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From Inoke
and Lauren

To the little Tongan boy who grew up being undermined and advised to be silent about who he was, this one is for you!

Growing up, I have always been taught that meekness, and a pure heart is what will win battles. The expectation of being meek in my endeavors has been instilled in me by the amazing women and men in my life. With recent events that have occurred, I felt that through my meekness I will triumph over those who chose to bring me down and belittle me. But as leader and role model for the many kids I’ve taken under my wing, as a teacher, coach, mentor, preacher, and brother I have chosen to go against my nature of meekness and speak out and stand up for something that is beyond me, with humility, integrity, and truth.

After finishing a successful and amazing season with my high school boys at Valor High School in volleyball last year (2020-2021), I was approached by the coaching staff for the girls’ volleyball program. The impression of love, encouragement, and development (both athletically and spiritually) that I left with my boys were shared by them with the directors of the athletic department and head coach over the girls’ volleyball team. This eventually led to being offered a position to assist in coaching the girls’ team this upcoming season (2021-2022). Conditioning came soon, and shortly after I finally got to meet the amazing young women of Valor who were trying out for my team. With much prayer and tears, I formed an amazing team with a group of girls who showed me that they were willing to put in effort, learn from what I had to teach them, but more importantly showed me that together, we would grow in our lord God and become better individuals for our community. I had the blessing of continuing my growth as a coach, mentor, and individual at Valor Christian, and I was ecstatic! Little did I know, this success and excitement would be short lived.

Thursday, August 19, 2021 was the day that ended my journey in growing together with my girls and boys at Valor Christian. I met with the campus pastor and athletic director who invited me to come by before my girls’ practice. The same men who hired me, after a lengthy, amazing interview process last year as a coach for the boys’ volleyball program. Unaware of what conversation was awaiting me, I was bright eyed and happy to be there because our interactions prior to that day were always so refreshing. Not to mention, walking through the halls that day, I had my boys and girls shouting my name in excitement to see me. As I sat down in what they called a “spiritual connection” I was asked if I had any changes in lifestyle that were life changing. In my mind, I had not. Everything in life was falling into place – work was going well, club volleyball was starting soon, and high school volleyball seemed so promising. As I was asked repeatedly that question, they finally asked if I had posted something inappropriate on my social media that would go against Valor’s culture and beliefs. And of course, I said no – I am not one to post anything on my social media that would be inappropriate. Eventually they asked if I did an interview, or posted anything about being gay. My answer was yes. Of course I advocate for LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, especially those struggling with finding a relationship with God. The culture document of Valor Christian that was given to me during the interview process didn’t mention anything about their stance on LGBTQ+. I will add that the pastor purposely and ignorantly would say “LGBTQ” incorrectly. “LGGTBG or whatever” is what he said at one point. The gates were opened and the questions came flooding.

I sat in the room being grilled about how being Gay is a “danger” to the school and to the kids. That with me “identifying as a gay man, they can’t put the kids at risk by having me in front of them.” I wished I would have advocated for myself and stood my ground instead of falling victim to feeling bad about myself and hating myself all over again, due to the conversations and words they were spitting at me. I testify that God sent his angels down to comfort me and make sure that these men did not see me break and cry because of the way they were subtly attacking me, in a very passive manner. These angels helped me to remain calm, and not show any offense to what was being said. God did not abandon me at all that day. They even went as far as telling me “parents pay too much money to have their kids be coached and taught by someone like you who identifies as a gay man.” Also “in fact! Hearing how much love you have for these kids, I don’t think you are even gay! You just need some direction to reach the goal of becoming a child of God.” As if being Gay disqualifies me of being a child of God. Many things were shared and stated during this “spiritual connection.” In closing they asked me where we go from here. They proceeded by telling me that they weren’t trying to “convert me into being a straight man” and that ultimately I had two choices. One choice was to “denounce being gay. I want you to cut off that part of who you think you are. Go home and delete any posts on social media that speak about being gay. We want you to realize you aren’t gay. You need to become a child of God.” No more goals of getting married to the love of my life, who is a man. By doing this, they'd allow me to continue my journey as a coach at Valor Christian. The other option of course was to do the opposite – be true to who God made me to be... A GAY CHILD OF THE ALMIGHTY. One of them even said “I don’t want to seem like I’m hanging a coaching position over your head to ‘convert’ you, but we just can’t have you in front of the kids if you identify that way.” The other followed by saying “and we will make an email for you to send out and make sure that it states that you are away for personal matters, so that way when you make your decision to accept God and our help, you can come back and they don’t have to know of your spiritual battle. This is to ultimately protect you and our kids. We also don’t want this to effect your other places of work.”

I sat in that room for an hour and a half being belittled by men who knew nothing about who I am, what I’ve done in life, what obstacles I’ve overcome, the understanding I have of the living scriptures, and more importantly the love I have for my savior and lord, God. With my head held high, and with tears ready to be shed for hours, even days, I walked away knowing that my journey as a coach at Valor Christian had come to an end – I was not going to “denounce identifying as a gay man.” Which according to them, would lead to me being released as a coach. They have told my girls, and the volleyball community that it was my choice to leave, which in a sense, yes, I chose to not denounce my sexuality. But they left out the part where they pushed me out. My credentials, experience, interviews, and references, all went down the drain because of the lack of love these men have towards the 1 sheep that Christ Himself searched for, me. There is not “their truth vs my truth.” There is simply just, THE TRUTH. And as God is my witness, this is the truth.

I speak out with my experience with no intention of wanting sympathy. I speak out because I have taught my kids (yes these kids are MY KIDS) to embrace who they are, and learn to love themselves. To stick up for one another and to stand up against those who harm any of their own. I speak out for once in my life, to show MY KIDS that I too, have to live up to the expectations I have set forth for them.

To Valor Christian, I pray that the students and faculty who are silently battling accepting who they are, realize that the morals of the school and the beliefs of certain individuals do not get to decide if they are worthy of God's love. I pray that I can be a beacon of light for those who you so openly shun. I also thank you for allowing me the opportunity to take your students under my wings and provide them with a safe haven on and off the court.

I express my love and gratitude for the parents of these kids, who have stuck by me and have spoken out against a School that hides behind hate, fear, and fake, ungodly love. My prayers and love for you are infinite, along with my gratitude. You are my family. Your love and support is humbling. That also goes to my family and friends who have helped me realize that I am worthy of God’s love. And that I am worthy to share that love with the world. To MY KIDS- I truly love you with all my being and continue to be on your sideline cheering for your success as an athlete, student, human, and a child of a loving God. No man on earth is worthy to take away or discredit my unconditional love that I have for you. Thank you for helping me realize that being a coach is a sacred calling from God – I am forever grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given to learn and grow with and from you. Thrive in your faith by leaving the 99, and finding the 1. “Be thou an example of the believers.”

To the little Tongan boy who was always silenced by ignorant counsel from earthly men, I am becoming the leader, coach, mentor, and brother that you needed. I am becoming who God wanted you to have. And I am helping those who are suffering just as you did. My identity will not be defined by a few men in a room full of self-righteous egos, who will never be worthy enough to tell me my worth. The lack of love these men and others have for me is fulfilled by the eternal love that my God has for me. With that love God shares with me, I will continue to share it with them, and all those who need it, regardless of what they believe.

Inoke Tonga

​This past weekend the courageous Inoke Tonga shared his experience of recently being ‘dismissed’ from his coaching duties at Valor Christian High School for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. My heart broke into a million pieces reading his story. I feel it is important for me to no longer stay silent and to share my similar experience of being mistreated by Valor. As I write this I am anxious and am in tears, but it is clear that so many other LGBTQ+ Valor staff and students need to know they are not alone. I began working at Valor in September of 2017 as an Athletic Administrator and Head Girls Lacrosse Coach. Over the next few years I established a home at Valor. I loved the players and formed incredible relationships with the girls, parents and fellow staff. Our team went from a .500 record against mediocre teams, to Conference Champions, a State Final Four appearance and the most postseason awards including the team’s first All-American. Life was good, but that was to be short lived. In December of 2019, I was pulled into a meeting with the Valor Athletic Director and a member from the HR team. I had no reason to think this would be a meeting to be nervous about. In fact, I thought this meeting could potentially be about the raise and title change I had deservedly been fighting for. This felt like my time and I was excited for the potential good news. Very quickly I realized this was not going to be the meeting I had hoped for. Completely blindsided, I was told someone anonymously called the school and suggested I was in a relationship with another woman. I was asked to confirm or deny. My stomach dropped. I was still on a journey of self-discovery and so for someone, an employer nonetheless, to spontaneously ask me about my sexuality and dating life felt beyond violating. Being totally caught off guard by what felt like an interrogation, I denied the accusation. Before I could even process what was being asked, I was met with smiles, laughter and the response of, “We knew that couldn’t be true! How could our CO State Coach of the Year be gay?!” To connect my professional achievements to my sexual orientation was one of the most ignorant comments and exposed their massive misunderstanding of LGBTQ+ people. I immediately felt betrayed by those who claimed they so deeply cared about my well being. If they only cared to know what actually was going on in my life! I asked them the follow up question, “What would have happened if I had said yes?” They explained that Valor believes one can be gay, but they cannot act on those feelings and must remain celebate. If a faculty or staff member is found to be acting on those feelings, they would be asked to leave Valor if they chose to continue leading that life. It was clear that my time at Valor would have ended right at that moment if I had said yes and that I was not willing to surrender this very important process of figuring out my sexuality in private and on my own timeline. That night I went through every Valor employment document given to me and could not find any statements on the school’s stance on homosexuality or same-sex relationships. Ironically what I did find was their statement on Anonymous Communication which states, “Anonymity conflicts with our culture, demonstrates a lack of commitment and breaks down trust. If you have an idea, issue, criticism, or something important to discuss, rest assured that it will be addressed confidentially and appropriately. We encourage you to stand up for your convictions and express them with full disclosure. Anonymous communications will simply be ignored. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:37” (Valor Culture Document) I genuinely did not know Valor was not affirming because I would see openly gay students walking the halls and even as a staff member I felt empowered by them living their truth as gay child of God. Still in shock, and now even more confused, I knew I was being forced to choose between the players I cared so incredibly deeply for or my mental well-being. I chose my players. I returned from Christmas break going into work everyday wondering whose parent outed me, nervous that I might ‘slip up’ and filled with anxiety that I would be fired. Valor became a place of fear and distrust for me. The only thing that kept me coming back is the unbelievable players I had the joy of coaching everyday. To see their faces was worth me putting my own needs to the side. They were my world and they still are today. COVID hit in March just as our season began. It was devastating. The 2020 season was going to be nothing short of greatness. As we wiped the tears from one another's eyes when the official announcement was made that the season was indefinitely canceled, and that “our year to win State” was over, I couldn’t help but to feel some sense of relief that I didn’t have to return to that toxic work environment. I would have done it, and it would have been worth it, because those girls deserved every bit of joy that season would have brought them win or loss. But I now had the remainder of that academic year to fulfill my administrative and coaching duties from the comfort and safety of my own home. As the end of the school year approached, the looming decision to be fired or return to work was still present. Valor’s Athletic Director already knew there was a chance I would not be returning since earlier that semester the opportunity I was promised to pitch a Female Athletic Director role to Valor leadership was denied and I was told I would not be getting a raise in pay either. Two things I clearly communicated at the beginning of the school year that would need to occur in order for me to be able to afford to remain at Valor. I set up a meeting with the Athletic Director and the Campus Pastor to discuss further the school’s stance on LGBTQ+ matters, my role in leadership and my future involvement at the school. Once again, this meeting was nothing short of shocking. I was overwhelmed with the lack of sensitivity to the topic and alarming dialogue that they disguised as a Biblical approach to same-sex attraction. I was bombarded with ignorant and irrelevant statements like, “gay marriages don’t last” and “God made man and woman for the sole purpose of procreation.” One of them even compared his belief that acting on same-sex desires is a perversion and the ultimate lack of self-control of gay people, to him consciously having to shield his eyes from young female students who may be dressed “inappropriately” or counter to Valor’s dress code.

My jaw was on the floor in disbelief. I felt like I had just gone through a time travel machine that shot me back 50 years. I feel proud to say that I pushed back and discredited every statement that came my way. Going through the process of having to deconstruct what was taught to me in the fundamentalist church I grew up in has led to countless books read, podcasts listened to and documentaries watched throughout my self-discovery path. The comments that were made in that meeting were sadly not unfamiliar to me, but still hurt deeply coming directly from two individuals that claimed they only wanted the best for their staff and students. If those leaders hadn’t already given me numerous reasons not to return to Valor, I asked how I would be expected to lead if a student were to approach me with information that they are gay or struggling with their sexuality and/or sexual orientation. Both Valor leaders were overjoyed to share with me that I could welcome the student with “open arms” and offer to pray with them for God to guide them to living a life of celibacy and self-control over their same-sex desires. Even after hearing this messaging countless times, there is no way to numb yourself of the harmful rhetoric. I will NEVER tell an athlete or other student of mine that they can only be an accepted child of God if they deny who God made them to be by denouncing their sexuality. God loves every one of his children exactly as they are and that is true for all members of the LGBTQ+ community. It was right then and there that I made the formal decision to end my employment at Valor; though it really was not a choice. I was told I would be allowed to tell the team of my decision myself. The next few days I took the time to write out a long, heart-felt email to my players and their parents. The email was going to be sent through the Valor emailing system so it had to be submitted to the Athletic Director first. I was met with a phone call that he could not disseminate the message because the content was too mature for students to read. There was nothing inappropriate about the email. I simply spoke of the journey I had been on regarding my sexuality and that Valor was no longer a place I could continue that path while simultaneously being employed. It broke my heart to not be able to fully communicate the reason I was leaving them. Once an abbreviated and screened version of the email was sent, phone calls and text messages came flooding in with confusion and sadness. Still feeling vulnerable and pressured into lying about the truth, I did not feel like I could share my story and simply had to put on a face that it was for the best. A year later I am still processing everything that happened to me at Valor, but my hope in sharing my story now is that we can begin to enact change in how these conversations are approached. We don’t always have to agree, but more well rounded knowledge and greater sensitivity will help prevent further harm. Current and former Valor staff and students deserve to know they are not alone in their experiences. Inoke gave me the strength to share my story and I hope to give that next person the strength to share theirs when they feel ready. We need safe environments where both students and staff are able to come as they are without another’s agenda to change them and force compliance with one man’s theory on their salvation as it relates to their sexuality.

Light shines in the darkness and I hope to bring light to those that are struggling, letting them know they are not alone. To support Inoke Tonga. And to bring a little healing to my soul. Not all my days at Valor were dark. There are a lot of special people at that school and I am grateful to still call them colleagues, players and friends. Those people know who they are and I will cherish them forever. Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. - Psalm 91:1

Lauren Benner

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