, and when I found out they weren’t going to help him with financial aid or fill out forms, an Internet campaign to raise money was the first thing that sprung to mind.”
Joel’s struggles included being forced to move out of his parents’ house after he came out as gay.
I told Wright that I had initially worried her campaign might be a scam. She immediately emailed me copies of the letter of acceptance Joel received from OCU.
I asked Wright why Joel’s last name and the name of his hometown weren’t mentioned anywhere on the Go Fund Me page. The reason was heartbreaking: In addition to forcing him to move out of the house, Joel’s parents demanded that he stop using his last name—their last name—publicly. Joel, she explained, still loves his parents and doesn't want to cause them more pain. So he agreed to stop using his last name. Wright sent me to Joel’s Facebook page: he had taken his last name off his Facebook page as well. (As for leaving her mother's name off the Go Fund Me page, Wright said in an email: "I wrote [the Go Fund Me page] to highlight Joel... I guess I was a bit naive in not proving that it wasn't an 'internet scam' versus just telling his story. I figured that detail was irrelevant." Wright's mother is named is Kathy Miller and her dance studio is MKSODance.)
Wright told me a few women back in Michigan had been taking care of Joel—Wright's mom and the roughly five families that had been housing Joel since his parents forced him to move out—but she took on running the Go Fund Me page “because I’m the more Internet savvy out of the group.” The names of other women helping Joel out were left off the page—and are being left out of this piece—because these women live in a small community and they don't want to draw the anger Joel's parents or the parents of the other children some of the women work with.
Why was Wright trying to raise so much money?
“I put up that amount up thinking, ‘If I’m gong to do it, I might as well do it,’” said Wright. “To cover the first year he’ll needed around 14K. And I thought we should try to cover more than just his first year.”
Joel came out to his parents twice.
“I first came out to them when I was 12,” Joel told me the first time we talked on the phone. “My dad was like, ‘It’s okay, we can fix this.’ I started seeing a counselor and I would go in and we would talk about what things I’d done that week that were ‘gay’ and we would pray about it. We would pray that I would become attracted to girls and become straight.”
Joel’s parents considered dance a “gay” thing.
“I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to study dance until I could get a job and start paying for it myself,” Joel said. “They were worried that dance would make me more feminine and consequently more gay.”
His parents did allow him to perform in plays with a theater club for homeschooled Christian kids. His first role was Jesus in Godspell. Despite having seen just one Broadway show in his life—a touring production of Wicked that stopped in Kalamazoo (his seats were so bad he couldn’t see anything, he remembers)—Joel's goal is to be a professional dancer on Broadway. He’s a huge fan of Andrew Rannells, the Broadway star who recently played Hedwig in the hit Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and originated the role of Elder Price in Book of Mormon. (A few weeks later via text I ask Joel, one musical theater fan to another, to namecheck his favorite Broadway shows. "Legally Blonde, Heathers: The Musical, A Chorus Line, Book of Mormon, and Rent," he texted back. I didn't have the heart to tell him that Heathers never played on Broadway.)
Joel came out to his parents a second time after he was accepted into OCU. He had also recently started dating a boy he met through the gay youth support group he had been secretly attending.
“I told them that I had a boyfriend, and that I was going be living out of the closet at OCU,” Joel said. “They had always said that if I got a boyfriend I wasn’t allowed to live at home, and they repeated that. They told me I would have to break up with my boyfriend and stop being gay if I wanted to live at home.”
Joel moved out.
“They were worried how people in the church would react to me being gay,” Joel said. “Our family is very involved in our church and has been for generations. And I tried to do it, all though middle school and high school, I tried to be straight, I prayed to be straight. But I couldn’t and it tore me up inside.”
When I asked Joel what church he was talking about—which Christian denomination—he would only tell me on the condition that I not share the name.
“I don’t want any anger directed at the church or my parents,” Joel said. “I understand where they’re coming from. It’s their religion. But it’s hard and I feel disappointed because I don’t feel like they love me.”
Joel and I first spoke in late July. He was supposed to start at OCU in a few weeks and the Go Fund Me campaign had raised nearly $3,000. I told Joel I wanted to write something about him. I believed he existed—I'd seen his acceptance letter from OCU, his Facebook page, I'd spoken with his supporters, and I'd looked up his church, and I'd contacted his parents—but I had a new reason to hesitate: Joel was not yet 18. He was still a minor and he was still living in the same small town where he grew up. I asked Joel if he had ever seen the film Kidnapped for Christ. He hadn't. I told him to watch it. Joel was going to be turning 18 in two weeks. I made him promise me that he wouldn't meet with his parents in person—with his parents, any members of his extended family, or anyone from their church—until after his 18th birthday.
I contacted both of Joel’s parents via email. I asked them a series of questions: had they had thrown their gay son out of the house, were they actively trying to prevent him from going to college, did they oppose the Go Fund Me effort.
Joel’s mother responded right away: “Thank you for your considerate email,” she wrote. “It is also an honor to receive a personal email from such a respected person as yourself.” (Reading that email from Joel’s mom—so unlike the emails I typically get from conservative Christians—I thought to myself, “Either Joel’s mom doesn’t know who I am or sarcasm isn’t against her religion.”)
Two days later I got an email from Joel’s father.
“We love him infinitely and unconditionally,” Joel’s father wrote. “We are not angry with him and we want to see him experiencing the joy he was created to experience.”
Joel's father answered some of my questions while sidestepping others. One thing he wanted made clear: The Go Fund Me page, in his opinion, misrepresented their actions. “[Joel’s] understanding of what has and is happening is very different from ours,” his email continued. “We did not kick him out of the house. We did not say we reject him as our son. We do not oppose him going to OCU.”
Joel’s dance teacher, the people who took him in, and Lyndi Wright all dispute his father’s characterization of events.
“He can go home anytime,” said Wright, “if he doesn’t go to the gay youth group in their community, if he doesn’t date, if he doesn’t have a boyfriend, and if he doesn’t do ‘gay things’ or live openly as a gay person. Yeah, then he can go home.”
And according to Joel and Wright, his parents actively tried to prevent him from starting at OCU.
“There would be papers that I needed them to fill out,” said Joel, “and they didn’t fill them out, I would ask if I could fill them out for them and I wouldn’t hear back.”
One of the people Joel stayed with after he was forced to move out of his parents’ house also disputes Joel’s parents’ account. (She willing to speak to me but she did not want to be identified by name. She feared the possible legal repercussions of housing a minor over the objections of the minor’s parents. I’m going to call her Alice.)
“When Joel came out to me I said what I would say to anyone: I love you,” Alice told me. “He broke down because no one had said that to him before when he came out.”
Alice was shocked by the actions of Joel’s parents after he was accepted to OCU.
“Joel was frustrated that his parents wouldn't provide his immunization records to the school or to him. He found out that his insurance had either expired or they had canceled it," Alice said. “He had to go and sign up for Medicaid himself as an independent adult and he had to check ‘homeless’ on the form. They basically threw him out and they don’t want anyone helping this kid. This has been really, really emotionally difficult for Joel—I’ve heard that kid crying himself to sleep at night—and he’s such a great kid. He has talent. If you met him you would get why he has so many people are pulling for him.”
Joel’s parents deny these characterizations. They say that they are in debt and wary of going deeper into debt. Joel, however, would be personally liable for the loans he hoped to apply for, not his parents. And a text message Joel's mother sent to a third party—a text message that Joel was never supposed to see—revealed the real reason why his parents stopped assisting him: “Joel has been deliberately disobedient to our rules about dating a guy, and that makes us not feel supportive of his other choices…. We love Joel but he needs to respect our values.”
“Deliberately disobedient” = “being gay.”
“Our rules about dating a guy” = “dating guys is against our rules.”
"Not feel supportive" = "not help him."
Joel’s family did offer to loan Joel money after the Go Fund Me page went up. But the loan came with conditions: the Go Fund Me page had to come down and Joel had to meet with a lawyer and sign a contract with his family.
“They were writing up a legal contract they wanted me to sign,” said Joel, “and it was going to say that I couldn’t make any public statements ‘that would reflect badly on my family.’”
Would living as an openly gay man constitute a public statement that reflected badly on his family?
“It could mean any number of things,” Joel said. “But probably that too. Me being gay is the main thing about me that they think ‘reflects negatively’ on them.”
Joel started college two weeks ago. But the day he arrived on campus—what should have been a day of triumph for a kid from a small town—was tinged with sadness. Because everywhere Joel looked he saw other freshman being dropped off by their parents.
“It was really hard to meet everyone else’s parents,” said Joel. “I was wishing my parents could’ve been there too.”
Joel wasn't alone when he arrived at OCU. His dance teacher and one of the five women who helped house Joel after he had to move out of his parents' house drove him to Oklahoma City from Michigan.
Lyndi Wright has been keeping an eye on Joel since he arrived in Oklahoma City. Her Go Fund Me effort wound up raising about $6,500—far less than the $40K she hoped to raise, but enough to cover Joel’s first semester.
“Getting his second semester paid for is my big concern right now,” Wright told me. “That means raising another $6,500. Since we know now that his parents aren’t going to support him, he can fill out different financial aid forms for his second year. He can re-file as an independent person with no parents. So there should be more financial aid for him next year. So we won't need to raise as much money as we first thought. But we do need to cover the rest of his first year.”
Joel is thinking about choosing a new last name. He might go with “Joel Andrew,” the name that’s currently on his Facebook page, but he wants to talk to his advisors at OCU about a professional name before he makes a final decision.
Joel is three weeks into the program at OCU.
“It’s amazing,” he told me. “Everyone is so talented—and I'm around people who are a lot like me. I was always made to feel like this weird Broadway dance kid that people hated but everyone here is being so nice to me. I feel like I finally found this family. But there’s this possibility I’m going to lose them at the end of the year. I don’t know what I would do if I had to go back to Michigan now.”
Satisfied that Joel actually exists, and certain this isn’t a scam, Terry and I donated $500 to Joel’s Go Fund Me page today. If you want to make a donation—if you want to help a homeschooled kid who has been rejected by his family—click here to make a donation. Let’s help cover his second semester.