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When Morgan Stringer first started attending French Camp Academy, a Christian boarding school in French Camp, Mississippi, during her sophomore year of high school, she instantly found a group of friends. That summer, however, two of her friends were expelled for “homosexual activity.”
“A bunch of girls were kicked out for ‘lesbian activity’ my junior year as well,” she tells Religion Dispatches. “May have been senior year.”
It didn’t help that Stringer started realizing she was bisexual around the same time, although she told herself at the time she merely “admired” women’s appearances. “I think it was a coping mechanism for me to view myself as that,” she tells RD, “because if I was out or ‘acted’ on it, then I could be sent to a place much worse, [like] conversion therapy or an even stricter school.”
Stringer, 26, is now a legal consultant in Oxford, Mississippi, a co-host of the atheist podcast Beyond the Trailer Park, and openly bisexual. However, she’s still processing her experiences at French Camp Academy. “I laugh about it and make jokes,” Stringer says, “but that is how I deal with it because there are parts of that experience that I look back on as an adult and realize just how dark my experiences truly were, so I use humor and sarcasm as a coping mechanism.”
“What [Christian schools] teach about sex and sexuality and gender and marriage is extremely psychologically damaging to people,” Chris Stroop tells RD. “It’s damaging even to straight men, but essentially damaging to women and queer people. There’s just nothing healthy about the way they teach about sexuality.”
Stroop, who frequently contributes to RD, is the person behind the #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag, which launched shortly after HuffPost revealed that Second Lady Karen Pence was teaching art at a Christian school that excludes LGBTQ students and teachers. It quickly went viral with people in the “hundreds of thousands,” according to Stroop, sharing their own stories of surviving Christian schooling. “I had no idea it was going to go as viral as it did,” Stroop says, “and create a media firestorm and get on Fox and Friends at least twice.”
Shortly after #ExposeChristianSchools went viral, a sister hashtag #ExposeChristianHomeschooling began making the rounds on Twitter, which Rewire.News recently covered. While Stroop says his original mission was to primarily focus on Christian K-12 schools, he appreciates the fact that the conversation has since expanded.
Apart from a brief stint in public school for half of sixth grade, Stroop spent his entire childhood attending evangelical Christian schools in Indianapolis and Colorado Springs. At one school, Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, a high school science teacher would begin his class everyday by sharing his visions of the apocalypse to his terrified students: “He would go on and on,” Stroop says, “and talk about how much sin is increasing in the world, like ‘Look how friendly we’re becoming toward gay people. This is horrible. Obviously, you know in Matthew [24:37] it says, As it was in the in the days of Noah, so it will be in the time of the coming of the Son of man. So look at all these things and it must be the year of Noah.’”
By the time Stroop graduated from Heritage, he was done with Christian schooling and enrolled in Ball State University, where his parents attended college. It was in college that Stroop experienced what he calls a “completely unnecessary existential crisis” unpacking his childhood religious indoctrination.
“Your whole social world when you’re growing up evangelical like that,” says Stroop, “is pretty much that evangelical parallel subculture of what scholars of fundamentalism would call ‘an enclave community.’ So you’re just pretty much embedded in this. You may not even have exposure to people or information from outside that bubble.”
A decade after graduating college, Stroop realized he was attracted to people of different genders, not just women. Although he’s fairly comfortable with his sexuality—Stroop prefers the term “queer” over either “bisexual” or “pansexual”—he tells RD that there’s “sort of still a barrier there” thanks to his Christian schooling.
“I think it’s important that people understand that being queer and going to Christian school,” Luciano Gonzalez of the Latinx Humanist Alliance tells RD, “it has a sort of special impact on some people. If you’re queer and you’re also a conservative Christian, there’s a…not-quite self hate, but something akin to that that you sort of have to unpack and deal with at some point.”
Like Stroop, Gonzalez realized he was different in school, but the conservative environment of his Christian school stopped him from exploring his queerness. “When people talked about things like having to deal with lust, for instance,” he says, “I didn’t quite relate because I wanted to be with people romantically, but I never had any understanding of what it was like to want to be with someone physically.”
Gonzalez, 24, is now openly asexual, but it took him many years to unpack the school’s anti-queer teachings. “When I started going to public schools [in high school],” he tells RD, “and when I started sort of unlearning the homophobia that I had learned in that school, I started to wonder if I myself might have been homosexual. I’m not but it took me a while to sort of square those different ideas and to actually explore that possibility in a healthy way, and then it would take me a long time because of that to be able to understand the concept of asexuality, and that that’s what I was.”
Looking back on her years at French Camp Academy, Stringer recognizes that while other classmates had worse experiences, her scars still remain. “I missed out on a ‘normal’ high school experience,” Stringer says, “and I think that if I had just received quality mental healthcare and someone to listen to me without judgment then maybe I could have missed out on all that trauma. Which, I know, trauma seems like such an extreme word. But I don’t know how else to put it when someone tries to warp your worldview into something unhealthy. And not just your view of the world, but ultimately your view of yourself, and the shame and hiding and pain that came with that. Even if those people thought they were genuinely helping me, impact matters more than intent.”
When asked if Christian schools can evolve, Stroop has doubts. “I think these schools can improve marginally at best,” he tells RD, “and will always be far behind the rest of our society. If they don’t give up biblical inerrancy, they’ll always be essentially authoritarian indoctrination machines. They are clinging to their anti-LGBTQ bigotry as well. I think evangelicalism is ultimately irredeemable.”