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Persecution in the Name of the Lord
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Persecution in the Name of the Lord

Journey Mueller wasn’t ready to come out. At eighteen, the Colorado Christian University freshman had only just admitted to herself that she liked women. But one autumn day in 2017, two of her roommates—women she considered her closest friends —tried to pry the secret from her. When Journey evaded their questions, they pelted her with more. When she tried to leave her dorm suite, they physically blocked the door, she later said in a sworn legal declaration. When she held her tongue, they did the talking, piecing together a narrative that was spot-on: That fall, Journey’s lesbian friend Casey had been a frequent visitor, taking Journey away from campus for hours. What were they doing? Were they dating? Was Journey gay?

Journey stood frozen before her friends, one hand touching her cross necklace. With long, chestnut hair framing her youthful face, flushed cheeks, and piercing eyes, she resembled a teenage Kristen Stewart. Journey hadn’t told anyone about the surprising turn her romantic life had taken with Casey’s arrival. (Casey is a pseudonym to protect their privacy; they now use gender- neutral pronouns.) She had admired Casey since high school—how they always seemed spirited and flirtatious, comfortable in their own skin. She loved Casey’s explosive laugh and theatrical personality. Before, Journey had flirted tentatively with Casey, but the anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs of her conservative Christian community held her back. Now in college, Journey was exploring her identity and felt her attraction to Casey rekindle. The two often joked about kissing each other. And during one visit, when the subject came up, Journey wasn’t kidding. It was nighttime. Casey pulled the car into a grocery-store parking lot and looked at Journey with glowing anticipation. They giggled and fumbled through their first kiss. The moment changed everything. Journey had never felt this before—the electricity racing through her body, every nerve ending a delicious live wire. “I’ll never forget it,” she says.

But afterward, clashing emotions spilled across Journey’s journal. Elation on one page. Shame on the next. Prayers to God—take this away. She was still processing these feelings when her roommates ambushed her with questions about her sexual orientation. Their interrogation lasted for what felt like “at least one hour,” Journey recalls. Trapped and terrified, she couldn’t muster a defense. Eventually, she gave in, murmuring the words “I’m gay” with a burning shame. The others exchanged glances and then looked back at Journey, her green eyes blazing with fear and incandescent rage.

Then, to her surprise, they spoke tenderly. “This happens,” Journey recalls one friend saying. “We’ll figure it out together.”

***

At CCU, as at many conservative evangelical schools, undergraduates must sign a “lifestyle covenant,” or honor code, that forbids certain behaviors. In the 2022–23 student handbook, tucked between bans on arson and sexual assault, was a prohibition on “Same-sex relationships: engaging in a romantic same-sex relationship, defending, or advocating for same-sex romantic relationships.” Additionally, under the school’s “knowing presences policy,” students who failed to report their rule-breaking peers could also be disciplined, facing penalties as severe as suspension or dismissal.

Journey sensed her friends were “stressing out about what they were going to do, because they didn’t want to get me in trouble,” she says. Ultimately, they followed school policy and reported her code violations to leadership, which led to disciplinary action. Journey faced expulsion unless she renounced her “behavior” and underwent therapy and mentoring. “I felt like I could lose everything,” she says, explaining that her CCU scholarships and financial aid, which covered housing and much of her tuition, were the sole reason she could afford higher education. She was a low-income teen who had spent years turning to food pantries and hand-me-downs for survival, and college was her ticket to the middle class. She couldn’t afford to follow her heart; instead, she would follow the rules.

***

Journey is among the estimated hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ students slipping through a legal loophole that allows religious colleges and universities to discriminate against them with impunity. This gap in the system strips their civil-rights protections, forcing many to repress their true selves and leaving those like Journey fully traumatized—all with the blessing of the federal government and taxpayer dollars.

At most schools receiving federal funding, Journey’s treatment would be a clear violation of Title IX, the federal policy that protects students from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972, Title IX aims to ensure equity among the tens of millions of students and faculty at institutions receiving funding from the Department of Education. Most famously, it has paved the way for athletic and academic opportunities for women, significantly increasing their enrollment, funding, resources, and access to sports, schools, academic programs, faculty positions, and more. Later, the law included protections against sexual harassment and sexual violence, as well as protections for pregnant or parenting students and sexual and gender minorities. Title IX triggered a massive cultural shift, touching nearly every corner of American education, placing civil-rights enforcement at the center of the DOE’s mission, and empowering students to hold their schools accountable. But there’s one easy way for schools to bypass these civil-rights mandates without forfeiting taxpayer dollars: the religious exemption. A school can claim this exemption at any time—before or even after a discrimination complaint is filed against it—with a simple written request to the Office for Civil Rights. The religious exemption to Title IX allows religious colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students without penalty and subject them to all manner of treatment: removal from campus jobs, stripping of financial aid, housing isolation, harassment, surveillance, conversion therapy, and expulsion. This can derail a young person’s life, psychologically and economically, and leave them without recourse.

Persecution in the Name of the Lord

Journey Mueller with her acceptance letter to Colorado Christian University in 2017. Courtesy of Subject

Now, though, a movement of students and alumni is pushing back against these discriminatory policies and taking aim at the religious exemption. Their effort builds on decades of activism alongside growing support for LGBTQ+ equality among younger evangelicals. In 2021, the Portland, Oregon–based Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) filed a landmark class-action lawsuit against the U. S. Department of Education, claiming that the religious exemption permitting LGBTQ+ discrimination is unconstitutional. Twenty-five schools were identified in Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v. U. S. Department of Education, though its reach encompasses more than two hundred religious schools with nearly one million students, according to REAP. Journey is among the forty plaintiffs. Her story was laid out in a sworn declaration she submitted to the court. (Both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.)

In January, a federal judge in Oregon dismissed the case, ruling that, while the plaintiffs were unfairly injured by the religious exemption, Congress did not authorize it with discriminatory intent. The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, a group of more than 185 Christian institutions worldwide (including CCU), along with three individual colleges and their representation, Alliance Defending Freedom, intervened in the case and claimed victory for religious freedom.

This isn’t the first time religious freedom has been invoked to support discrimination at private Christian schools. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, private Christian schools proliferated as “segregation academies.” When they faced government scrutiny, the schools defended their policies, citing free religious expression. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, architects of the religious Right had struggled to mobilize white evangelicals. But after a series of court decisions prompted the government to revoke the tax-exempt status of their private schools for having racially discriminatory policies, evangelicals were finally galvanized as the political force we know today.

Race, not abortion, launched the religious Right, argues Randall Balmer, a religious historian at Dartmouth College. (Evangelicals held vastly diverse opinions about reproductive rights in the 1970s; the religious Right’s abortion origin story erases its racist inception.) Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist college, took the fight for racially discriminatory policies to the Supreme Court. It invoked religious freedom to defend the school’s ban on interracial dating and ultimately lost.

The Bob Jones case set a precedent: The government wouldn’t support schools violating civil-rights laws. And for years the Christian Right feared the logical next step—the end of government benefits for schools that restrict LGBTQ+ dating and expression. So far, however, the schools have continued to prevail. The Biden administration has said it wants to codify the protection of sexual and gender minorities under Title IX. But the recent dismissal of Hunter v. U. S. Department of Education shows that the law doesn’t extend these safeguards to LGBTQ+ students at religious schools—in the name of protecting religious freedom. Of course, when a majority of evangelicals support broader nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people and, in this lawsuit, many of those impacted are themselves devout LGBTQ+ Christians, it begs the question: Whose religious freedom is our government prioritizing?

Despite this setback, the plaintiffs’ fight continues. In March, they appealed the ruling. They face an uphill battle, some legal experts say. But should the appeal succeed, it would mean that Title IX protections apply equally across schools receiving federal funding. When the government upheld the policy to revoke tax exemptions from racially discriminatory schools, some shut down, some operated without government support, some did not lose their tax exemptions, and others changed their policies. If history were to repeat itself with this case, we could see a similarly mixed response. We’d probably also see heightened polarization and mobilization among the Christian Right.

The stakes have never been higher. Laws attacking LGBTQ+ rights—more than four hundred of them, at last count—continue to be introduced in legislatures across the country. The dismissal of Hunter v. U. S. Department of Education empowers Christian schools to continue harming LGBTQ+ students without consequences. Their LGBTQ+ students report significantly worse mental-health outcomes than their straight peers, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, sexual assault and harassment, substance abuse, and suicidality. This past November, Bekett Noble, a trans student at Redeemer University in Canada—where some religious schools have similar provisions—died by suicide in the school’s counseling office, citing the school’s resistance to changing its LGBTQ+ policies.

***

Such stories tend to elicit a predictable question: “Why would an LGBTQ+ person go to a Christian school in the first place?” But that perspective casts blame for the tragic outcomes on teenagers, not the institutions or the policies. I field this question regularly because I know this world intimately. I spent my teen years embedded in evangelical culture and my early twenties extracting myself from it. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of it as a journalist.

Even when the question comes from a sincere place, it overlooks the reality that LGBTQ+ students face. Many are devout Christians seeking a faith-based education. Many see their sexual orientation and gender identity as deeply integral to their Christian faith. Others face family or financial pressure to attend a Christian school. Most sign honor codes as teens still figuring out their identity. And in some cases, they’re recruited by schools that promise LGBTQ+ inclusion but fail to disclose the limits of their openness, according to research by Jonathan S. Coley, an associate professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University. It’s this misunderstanding—that young people barely at the threshold of adulthood have the resources to choose a different school or that those seeking a religious education don’t deserve protection from discrimination—that forces LGBTQ+ students into isolation. They are left to grapple with the psychological and economic toll of these policies on their own.

The lawsuit and its appeal are bringing them together. Among Journey’s fellow plaintiffs is Joie St. Hubert, a Black transgender student who said in a sworn statement that he was suspended and forced to leave the campus of Lee University after posting about the school’s discriminatory culture on TikTok. He moved home with his mom and began adult life with no degree, no professional network, and significant student debt. (Lee University declined to comment on student conduct or the lawsuit.)

There’s also Alex Duron, a Catholic Latino ICU nurse from Texas who testified that he quit his job to attend an advanced nursing program at Union University. A few days before orientation, the school rescinded his acceptance, citing his social media profile (which shows his engagement to a man) and his “intent to live with [his] partner,” according to a letter from Union that Alex posted to Facebook. Unemployed and past the deadline to accept other schools’ offers, Alex took the first job he could find in the fall of 2020: working with Covid patients in an “extremely dangerous” ICU setting, he says. Union University did not agree to an interview, but its president, Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, stated that “this dubious lawsuit is an ill-considered effort to erase religious schools by denying financially disadvantaged students the ability to attend the college of their choice.”

Journey left CCU with no degree and thousands of dollars in student debt. She’s worked low-wage jobs and has struggled for years to gain a financial footing and heal from her trauma. For many like Journey, the REAP lawsuit felt like a lifeboat in a vast, lonely ocean. At last, they felt seen. At last, someone would fight for them. At last, what was wrong would be made right.

They would find out that change, of course, is rarely linear.

***

Journey’s path to CCU began in middle school during her parents’ divorce. Raised atheist, Journey and her younger brother Jazz began attending church services with their mother as the marriage ended. The three became devout Christians and joined an evangelical megachurch. When the siblings were baptized in giant inflatable hot tubs, warm water and the cheers of thousands washed over them. They emerged no longer children from a broken family but members of an eternal tribe.

Journey craved this security. Her parents’ divorce had entailed years of fighting and court battles. She developed depression and anxiety. “It was traumatizing for both my brother and I . . . and probably everybody involved,” she says. Life had once been stable. The siblings spent their younger years romping around their large suburban house just north of Boulder. Dad ran a small business building full-sized classic arcade games, and Mom worked intermittently as a doula or birthing-class instructor. On road trips with their mom, Journey and Jazz sat in the back seat, curled under blankets, munching on snacks while watching Megamind on DVD.

But postdivorce life shattered this middle-class dream. Their mom found work in education, but her income barely covered necessities. “We relied heavily on food banks, gifts, and hand-me-downs,” Journey says. “I remember the first time we went to a food bank feeling so happy,” she adds. “We were almost crying because we had food in our fridge for the first time in a long time.”

When the trauma felt relentless, Journey always had Jesus. At her new “miserable” school, she clutched her Bible like a safety blanket. For the nights she spent at her dad’s house, she and her mom developed a ritual to ease Journey’s anxiety from afar. In their separate homes, they’d lie in bed listening to the local Christian radio station, waiting for their favorite song, Amy Grant’s “Better than a Hallelujah.”

God loves a lullaby

On a mother’s tears in the dead of night

Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

“I would cry myself to sleep to that song,” Journey recalls. And she imagined her mom doing the same.

A few years later, after Journey’s mom married an evangelical man who worked at a private Christian high school, the family left their small apartment for a spacious three- bedroom house. Life with their stepdad brought order, economic stability, and a stricter version of Christianity.

By then, Journey was in high school and planning her future. Compelled by her faith, mental-health experiences, and desire to help others, she wanted to become a clinical psychiatrist. But paying for college seemed out of reach until her stepdad helped her get financial aid, including scholarships and free housing, at Colorado Christian University. The decision made itself. In the fall of 2017, she moved to CCU.

Persecution in the Name of the Lord

Journey Mueller with her dog, Nova, in 2023. Courtesy of Caroline Frank

***

Colorado Christian University sits cradled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in a suburb west of Denver. Students enter along Alameda Avenue, a thruway stretching toward a vista of undulating highlands. On move-in day, Journey carried her belongings into Waite Hall, a small dormitory overlooking a glassy pond reflecting the Colorado sky. From here, she could spin on her heel and practically see all the boundaries of the tiny campus.

Journey felt at ease at this school of roughly fifteen hundred students. Everywhere she turned, Bible verses cheered her on. She no longer carried her Bible for protection; now its sacred text swirled in big bold script everywhere she looked—on T-shirts and banners—reminding her that she was among “God’s chosen people.” Here, her faith mattered. She was home. Journey bonded with her roommates and a neighbor, all fellow freshmen just as devoted to Jesus as she was. Under the twinkling Christmas lights adorning their dorm suite, they belted pop songs, danced, and made Rice Krispies treats. They gossiped about “ring by spring,” an evangelical-college tradition that pressures students to get engaged by springtime before graduation. In a school where women outnumber men nearly two to one, competition was fierce, with some women cooking meals and deep cleaning their crushes’ dorm rooms.

Journey’s close-knit posse spent late nights swapping life stories and praying. “We’d pray anywhere,” she says. “In the living room. Bedrooms. Kitchen. Outside.” They wanted to be good Christians, the kind depicted in the lifestyle covenant. Much of the student body seemed to (at least publicly) reject the stereotype of the hard-partying American college student. On paper, they refrained from drunken hookups and substance use. They obeyed curfew and dressed modestly, gliding around in flocks of hoodies and track pants. They followed the rules and reported those who broke them.

Journey kept quiet about her budding relationship with Casey. She could foresee the narrative arc of coming out: People would tell, the school would discipline, and Journey would lose everything. Her whole future depended on keeping this secret. “It felt like life or death,” she says. That’s why, on the day her roommates interrogated her, she froze.

When she finally did come out, Journey hoped her roommates would keep her secret. They were the same young women with whom she had prayed, cried, and dreamed about the future. They were bonded by faith, sisters in Christ. Of course they would “figure it out together.” They always did.

Even when they reported her code violation, she thought things might work out. According to Journey, a school official withheld issuing a punishment and encouraged her to use Thanksgiving break to think things over. If she changed her mind about dating Casey, she could avoid disciplinary action.

Over the break, Journey only grew closer to Casey. She returned to school prepared to keep quiet about their relationship. But when her roommates began asking about Casey, Journey slowly opened up. It felt amazing to share this part of her life. She assumed the intimate details she revealed would never leave the room. She was wrong. Her roommates again followed CCU policy and turned her in.

One evening Journey got a phone call from her resident director. He knew everything. He ordered her to his office to begin her disciplinary proceeding. Journey fell to the floor crying. No one promised to figure it out together this time. Instead, as Journey recalls it, her roommates picked her up off the floor and dragged her to the meeting that would mark the beginning of the end.

***

Journey’s story haunts me. Not only because it’s so striking, but also because it is so familiar. Like Journey, I grew up atheist. Like Journey, painful experiences in middle school—in my case racism and bullying—drove me into the arms of faith. As a child of immigrants, I found refuge at a Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant youth group. I became an earnest teen convert and then, as a college student at a secular school in a midwestern farm town, I emerged as a leader within a mostly white conservative evangelical movement.

It was in this cauldron of faith and fire that I saw the inner workings of our religious paradox: Here was a community imbued with love for some and condemnation for others. I learned that anyone could be an insider once they set aside certain parts of themselves. I saw this destroy people, especially those from minority communities—those fully lovesick for the gospel’s message of compassion and hope but too Black or Brown, too queer or trans to get a seat at the table. I’ve lived on both sides of this paradox, first as an accidental accomplice and later as a disillusioned dissenter. I interviewed hundreds of people across a range of personal and political identities for my book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming EvangelicalismLooking back, I see versions of Journey’s experience echo across years of reporting and relationships—in accounts of people who cut themselves, starved themselves, or drank bleach to exterminate their same-sex attractions, or those who lived decades in painful self-denial, or lost their livelihood, their housing, their happiness, their family, their friends.

In my interviews with cis straight evangelicals, I met avid allies, staunch opponents, and those unsure of how to reconcile society’s growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people (and their own love for LGBTQ+ friends) with the discriminatory mandates of their faith.

I glimpsed this spectrum during interviews at CCU last fall. Some allies lambasted the lifestyle covenant for hurting LGBTQ+ students and breeding snitch culture. Other students echoed the sentiments of Annelise Fox, a bright-eyed, homeschooled Texas freshman who thought Journey’s story was “really sad.” “As Christians, we are called to love on people,” she said. Still, she believes the Bible says same-sex relationships are sinful, but “I don’t think it’s a sin that should be so attacked.” She wasn’t sure if the lifestyle covenant harmed LGBTQ+ students but was impressed by the trust it placed in students. “There’s a lot of asking for integrity,” she said. “I feel like the lifestyle covenant is trying to keep us safe.”

For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to fathom why anyone would opt into an evangelical environment based on strict control. But for most people drawn to evangelicalism, like Journey, like me, their entry point was enormously positive—the consequences of the fine print came later. Many of those born into this culture praise how the community shows up with casseroles for the grieving, or pools money to cover medical bills. It’s evidence of God’s favor. So when they arrive at schools like CCU, following the lifestyle covenant is simply professing an enduring devotion to the only version of Christianity they’ve ever known.

That’s why many support the rules, even when it makes them uneasy. One CCU sophomore, who sang praises for the “really solid Christian ideals” of his parents and CCU, said, “Hearing about [Journey’s story] does really hurt my heart.” When his high school friend came out to him, he vowed to be “a steady part of her life,” he told me. He still believes “homosexuality is a sin,” but if policies are “causing harm, we need to take a solid look at it.”

This student, whom I’ll call Josh because he spoke on the condition of anonymity, is a sporty, white twenty-year-old who identifies as a straight, conservative evangelical. In the culture wars, Josh and I would be pitted against each other based on a few markers of our identities. But in Josh, I didn’t see an opponent; I saw a younger version of myself, and of so many believers, working off the blueprint we received in our youth. I heard the sincerity in his voice—his distress for his childhood friend, but also the tension he felt with his beliefs. The inhumanity of the intolerant approach to evangelicalism hurts LGBTQ+ people severely. But it’s also damaging to people like Josh—impressionable kids instilled with an ideology that puts a cage around the heart and maims the people they love.

***

In recent decades, a movement of LGBTQ+ Christians has been working to unlock that cage and dispel the myth that supporting LGBTQ+ equality runs counter to Christian faith. The religious Right often classifies the movement’s efforts as part of a left-wing agenda led by outsiders. But the voices leading the movement are in fact evangelical insiders, many rooted in rigorous biblical scholarship advancing queer theology. As much as many conservative evangelicals want to deny it, the movement for LGBTQ+ equality is being led by their children. “The hope is in this next generation of evangelicals,” says Paul Carlos Southwick, counsel for the REAP plaintiffs. “They get the intersectionality of race, reproductive justice, queer rights. They realized that the elders have basically hijacked this branch of Christianity and turned it into a weapon. The youth are not standing for it.”

Those pushing for change can be heartened by some of their successes. For example, students, faculty, and alumni at Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian school, have been protesting a hiring policy that bans same-sex relationships. Campus activism prompted the state’s attorney general to investigate the school’s “potentially discriminatory hiring practices.” But for every out-and-proud student activist, there are many more like Journey—disconnected from the broader movement, unsupported and afraid.

After her disciplinary meeting, Journey spent months attending school-mandated therapy, mentoring, and anti- LGBTQ+ lectures. It all amounted to a steady drumbeat hammering home a single message: Homosexuality is a sin and the path to holy sexuality involves celibacy or heterosexual marriage.

Conversion therapy has been widely discredited as ineffective, unethical, and dangerous, yet CCU leaned into this practice, according to Journey. A spokesperson for CCU declined multiple requests for comment on this story, instead pointing me to a 2019 Denver Post article in which the school’s senior vice president stated that the university does not practice conversion therapy. In her sworn legal declaration, Journey said that the therapist’s goal was for her to emerge from her therapy as heterosexual. Journey also said in her declaration that she couldn’t access LGBTQ+ resources because the school blocked them on its WiFi and that the school moved her to a separate dorm room, where, isolated further, she broke down. Her eating disorder returned, as did her depression and anxiety. She began to cut herself and came close to attempting suicide on multiple occasions. She finally left CCU before completing her freshman year with two semesters of debt, no college degree, no job prospects, and a diagnosis of PTSD.

In the years that followed, Journey struggled to stitch her life back together. Her dream of helping others as a psychiatrist evaporated; she could barely scratch out her own survival working low-wage jobs. Punching the register at Marshalls. Folding graphic tees at Rue 21. She lost her job at Target and her housing after a panic attack left her hospitalized for weeks.

Slowly, Journey has been rebuilding. She receives therapy and has been healing. She fell in love and got engaged. But Journey and her fiancée, Caroline, survive on a tight budget, clipping coupons and monitoring fast-food dollar deals. Until recently, they lived in a mold-infested apartment in a dangerous neighborhood where people hurled homophobic slurs and vandalized their door. They were desperate to move. Between delivering pizzas and pad thais for DoorDash, Journey scrolled through job postings and apartment listings but found that even though she met every qualification, including years of managerial experience, she lacked one crucial ingredient: a college degree. And even though she was a good tenant, landlords wouldn’t rent to her—her student loans had tanked her credit score. It had been years since she left CCU, but she couldn’t erase its mark on her life.

***

The consequences of anti-LGBTQ+ policies at Christian schools can fan out across a young person’s life. Mental-health challenges, lower grades, revoked scholarships, lost or delayed degrees, and severed professional connections can significantly impact lifetime earnings. The fallout can hit even harder for LGBTQ+ students of color, who are often recruited with scholarships to diversify a school but are then locked into a community that might not actually welcome them.

Journey felt all these losses—relational, emotional, educational, and economic. Just as devastating was her loss of faith. “A lot of the songs I had relied on most of my life suddenly I couldn’t listen to,” she says. Resources from her faith “that I had used to ground myself were no longer available. It was a huge part of my identity and life. It was stripped from me.” Losing her best friends brought years of grief and trust issues. Journey no longer sees them, but she once met up with one who offered an emotional apology. “She wanted to work through some of the details with me, but I wasn’t at a place in my healing to be able to do that at that time,” Journey says. “But yeah, she feels bad. She feels really bad.” (The friends declined to comment or could not be reached for this story.)

Journey’s relationship with her mom almost didn’t survive. According to her declaration, her relationship with her family was “negatively impacted.” Indeed, she and her mom barely spoke for a year. “I definitely lost myself in the middle of all that,” says her mom, who asked not to be named in this story. Today, Journey’s mom says, “I completely disagree with [CCU policies],” adding that she feels “a lot of guilt and regret.” She still cries when she thinks about the suffering Journey endured. After the marriage ended, Journey’s mom began to reach out, listen without judgment, and offer encouragement. “It was enough to open the door,” Journey says. The two slowly rebuilt their relationship, and today they’re closer than ever. “I’m very lucky to have a parent who was able to put in the work to come around,” says Journey. “I’m proud of her. I’m proud of both of us.”

Things are looking up in other ways, too. Recently, Journey landed her dream job as a dog trainer. And she’s earning better money—enough for her and Caroline to move into an apartment in a safer neighborhood.

But as Journey moves forward in her life, her past continues to follow her. While the legal battle drags on, she and her fellow plaintiffs must relive their past trauma in court hearings and media coverage. Every twist of the case threatens to tear open old wounds. When the judge dismissed their lawsuit earlier this year, Journey and many other plaintiffs were left reeling.

Even a legal victory cannot restore what has been stolen from these young people. There is no storybook ending. And yet, in the face of fierce opposition from both the religious Right and a legal system that is protecting these powerful institutions that discriminate, Journey and her fellow plaintiffs remain in the fight. Sometimes that looks like filing Title IX complaints, giving testimony in a lawsuit, or joining campus protests. Sometimes it’s quieter, like the way Journey has embraced her role as a mentor, becoming a lifeline to a closeted, fearful CCU student. Journey texts her encouraging notes and once mailed her a care package filled with chocolates, fuzzy socks, and a note about self-care. “Just some comforting things,” Journey says, “because I’ve been where she is.”

Journey finds her own peace these days in regular walks through a four-hundred-acre dog park with Caroline and Nova, the couple’s peanut-butter-brown ridgeback mix. In these moments, she takes a deep breath as she gazes at the panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains cresting in the distance. On a recent day, Journey, who now wears glasses, flannels, and her hair in a cropped tousle, wove a handful of flowers into Caroline’s blond braids. The orange, yellow, and purple blossoms circled her fiancée’s face like a halo. The two held hands. Kissed. Laughed. Nobody bothered them.

These are the simple moments that Journey is fighting for.

 

Deborah Jian Lee is a senior editor at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism fellow at Harvard Divinity School, and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon Press). Follow her on Twitter at @deborahjianlee.

Co-published with Esquire.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist, radio producer, fellow at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon Press). She has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and has bylines in Esquire, Fast Company, ELLE, Foreign Policy, Slate, Playboy, Religion Dispatches, TIME, WBEZ, WNYC and others. She was named a finalist for the Livingston Awards and won a Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award. She serves as a juror for the American Academy of Religion award for best in-depth news writing.

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