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Anti-LGBTQIA+ policies lead former CSU students to question Young Life’s presence on campus

Anti-LGBTQIA%2B+policies+lead+former+CSU+students+to+question+Young+Lifes+presence+on+campus
Collegian | Caden Proulx

When former Colorado State University student Tara Mortell joined Young Life in high school, she thought she was entering a welcoming community. She hadn’t grown up with religion, and she was looking for a place to make friends.

“It’s why I went to CSU in the first place, actually: … I wanted that community,” Mortell said. “And then (I) became a leader and a backpacking guide.”

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Young Life is an evangelical Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The group focuses on youth from middle school through college, bringing them on weeklong summer camps and organizing group activities in which faith is practiced.

Mortell was even considering pursuing Young Life leadership as a full-time job until she realized Young Life didn’t align with her values.

“We had some younger freshmen who identified as bisexual that had tried to become leaders, and they weren’t allowed to,” Mortell said. “It made a lot of us sit down and really consider what Young Life values and what they say versus what they do.”

In 2020, two younger members of CSU Young Life were denied leadership positions because of their identities as bisexual women. While it wasn’t confirmed their sexualities were the sole reason for their rejection, the decision led several members of Young Life to reconsider their role in the organization. 

“I left for a variety of reasons, but a big part of it was the bisexual girls being denied leadership and the way that staff handled the conversations after that happened,” Mortell said. 

Alyssa Proulx was a senior at CSU when the two women were denied leadership. Feeling that their treatment was unjust, Proulx sought to discuss the issue with Greg Hook and Jodi Green, Northern Colorado Young Life area directors.

“Young Life loves to say they welcomed queer kids, and I’ve seen them really want queer kids because they can be seen as currency of, ‘Oh, look how welcoming Young Life is. But those queer kids are eventually going to come across a Young Life leader or Young Life staff who has really anti-LGBTQ views. … There’s no way of insulating queer youth from that harm, regardless of what Young Life says about their policies.” – Kent Thomas, founder of #DoBetterYoungLife

“LGBTQIA+ stuff is something that we didn’t talk a lot about in Young Life up until that point,” Proulx said. “Once I sat through that meeting and heard those perspectives, I quit immediately.”

Young Life isn’t open about their position on the LGBTQIA+ community, Proulx said. Meeting with Hook and Green only affirmed for Proulx how strong Young Life’s stance is against the LGBTQIA+ community.

“Young Life has not changed policies around guidelines for staff and leaders within the larger mission,” Hook wrote in email correspondence in October. “These guidelines and policies are public.”

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The “Unhealthy Sexuality” section of Young Life’s Sexual Health Policy, provided to The Collegian by Mortell, reads, “For the purposes of this policy, unhealthy sexuality will be defined as any behavior including but not limited to 1) sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship, 2) interaction with sexually explicit content or interactions including but not limited to pornography of any kind, 3) assaultive behavior physically or electronically, 4) sexual infidelity or immoral behavior, 5) inappropriate use of social media and/or electronic communications and/or 6) transmission of sexually suggestive material (especially to or of minors).”

“As a freshman, we got this giant packet of training materials (that you get) when you become a leader or decide you want to be a leader,” Mortell said. “I remember reading at the very beginning that we were not supposed to condone or engage in homosexual behavior. And that was at the time that I was still very closeted to myself.”

Mortell and Proulx said they and some of their peers signed that policy not fully understanding the implications of the policy.

“(When) I became a leader and got more involved, they started telling us that if kids came out as queer, we had to report them,” Mortell said. “(We had to) basically out them to their parents because it was a fundamental issue. And if a kid came out as queer, then we had to basically quarantine them for the rest of the week and not let them be in the same cabin as the people that they were sexually attracted to technically.”

Northern Colorado isn’t the only place where these issues came to light. In 2020, the #DoBetterYoungLife movement took off on social media, highlighting issues within the organization nationally.

Kent Thomas, founder of #DoBetterYoungLife, has read and posted hundreds of stories from Young Life members about their experiences and advocates for accountability from the organization.

“Young Life loves to say they welcomed queer kids, and I’ve seen them really want queer kids because they can be seen as currency of, ‘Oh, look how welcoming Young Life is,’” Thomas said. “But those queer kids are eventually going to come across a Young Life leader or Young Life staff who has really anti-LGBTQ views. … There’s no way of insulating queer youth from that harm, regardless of what Young Life says about their policies.”

Thomas first experienced leadership policies in action when he was 24 and coming to terms with his own identity as a gay man. After growing up in Young Life, Thomas was shocked when he was told he couldn’t be a leader if he was gay. After he shared his experience online in June 2020 with the #DoBetterYoungLife hashtag, the movement took off, bringing in hundreds of stories.

“I thought maybe there were 20 people around the country in Young Life who had that experience,” Thomas said. “So to see just so many stories come in around anti-queer stuff and then also around racism and sexism and ableism, … from my personal experience, it was pretty validating to see that I wasn’t making this up.”

#DoBetterYoungLife has been asking for accountability and transparency from the organization since the movement’s beginning, but Thomas, Mortell and Proulx said they don’t believe Young Life will ever change.

“Unfortunately, Young Life made it very clear after all of this that they stand by their policies and that they would never change,” Mortell said. “There was a large amount of people during COVID that were pressuring Young Life to reevaluate their policies and actions, and Young Life released another document stating their beliefs and the biblical backing to their standpoint.”

“I don’t think that Young Life should be allowed at CSU. I think that they violate every (diversity, equity, inclusion and justice) standard that CSU has claimed to value. And I think that they do a really good job of masking those values in order to attract young people who are really desperate for community and pretty vulnerable in their first year of college.” Alyssa Proulx, former YoungLife leader and CSU student 

Young Life sent this confidential document to its area directors, detailing their theology around sexuality to guide local leaders in response to LGBTQIA+ controversy. They additionally released a public statement in response to #DoBetterYoungLife.

When asked several questions about Young Life’s policies and stances on LGBTQIA+ identifying members in leadership, Hook responded with the following statement on Young Life’s behalf. 

“We believe that every human is made in the image of God and created for a purpose,” the statement reads. “We love every kid and only have restrictions in involvement when it comes to holding leadership roles within our organization, the first being a requirement that our leaders have a faith in Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and all human beings. We require that they believe Jesus is God’s eternal son, who, as man, fully shared and fulfilled our humanity in a life of perfect obedience.

“We do not exclude anyone from being recipients of the ministry of God’s grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ. We provide our leaders with resources and training to ensure they are equipped to create an environment in which every young person, regardless of their background, is welcomed with the love and understanding of faithful adults who personally demonstrate the compassion and truth of Jesus.

“Young Life staff and volunteer leader positions are not one-size-fits-all nor are they single-issue decisions. There are layers of conversation to be had around faith in Jesus and lifestyle that come from the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament. These are case-by-case conversations that are deeply personal as we discern together if volunteer leading or staff is a good fit.”

Gonzaga University banned Young Life because of their sexual health policies and the stories that have come out around them. Thomas said these policies cause damage to the LGBTQIA+ community even if Young Life says they don’t mean to cause harm. 

CSU’s Student Code of Conduct prohibits students from conducting discriminatory harassment and states that the university is committed to creating an inclusive environment for students. All student organizations are subject to the student code of conduct. Proulx said leaving meant she didn’t have access to the biggest community she had in college.

“I don’t think that Young Life should be allowed at CSU,” Proulx said. “I think that they violate every (diversity, equity, inclusion and justice) standard that CSU has claimed to value. And I think that they do a really good job of masking those values in order to attract young people who are really desperate for community and pretty vulnerable in their first year of college.”

While several students have left Young Life after coming across their anti-LGBTQIA+ policies, leaving isn’t without its struggles. #DoBetterYoungLife has slowed down, putting out less content so that the account managers can take care of their mental health while reading all of these stories, but these stories are still ongoing.

“They make you feel like you can only really be friends with people in Young Life — that people on the outside won’t really get you,” Proulx said. “It took me a couple years to start to build a social network outside of Young Life because it really took over every single part of my life with just how much they expect you to give up yourself.”

The harm that interactions with anti-LGBTQIA+ policies and mindsets can do to those in the community is extensive. Going into an assumed safe and welcoming space and then not feeling cared for can be damaging.

“If Young Life is going to have these policies, they just need to be honest about it,” Thomas said. “I think that honesty would help prevent a lot of harm because then queer people aren’t left kind of trying to put the pieces together.”

Reach Ivy Secrest at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @IvySecrest.

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About the Contributors
Ivy Secrest, Content Managing Editor
Ivy Secrest is The Collegian's content managing editor. Secrest uses she/her/hers pronouns and has worked for The Collegian previously as a reporter and as life and culture director for the 2022-23 academic year. As a senior in the journalism and media communications department, Secrest enjoys reporting on environmental and social issues with a special interest in science communication. She is president of the Science Communication Club and is pursuing a minor in global environmental sustainability with hopes of utilizing her education in her career. Growing up in Denver, Secrest developed a deep love for the outdoors. She could happily spend the rest of her life hiking alpine environments, jumping into lakes, taking photos of the wildflowers and listening to folk music. She's passionate about skiing, hiking, dancing, painting, writing poetry and camping. Secrest's passions spurred her career in journalism, helping her reach out to her community and get involved in topics that students and residents of Fort Collins truly care about. She has taken every opportunity to connect with the communities she has reported in and has written for several of the desks at The Collegian, including news, life and culture, cannabis, arts and entertainment and opinion. She uses her connections with the community to inform both managerial and editorial decisions with hopes that the publication serves as a true reflection of the student body's interests and concerns. Secrest is an advocate of community-centered journalism, believing in the importance of fostering meaningful dialogue between press and community.
Caden Proulx, Print Editor
Caden Proulx is a human development and family studies student at Colorado State University pursuing his passion for graphic design at The Collegian. Originally from Austin, Texas, Caden's journalistic journey began in the high school yearbook department, where his passion for design grew. This led to him to seek out student media when he got to Colorado State University. Starting as a page designer in his first year, Caden found a home at The Collegian. This led him to the position of print director his sophomore year. Despite majoring in HDFS, Caden seamlessly integrates his hobby of graphic design with his academic pursuits. The Collegian has become an integral part of his success at CSU. Now firmly rooted in Colorado, Caden is eager to contribute to the student media landscape, The Collegian and its success. He loves working alongside other excited students who are talented and have a lot to teach and push him to continue to grow as a visual journalist.

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Comments (7)

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  • M

    MattDec 5, 2023 at 7:57 pm

    YoungLife has harmed many people and has tried to sweep it under the rug

    Reply
  • J

    Justin McRobertsDec 5, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Disagreement with YL’s policies and theology is super fair and a worthwhile conversation.

    Suggesting i was unaware of an evangelical organization’s cultural orthodoxy and / or conservatism doesn’t ring true. It’s a bit like being bummed to find out cows are murdered in the McDonalds food process.

    Reply
  • M

    Maggie BochniakDec 1, 2023 at 9:15 pm

    Such an important article exposing such a harmful organization! Super informative article with valuable stories from two very brave women.

    Reply
  • M

    MattDec 1, 2023 at 9:42 am

    With the freedom of Religion in the 1st amendment and CSU being a state university, young life is not going anywhere and will stay on campus. They knew what young life was and is and need to move on with their lives and live how they see fit.

    Reply
  • S

    SusanNov 30, 2023 at 3:37 pm

    It’s sad to see that there is information shared here that is not accurate. Slivers of truth have been twisted to make Young Life look like an uncaring judgemental community, that is far from the truth. These girls opinions should have been verified, there was .uch more to their stories. Young Life is committed to loving ALL people well and to sharing hiw God loves them the very most.

    Reply
  • R

    RJ MolitorNov 30, 2023 at 2:48 pm

    I find this article very sad, disturbing, and unreliable. I too was a part of the Young Life organization from 2016-2020. It was where I met friends that brought me to Christ and his saving work. It brought me a great mentor in Greg Hook, who I still respect to this day.

    Young Life’s mission is to introduce kids to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith. Mortell and Proulx knew this mission and signed up for it when deciding to become leaders. It is even documented in this article that they read the part of the faith statements that condone homosexuality, and other forms of sexual immorality (including rape, pre-marital heterosexual sex, pornography, ect). They both agreed to abide by and support this stance.

    Mortell’s and Proulx’s stories are much different than what is presented in this article. In the article they are presented as victims who were taken advantage of by an organization. Rather, for some reason (one that I do not claim to know), they decided to walk away from the faith that Young Life so dearly holds and strives to share with others. This article preyYlund Life as if it is an organization out to hurt people, which is so far from the truth. These two individuals are 2 out of hundreds of kids and adults who have learned much and and benefited from Young Life as an organization.

    So, for these individuals to try to push the eradication of young life from CSUs campus because of something they disagree with is completely out of line. In this country we are blessed with free speech, and freedom of religion. Young Life has the right to share what they believe, and hold those who are under their leadership to that belief. Leaders of Young Life also have to be in good standing in the community, and are not allow t to steal to name a few..If someone outside of the organization disagrees, that is fine and OK. That is what free speech is about. But once you say that you agree with the mission, and you are fit to serve, you must remain that way. Should we disban the CSU climbing club because they wouldn’t allow someone with a heart condition or other health concern to be a climbing instructor?

    Let me end by sharing the truth that Young Life exists to share with others. The truth that has been tainted and lied about in this article. Romans 3:23-24 says this, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his Grace as a gift, through redemption that is Christ Jesus.” And later in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” See, the Christian message that Young Life teaches is that you and I are sinners, headed for death. We are all guilty of sin, and no sin is greater than the other. We are all guilty of lying, cheating, stealing, murder, sexual immorality..you name it. But, the good news is that Jesus Christ who is God, became man and died in order to save us from the punishment for committing those sins.

    Why would it be a worthy reason to take away an organization from CSU that strives to protect kids and tell them about a savior God that loves them as I described above?

    Reply
    • M

      MalorieDec 2, 2023 at 3:53 pm

      Did you really just compare being gay to having a heart condition?

      Reply