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YouTube accused of ‘protecting’ anti-gay church

Video removed about gay man who says he was beaten at N.C. compound

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Brent Childers, gay news, Washington Blade
Brent Childers, gay news, Washington Blade

Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America. (Photo courtesy of Childers)

The LGBT advocacy group Faith In America says YouTube has refused to explain why it removed from its website a video produced by the group about a 22-year-old gay man who says he was held against his will for four months and assaulted by members of a North Carolina church that considers homosexuality a form of “demonic possession.”

Brent Childers, executive director of Faith In America, said he believes the Spindale, N.C., based Word of Faith Fellowship church misled YouTube into thinking the video infringed upon its religious freedom.

Childers and others who have monitored the church say it has the characteristics of a cult and exerts extraordinary control over the lives of its members and their children. They say Word of Faith Fellowship, which operates on a 40-acre campus, has a long history of abusive treatment of gays.

“It is really dumbfounding,” Childers said. “YouTube allows a controversial video that pokes fun at Islam. But here we have a video in which a person is telling his own personal knowledge of how this bizarre Christian church treats gay youth or those suspected of being gay, and they remove the video.”

Google owns YouTube. A Google spokesperson responded to a Blade inquiry and said the company is looking into the situation but offered no further comment.

Pastors Jane and Sam Whaley, the founders and leaders of Word of Faith Fellowship, posted a message on the church website denying the church has mistreated gays and said the allegations made by the Faith In America video were false.

The gay man who is the subject of the video, Michael Lowry, told the Washington Blade his parents raised him as a church member since he was born and that he attended church operated schools on the church compound from kindergarten through 12th grade.

He said church members subjected him to severe pressure since his early teens to expel what they said were “demons” within him that were causing him to embrace homosexuality.

“I was very different than a lot of the other kids,” he said. “I was viewed as being gay. I never said I am gay…It was a very hard time. Through my whole school years I was very bullied, hurt because of that.”

Lowry said that around July of 2011, church members came to his home while his parents were out of town and forced him to go with them to a building on the church compound known as the Fourth Building, where male church members reportedly are taken for punishment for violating church rules.

He said he was held in the building against his will for four months and at one point was assaulted by church members assigned to watch over him during his stay at the facility. He said church officials released him in November 2011.

FBI may have been contacted by U.S. Attorney’s Office

Jerry Cooper, a Baptist minister and former member of Word of Faith Fellowship, said he has been assisting Lowry since last year in his role as a counselor to people who leave the church and who often suffer psychological scars from their experiences with the church.

Childers said the video that YouTube deleted consisted of an interview with Cooper talking about Michael Lowry’s case. Childers said for unknown reasons YouTube did not delete a separate video that includes an interview with Lowry.

According to Cooper and Don Huddle, a member of Faith Freedom Fund, a North Carolina group that helps ex-Word of Faith Fellowship members adjust to life outside the church, said church members brought Lowry to a nearby hotel after they released him.

“They took him to the hotel with just a few of his belongings,” said Huddle, who noted that someone familiar with the church alerted his group to Lowry’s plight and informed him that a confused and emotionally distraught young man had been taken to the hotel.

“I picked him up from the hotel and brought him to a safe house,” he said. Huddle said Faith Freedom Fund has a network of volunteers and supporters who spring into action when they learn of Word of Faith Fellowship members who desire to leave the church.

Cooper said he met Lowry through Huddle’s group in 2011 and advised him to consider reporting the church’s actions against him to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s office, which is the law enforcement agency in the area where the church is located.

He said Lowry reported to a Sheriff’s Office investigator that he had been taken against his will and held against his will by church members, and the office began an investigation that resulted in Lowry being called this week to testify before a county grand jury. His testimony was scheduled for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Childers said Faith In America contacted the U.S. Justice Department about Lowry’s allegations in October and called on the department to investigate the church’s alleged detention of Lowry and his claim of being assaulted by church members as a possible anti-gay hate crime.

A spokesperson for the United States Attorney’s Office in the Western District of North Carolina, which represents the Justice Department, said she would make inquiries about whether her office has responded to Faith In America’s request for an investigation. The spokesperson didn’t immediately get back to the Blade.

However, Cooper said an FBI agent interviewed Lowry for several hours last week about his allegations against the church, a development that suggests the U.S. Attorney’s office contacted the FBI to investigate the matter.

A copy of an incident report taken from Lowry by the Sheriff’s Office in February 2012 and released by Faith in America, says a group of men affiliated with the church “held him down and hit him about the face and chest area” at the time the church held him against his will in August 2011.

“Mr. Lowry stated that he told them to let go but they would not,” the report says. “The reason they [did] this was because he was homosexual and they [were] trying to get him to stop being homosexual. When this incident was taking place, the group would tell him he had demons in him and he was going to hell,” the report says.

‘YouTube… is giving cover to a church that believes it is OK to harm gay youth’

A statement released by Faith In America says that during Lowry’s forced stay at the church facility “he was subjected to humiliating acts, such as being made to sleep on the floor in the hallway and had to submit to supervised bathroom visits because church members feared he might be masturbating.”

“What YouTube is doing, perhaps inadvertently in this particular case, is giving cover to a church that believes it is OK to harm gay youth and families in the name of religious teaching,” Chiders said. “In doing so, it is giving cover to a vast number of churches who do the same thing, whether a small charismatic church in rural North Carolina or a large Methodist church in some American suburb.”

In a posting on its website, Word of Faith Fellowship disputes Lowry’s allegations and accuses Faith in America of “repeated vicious lies” about the church.

“We have always been a church that has loved everybody, because God is love,” the statement says. “What Michael Roy Lowry has said never happened. We would never allow it to happen. We do not discriminate against anyone, and we never have.”

The statement adds, “We never knew Michael Roy Lowry was gay until we heard it on the news program. It would have made no difference to us, because we love him.”

Cooper, who said he has closely followed Word of Faith Fellowship since he left it in 1998, said evidence is “overwhelming” from people who leave the church that church leaders abuse people suspected of being gay or suspected of engaging in any type of sexual activity not deemed appropriate by the church, even between consenting adults, gay or straight.

He said the church has prohibited Lowry’s family from seeing or talking to Lowry, a practice he said the church carries out with most people who leave it.

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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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National

LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls

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From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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