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It always seemed that there was nothing worse than growing up a closeted gay Catholic. The religion treated you like a pariah, and I have vivid memories of watching the news during the AIDS crisis and being dumbfounded by the sit-in by ACT UP at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Cardinal John O’Connor showed no compassion, and I couldn’t understand that for the life of me.
From a religion that always preached compassion, there wasn’t any. And there was the priest abuse scandal that touched me directly, and how Catholic bishops just turned a blind eye. Is that religion? Is that compassion?
Well, imagine having this preached to you: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable, they are put to death.” At least Catholics didn’t want to put me, as a man who has relations with another man, to death.
According to a fascinating and well-written and researched article on Politico, that statement was uttered by the president of Oral Roberts University, William Wilson, probably on many, many occasions. It was part of his “Holy Sex” sermon that pushed hard for straight sex. And then after his obnoxious tirade, the president would ask anyone who was having difficulty with this to raise their hand and bow their heads and pray.
“I remember thinking then, Oh, my gosh, is this a setup?” former student Andrew Hartzler told Politico, which also explained that Hartzler was gay and that he did not raise his hand because being gay violated the ORU honor code and he could be expelled for it.
Hartzler had signed a pledge: “I will not engage in or attempt to engage in any illicit, unscriptural sexual acts, which include any homosexual activity and sexual intercourse with one who is not my spouse. I will not be united in marriage other than the marriage between one man and one woman.”
Further, Politico reported, within three months of graduation, Hartzler joined a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, seeking to strike down a religious exemption provision in U.S. civil rights law that allows ORU and other schools to receive federal funds despite such discriminatory policies. The lawsuit contends it is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and of the students’ equal protection rights.
Since the 1980s, ORU had had an exemption from the law — Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — regarding provisions governing marital status and pregnancy. After President Obama's administration announced that discrimination based on gender identity would also violate Title IX, ORU requested a further exemption, allowing it to enforce anti-LGBTQ+ policies. After Donald Trump became president, the Department of Education granted the exemption. It came in December 2017, shortly after Hartzler entered the university.
Hartzler’s story is hard to reckon with, which is why I had to speak to him myself, not so much about the lawsuit but how he survived — and almost didn’t — in an environment like Oral Roberts University.
So many of us take our openness for granted. We don’t often think about the tremendous difficulty of LGBTQ+ youth who feel enormous pressure to hide their sexuality because of their faith and their family. That’s what Hartzler’s story is about, and it’s not an easy one to talk about. The evil of Oral Roberts has persisted for decades.
I wasn’t a member of his church, but I remember all too well who Oral Roberts was and his fiery speeches denouncing the LGBTQ+ community back in the 1980s and early ’90s. He was ferocious in his hate diatribes about gay men and AIDS. For all he did and for the legacy he left behind, there’s a special place in hell for Oral Roberts for the hell he created here on earth, most especially for students at his namesake university.
I asked Hartzler if he had any idea about who Oral Roberts was and the school’s history.
“I had never heard of him or the university until my senior year in high school, and unfortunately, my father would only pay for me to attend Oral Roberts University,” Hartzler recalled. “I had no idea how bad he or the university was towards the LGBTQ community.”
Unfortunately for Hartzler, his traumatic experience with the idea of being gay started as far back as first grade. “I remember one evening watching a segment on TV about SpongeBob being gay. The next day, my mom took down all my SpongeBob items I had in my room, and she took me to the store to get new decorations.”
Did Hartzler understand why SpongeBob being gay was a bad thing for his parents? “I didn’t really watch him a lot, I just liked sea creatures, so I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about; however, as I grew up the word ‘gay’ was treated like a swear word— actually worse than a swear word in my house. And to make matters worse, my cousin was the only gay person I knew, and he had a very rough start doing drugs and committing crimes.”
Hartzler’s mother emphasized to her son that if he ended up being gay, his life would be full of drugs and crime, just like that of his cousin; however, he knew that there was something different about himself. “I was bullied so much when I was young about being gay that I began to think that maybe it was true.”
When he was 14, he broached the subject of being gay with his parents. “They had such strong opposition, and it felt like they would only love me if I suppressed this. They kept saying they were so disappointed in their son. I remember exactly what my mom said, ‘Sweetie, you’ll get AIDS and die, and you’ll never be happy.’ She told my father to ‘fix him.’”
What followed for Hartzler was years of conversion therapy. “I just played the part, and eventually told my parents that I was no longer gay. They were happy but still suspicious, so in order to ‘protect me,’ they sent me to Oral Roberts, and that’s where it all just got so much worse.”
That’s why Hartzler is speaking out now and joining the lawsuit. He is determined not to let anyone else experience what happened to him. “College is a place where you start to discover yourself as you become an adult. When a college or university forces you to hide who you truly are, you lose connections with people, you begin to hate yourself, depression, fear, and loneliness set in, and you just start to spiral down a dark hole.”
For Hartzler, that involved an attempt at suicide. “While I was in the hospital, my mother said to me, ‘Why did you take so many ibuprofens? Did you have a bad headache?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to live anymore,’ and she replied, ‘Why? You have such a good life.’”
“I actually wrote my senior thesis on suicide ideation and sexual behavior. LGBTQ people, particularly young ones who are forced to hide, are far more suspectable to suicide. They are exposed to pain repeatedly. That’s why their attempts at suicide can be so violent, like forcibly putting knives in their wrists. They are not OK if they can’t be who they are, and that can be so dangerous.”
Hartzler also found, through his studies, that suicide rates of LGBTQ+ youth are more than likely grossly undercounted. “My freshman year at Oral Roberts, a girl committed suicide in her room, and there were a community of students who knew she was a lesbian; however, her parents were in denial. There are so many parents who won’t admit that their child who commits suicide was queer, and that’s the reason suicides aren’t always attributable to being gay.”
If all this wasn’t enough, according to Politico, Hartzler’s parents’ home in suburban Kansas City, Mo., is on the same property occupied by his father’s brother and sister-in-law, Republican U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler. She has advocated for draconian anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and made many anti-trans comments, including one that got her suspended from Twitter. She is now seeking to move up to the U.S. Senate, running in the Republican primary to replace fellow GOPer Roy Blunt, who is retiring.
I asked Hartzler if he had talked to his aunt, and it was obvious this was a very difficult question for him to answer. “I have not specifically talked with her. I wrote her a letter explaining my different outlook on morals and explaining my story asking that she still see me as her nephew. She’ll always be my aunt, but my family continues to have problems accepting me, and I’ll just be waiting for them to come around.”
Hartzler didn't know about the religious exemptions until after he graduated. “It didn’t make sense to me because the federal government protects us. In my mind, where federal money is used, all of the laws should be followed, he said. “The government needs to do more to stop all this suffering from happening. I think conservative Christian schools like Oral Roberts use their Title IX exemptions as a shield, and it needs to stop. All of this is done in the name of compassion and religion, and that is just morally wrong.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 is for people of all ages and identities.