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I Was A Gay Student At The Evangelical Christian School Where Karen Pence Now Teaches

Karen Pence recently started teaching art classes at Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia, which discriminates agai
Karen Pence recently started teaching art classes at Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia, which discriminates against LGBTQ people.

The news that Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, is teaching at D.C.-area school that openly bans LGBT+ faculty and students ― and any manner of pro-LGBT+ belief or affiliation ― seemed to generate a lot of surprise among my peers. Not a surprise that the nation’s second lady would work there, but that such a school would exist — right in liberal Northern Virginia!

I wasn’t surprised. I’d grown up attending such a school. I figured they were a dime-a-dozen.

At first, I wasn’t keen on reading any of the news stories, but something caught my eye. Immanuel Christian School, in Springfield? I didn’t go to a school like that; I went to that school. From 1989–1997. I’m also gay.

It’s bizarre reading about little ICS in the national media. A common description affixed to it, in this latest culture war dust-up, is “an anti-LGBT school.” It’s an odd label, as if being anti-gay were its raison d’etre. But it is, I must say, more than fair.

I’ve been following the reporting, the commentary, the vice president’s public diatribe in response to the backlash against his wife and the school and, given my own experience, I can’t say I’m sympathetic to his claims of persecution. Let’s be clear, nobody is arguing that private, religious schools can’t exist or can’t legally discriminate. It’s a clear First Amendment right. And what I was hearing was merely criticism, or in most cases matter-of-fact reporting, of the school’s policies.

That harsh light of visibility, the audacity to call hate, hate, seems to anger Mike Pence. And his angry response has only further offended those who were appalled by his wife’s choice to teach there in the first place. And ’round and ’round it goes.

What’s missing, I think, when people talk about a discrimination policy like this, is the practical experience of what that actually looks like. It certainly sounds unfair. But it’s so much more than that.

No student was, to my knowledge, ever expelled for being gay. That would never happen, because no student would ever dare come out in the stifling environment of ICS.

Growing up, we had no clue our school had the policy statements or hiring forms it does. No student was, to my knowledge, ever expelled for being gay. That would never happen, because no student would ever dare come out in the stifling environment of ICS. No openly gay or lesbian teacher was ever turned away, because it would have been clear from a mile away this wasn’t the place for them. The policies were there, I’m sure, in a file cabinet somewhere. They stated what would, to anyone attending the institution, go without saying. And they enforced something much more consequential, namely the curriculum.

It does have to be said that ICS was a good school. It was small, intimate, and — aside from a middle school biology course that seemed to focus 90 percent on debunking evolution, without actually teaching any of its underlying principles — the academic education I received there was stellar.

It was also a hotbed of right-wing fanaticism, shoved down the throats of impressionable children at every turn. The community of teachers, students and families was fiercely like-minded and almost exclusively Republican. In 1992, they held a school-wide vote for the presidential election. George H.W. Bush, seeking a second term that Bill Clinton would deny him, won by a staggering landslide.

The effect of this environment went beyond the official coursework. Teachers, especially in the later grades, where students started to converse about the topics of the day, would constantly editorialize and share their opinions about the world. They were encouraged to do so, I’m sure, and they presented their views as Gospel fact.

I learned at a very young age how our country was “lost” and had the blood of innocent babies on its hands. Gay marriage was an affront to the natural order. Nobody even brought that one up — our teacher came in one day, in 1996, fuming that a court in Hawaii had suggested otherwise.

A school photo of Cronkhite when he was in 6th grade in 1994.
A school photo of Cronkhite when he was in 6th grade in 1994.

It was also, apparently, vital to the spiritual survival of our country to always, unwaveringly support the state of Israel. Which, to us students, was a country far, far away where Jesus was from.

Basically, if James Dobson or Rush Limbaugh was saying it, we were hearing it. While many of the messages were probably typically the kind you’d hear in any Christian school, I think they had a particular intensity there. We weren’t in Oklahoma; we were inside the Beltway, in the lion’s den, and the world around us was an evil, corrupt, and frightening place. One day, when we graduated, we would have to go out into this world. We would have to be prepared.

Karen Pence is going to fit right in.

Eventually, in middle school, discussions would touch on sexuality. Obviously, homosexuality was evil. They didn’t talk about this a whole lot; it was best not to dwell on it, but the unfortunate topic had to be broached. What was shocking, even to me then, was the vitriol. These were Christians and generally very kind people. Evangelicals have a way of talking about sexual minorities in public. They use the word “love” a lot and talk softly of hating the sin. When they’re among themselves, they tend to be more candid. Needless to say, it was made very clear to me, and to all of us, that there was nothing worse than being gay. They were disgusting perverts who hated Christians and had a nefarious agenda to dismantle society.

As a boy on the cusp of puberty, only just beginning to realize I was different, this wasn’t a nurturing message, especially coming from a trusted teacher and echoed enthusiastically by everyone I had ever called a friend. I remember wanting to turn invisible, imagining they could tell that maybe, just maybe, I was one of those perverts.

They’re not trying to deny employment to gay people out of spite. They’re trying to keep gay and gay-friendly people from their students. That’s not beneficial to the students, and it certainly wasn’t great for me.

They couldn’t tell though, and I wouldn’t have dared say it. I could barely admit it to myself back then. But time marches on, and I’m now happily married to my husband (despite what my 6th grade teacher would say about that). I made it out. Still, I carried that sense of fear and isolation well into public high school. I grew depressed there. I never attempted suicide, but I certainly thought about it a lot. I wonder sometimes about the other LGBT+ students who went through Immanuel Christian School, before and after me. Were they as resilient? Have any killed themselves?

What I do know is any school can be a rough place for a gay kid. There are always bullies. It doesn’t help when the teachers are in on it. Once, in my public high school, when some boys made a cruel, homophobic joke, the teacher cut them off. He then berated them to the point I thought they would cry. I had never seen an adult stand up for people like me before. I didn’t even know that was possible. ICS made sure of that.

That’s what their discrimination policy is all about. They’re not trying to deny employment to gay people out of spite. They’re trying to keep gay and gay-friendly people from their students. That’s not beneficial to the students, and it certainly wasn’t great for me.

While part of me would love to see the supposed liberal-fascist machine shut down schools like ICS, that won’t ever happen. Religious schools are part of this country. So, instead, I would like to see them change from within. And that won’t happen if we refuse to even talk about them. I’m glad we’re talking about this school, and I’m glad people are being critical. Now maybe the Pences are the ones who will have to learn some resilience.

Ian Cronkhite grew up in Northern Virginia. He now works as a software engineer and lives with his husband in Maryland.

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