No Queer Person Should Face the Abuse I Endured at College of the Ozarks

I have been watching the College of the Ozarks’ lawsuit against the Biden administration over protections afforded to LGBTQ+ persons and cannot in good conscience keep silent about this very personal matter. I am a queer, non-binary trans person who was born an hour away from College of the Ozarks (C of O) on a cattle farm. My dad attended C of O, and it was expected that this was where I would go. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. My mother was a conservative Catholic and raised me in the church.

Although I wasn’t fully aware of my identity as a young child, I did get the message from my parents and my community that being LGBTQ wasn’t an option. I only started realizing I might be queer when it was used as a slur against me as a preteen. I was choked by some older boys during a community event and after that did everything I could to hide who I was, out of fear of further violence and exclusion. I was a good student in high school; I ran cross-country and track; and I was in Future Farmers of America and the art club.

I arrived at C of O in January of 2001. That first summer I stayed on campus to work and pay my room and board. I met a girl and started having feelings. This led to a lot of anxiety for me, as my identity was demonized and even pathologized during this time.

During the spring of 2002, I was in a class where the college licensed professional counselor (LPC) came and talked to the class about counseling services. I thought this was someone I could confide in about the sexual and physical abuse I had experienced in my own family. I came to realize this counselor was practicing conversion “therapy,” which attempts to turn queer people straight. I also came to understand that going to the college counseling center was not safe for me.

The Christian narrative of the pure ingenue who needs to be protected because she is worthless if her purity is lost increased my own feelings of worthlessness and depression. This is the very narrative that is being used today to vilify trans women. The so-called fragility of white, heterosexual, cisgender women has been weaponized against minorities for decades.

After several years of attendance, I dropped out of College of the Ozarks and joined the Air Force. While serving under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT),” I achieved the rank of staff sergeant. I was assigned to be an aircraft mechanic on the stealth bomber (B2). My six-year term of service ended honorably.

I started coming out as queer during my last full year of service in 2012 as DADT was being repealed. I finished my undergraduate degree and went on to get a master’s degree in counseling and guidance. I now live in Oregon, a state that provides protections for LGBTQ+ folk. I am very happy to be providing services to young LGBTQ+ individuals who are coming to terms with their identities.

Looking back now as a registered counseling intern, I am enraged that College of the Ozarks used its power and position of trust to inflict psychological and spiritual abuse upon me and many others. This took years for me to unravel as I suffered from depression and anxiety. I eventually came to realize that the shame and worthlessness inflicted upon me in that environment was not mine to carry.

This is why I am able to speak up today. Christian college counselors across America are using their position of trust to abuse college-aged youth. It is hard to witness College of the Ozarks and other religious colleges play the role of the victim as they perpetuate harassment and discrimination.

As I reflect on my experience, I find it reprehensible that any person, institution, or religion would try to control who people love. It is unconscionable when counselors, educators, or clergy of any cloth use their power to hurt people.

It is additionally outrageous for the Department of Education to fund these colleges that violate the rights of LGBTQ+ students. That led me to join a class action lawsuit by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project to push back against this faith-based discrimination.

As a healthcare professional, I feel that I have an obligation to step forward and sound the alarm. When systems or institutions use shame or threaten punitive action against individuals surrounding sexuality or identity (as College of the Ozarks and many others have done), they create an environment that is dangerous for all individuals. It must stop now.

Republished with permission from the Springfield (Ill.) News-Leader.