Nick Vujicic was my childhood hero. I was inspired by his story of how he found fulfillment and positivity despite being born without arms or legs.
In 2005, Nick founded Life Without Limbs, a nonprofit organization and ministry. Then in 2007, he founded Attitude Is Altitude, which offers a curriculum aimed at motivating and empowering students. He became a highly respected speaker and author focusing on how to overcome life’s challenges through strength and faith. While Nick is recognized by many from TV and YouTube, he’s better known by conservative Christians as an evangelist.
Nick eventually became one of my closest friends and then my employer. I worked as his assistant for nearly two years as he mentored me, but things took a somber turn after he discovered I was gay.
Nick, a man I long admired, told me I couldn’t work for him anymore as a gay man, and our relationship quickly unraveled. I’ve struggled to maintain my adoration for the man who rejected me because of who I am, but as I continue watching him share his antibullying message across the world — as well as observe his close ties to homophobes Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos, for whom he’s been a personal adviser — I can’t stay silent anymore.
Bradon Schwarz (left) and Nick Vujicic. Courtesy Bradon Schwarz.
After being angry, depressed, and at times suicidal, forgiving the man who rejected me was the only path to emotional clarity. I thought the idea of a homophobic “antibullying” figure was ironic, but irony turned to tragedy when Pence and DeVos gave Nick an even larger microphone to students nationwide, elevating his message against bullying while excluding any mention of bullying against LGBTQ+ individuals.
If someone stands up as an antibullying figure but refuses to stand for all people who are bullied, their beliefs are hollow.
I rarely spoke out about my political beliefs because of the circle I worked in. I was a lone liberal in a sea of evangelicals. My former boss often spoke of his pro-life, anti-LGBTQ+, and other right-wing principles. He aligned himself with conservative friends like evangelist Franklin Graham and David Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby, who sued over the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to include contraceptive coverage in employee benefits, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court and winning. I actually toured Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma headquarters while Nick was there to collect a donation on behalf of the Green family and Hobby Lobby.
Hiding in the closet around these people put me in a difficult situation. I dropped out of college on a whim because Nick offered to help expand my family’s charity, Extreme Mobility Camps, which empowers blind and visually impaired youth to reach their full potential through sports, programs, and vocational training. I pretended to be straight in order to fit into this world and be mentored by a hero of mine. Not only was my income tied up in this lie, but I felt the future of my family’s nonprofit was at stake.
In hindsight, it was too easy for me to lie when there wasn’t a playbook for this kind of situation. But it didn’t last. Eventually, a mutual friend of Nick’s and mine saw a photo I’d posted the morning after the Pulse nightclub shooting where I’m making a fist with the Pride flag drawn on my arm and later informed Nick’s family, who urged me to tell him.
I knew Nick wouldn’t support my coming out, much less want me to continue working as his assistant. Still, I remained hopeful we could maintain our relationship and mentorship despite the turmoil. I told Nick and asked what he wanted me to do. I ultimately offered to resign, but only if Nick indeed wanted me to quit. He did. So I did.
I was fortunate to work for Nick as his assistant for almost two years, from early 2015 to the end of 2016, having been good friends with him since 2013. I traveled with him and helped him share his message. Part of my job was to be his caregiver. I would feed, bathe, and clothe Nick and even carry him wherever he needed to go. We went thousands of miles across 15 countries all over the world.
Bradon Schwarz (left) and Nick Vujicic. Courtesy Bradon Schwarz.
It was during this time that I hobnobbed with celebrities, billionaires, and highly influential religious conservatives who gave me direct insight into how the rich and powerful influence our political system to advance their agenda under the guise of “religious liberty.” Admittedly, I was ignorant about how dangerous some of these ideologies were to LGBTQ+ people. I kept my private life private and put up a false front in order to keep my job. However, that ultimately led to me being in the same room with some of the most notoriously homophobic people in our country.
Mike Pence was our ally. Nick’s team partnered with the state of Indiana for a statewide school and prison outreach, spearheaded by Nick and supported by Pence when he was governor. We would stream live simulcasts to nearly every school and prison in Indiana, speaking against violence and bullying, and sharing a positive message.
I met Pence in 2015, on the day of the Indianapolis 500. Nick and I attended as his guests. Our team was given tickets to the race, pit passes, and access to Pence’s box suite.
I had just sat down to eat a meal with my boss when I was suddenly approached from behind. I felt hands on my shoulders that began massaging deep into my knots. I’d been carrying Nick throughout the day, so I understood it as a gesture of kindness. Nothing more. When I looked up, I was shocked to see that the hands belonged to our host, Mike Pence.
As strange as the encounter was, in that moment, Pence was just another conservative politician. I didn’t know him as a homophobic lawmaker.
I didn’t know he opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and advocated for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. I didn’t know that in the 1990s he preached the idea that being gay was a choice. I didn’t know that while he was heading the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a statewide conservative think tank with a journal called the Indiana Policy Review, he oversaw the publication of several antigay articles — including one that argued against the idea of a job fair for LGBTQ+ journalists, saying that queer editors would allow their “sexually motivated behavior” to infringe on editorial judgment. I didn’t know that as a congressional candidate in 2000, he proposed pulling funds from HIV prevention and directing them to programs that help people “change their sexual behavior,” something widely interpreted as an endorsement of conversion therapy (Pence has denied that it was). I didn’t know that he once served on the board of the Indiana Family Institute, a known antigay group. I didn’t know that in 2006, as head of the Republican Study Committee, a group of ultraconservative U.S. House members, he said in a speech that marriage equality would signal “societal collapse.” I didn’t know that in 2007 he opposed a bill that would have prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. I didn’t realize he’s so homophobic that he has yet to utter the word “gay” at any of the White House’s World AIDS Day events.
I didn’t know. Perhaps at the time I didn’t want to know. Looking back, I wonder if Pence had any clue that his hands were massaging the shoulders of a very gay man.
I hope I’ll have the chance to meet him again so we can discuss the importance of providing schools with antibullying curriculums that don’t neglect queer people. The thought of what Pence, DeVos, and Vujicic have planned next for our schools doesn’t give me hope. However, speaking out against injustice is what faith calls us to do.
Religious liberty is a vague term that leads you to think the hungry are being fed, those experiencing homelessness are being housed, and all of the world’s problems are being solved. In reality, the billionaires, celebrities, and politicians in the network of conservative Christians use their platforms to advance a skewed agenda. The truth is they fight against women’s right to choose and resist any recognition of the LGBTQ+ community as equals in the eyes of the law.
Nick remains an outspoken critic of the queer community, so I knew he wouldn’t be supportive of my sexuality, but I had no clue as to the mess that would follow. Since I left, he has cut all ties with me as well as my family’s charity. The only exception was a boat my family had been storing at a relative’s house on Nick’s behalf, which he chose to donate to Extreme Mobility Camps in late 2017 after we asked if he could find a more permanent location or else he'd need to pay to park it there.
[The Advocate confirmed with Mindy Schwarz, cofounder of Extreme Mobility Camps, that Nick Vujicic donated the boat as a “gift in kind” donation on December 23, 2017, as evidenced by a donation receipt.]
I was encouraged to resign in August 2016 and was given two months to leave. I was ultimately ousted from his ultraconservative sphere, which wasn’t a surprise. Nick went from donating tens of thousands of dollars over the course of several years, advising our board, and speaking at and hosting our events to withdrawing all support from my family’s charity.
When Mike Pence became vice president, I had the rug pulled out from under me and was forced to find a new path. My former boss continues his “antibullying” tours.
Since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Pence has been able to open doors for Nick to launch his “antibullying curriculum” in schools nationwide under DeVos, the secretary of education. This curriculum was created in partnership with Noble Education Development, but it makes no mention of bullying against LGBTQ+ individuals, who are targeted at a much higher rate.
It’s time we speak out against “religious liberty” rooted in hatred and not doctrine. Religion is sacred, and in my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful traditions we have. When it’s misinterpreted or misused, it weaponizes something intended to bring us together and help others. Not all Christians are misled, but if you know one who is — practice what they can’t and treat them with love, even if they’re bigots.
I’m writing this not because I’m a bitter former employee or because I want attention or sympathy. On the contrary, I’m sharing my story because I think it’s important for LGBTQ+ people with experiences like mine to call out hypocrisy, even if it hurts. Even when it’s grotesquely displayed by those who were once our childhood heroes.
The Advocate reached out to Nick Vujicic for comment. A spokesperson for Attitude Is Altitude replied, “Bradon Schwarz worked for Attitude Is Altitude, which also involved activities for Life Without Limbs, for approximately two years and submitted his written resignation to Nick in August 2016. While we don’t discuss personnel matters as a general rule, we can say Bradon was a good employee and we wish him well in his endeavors.”