“Five, six, seven, eight, Valor is no place for hate,” chanted a crowd of people outside of Valor Christian High School south of Denver.
Students, parents and extracurricular activity coordinators from Valor gathered outside the school’s academic building on Friday to protest the school officials after they allegedly told two coaches they couldn’t be gay and work at the school.
Inoke Tonga was the school’s volleyball coach for both the boys and girls teams up until last week when he says he was asked to “denounce being gay” or leave his coaching position. On Friday, he showed up to the protest and was overwhelmed with gratitude.
“My cup is filled, to say the least,” he said. As he walked through the crowd, he got hugs and was stopped by students who told him how much they admire him for sharing his story of being questioned by school leaders about his sexual orientation.
On August 21, Tonga detailed his experience in a Facebook post. He said he was called into a meeting with the athletic director and the school pastor who questioned Tonga about his social media presence and sexual orientation.
“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,’” Tonga wrote in the post.
“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,” Tonga’s post continued.
Lauren Benner, a former girls lacrosse coach, shared details on Instagram of a similar account of being pulled into a meeting without warning and being asked if she was in a relationship with a woman in December 2019. Benner writes on the Aug. 23 social media post that she denied the claim then, but decided to come out to school officials months later.
Benner left the school on her own in 2020. The year prior, Benner was awarded Colorado High School Activities Association coach of the year in 2019.
“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,” she said in the post. CPR News has reached out to Benner for comment but has not heard back.
School standing firm on views of homosexuality, claims coaches were dishonest
Valor Christian High School officials did not respond to requests for comment made by CPR News on Friday morning. But in an email statement sent to parents that day, Valor said it supports those who have spoken out about their experiences and aims to “find ways to love and serve our community,” but made clear the school’s stance on gay relationships.
The statement reads that “... each employee affirms their understanding of, commitment to, and alignment with our beliefs, values and standards.
“We recognize and appreciate that many people hold beliefs directly contrary to ours, including our belief that God has created sexual intimacy specifically to be expressed within the marriage of a man and a woman,” the letter continues.
The school also claimed the coaches, although they are not mentioned by name, were dishonest in their portrayals of the meetings with administrators.
“Contrary to what has been shared publicly by two former employees, the spirit and intent of their meetings were to seek understanding and clarity regarding the representations they made to us,” the statement said.
At the protest, Benner’s girlfriend, Lindsay Martin, said Benner has been processing her experience ever since it happened.
“They instill a lot of fear in people of coming out and actually sharing that truth,” Martin said.
She said Benner felt encouraged to speak out after Tonga did.
“I am so proud that she spoke out. It’s her story to tell. In some ways it's kind of freeing for me as well,” Martin said. “There's been a lot of tears shed and also just like a lot of warmth just seeing all of these students and alumni speaking out and organizing and everything.”
Current, former students say school isn’t a safe place for LGBTQ+ people
Lucy Sarkissian, a Valor junior, led the protest with a bullhorn and did a lot of the legwork to organize students to protest the school’s actions. She says Valor isn’t a safe place for LGBTQ+ people.
“I've seen massive amounts of discrimination occur against fellow LGBTQ+ students,” Sarkissian said. “I think that in this moment with coach Inoke’s and coach Benner's stories being shared, we had a rare opportunity that had to be seized to have a discussion about Valor’s treatment of not just their faculty and coaches, but of their students and their culture as a whole.”
Tonga and Benner’s stories garnered local and national attention, prompting people from other schools and the nearby communities to show up and voice their support.
“I was born in Colorado. I'm gay, I'm a Christian, and I think growing up with the religious side, it made it difficult being gay,” said Lacey McQuinn of Denver. “I'm just here to support the kids that go here, but I'm also here supporting Lauren.”
Some other faculty members have resigned because of the incidents, like Andrew Wixson, a 2013 Valor graduate and former debate coach.
“I think that it's really easy when something like this happens to just say like, ‘Oh, Valor shouldn't exist anymore,’” he said. “My mind is more, I want to give Valor every opportunity to reform from within. People are still going to continue to send their kids here, so they have a pretty heavy burden that way to actually create a loving, inclusive environment.”
Former students are sharing their stories of Valor online. Alumnus Cole Watson started a public Google Document for people to post their stories.
“During my time at Valor, I was regularly demeaned and attacked by certain faculty members. I had a teacher lead a class discussion on what part of hell I would end up in,” Watson said in the document. “A staff member told my best friend to stop speaking to me if she cared about her soul.”
Editor’s note: CPR News has not independently verified the stories shared in the public Google document.
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