Christian School Students Walk Out in Support of Gay Coach

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday August 25, 2021

Students at a private Christian high school in Colorado protested the treatment of a gay volleyball coach who says he was told to either denounce being gay or resign. They also protested the way LGTBQ+ students face discrimination at the school, local NBC affiliate 9News reported.

"I've seen students who have been threatened to be suspended for talking about being in gay relationships," one student leader, 16-year-old Lucy Sarkissian, told News9. "I've seen transgender students who aren't allowed to use their correct name or their correct pronouns."

The students walked out of their classes at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch at 1:40 on the afternoon of Aug. 24, the news station detailed. They held signs and gave speeches in support of Coach Inoke Tonga, who says he gave up his job rather than sacrifice authenticity. The students were joined by alumni of the school like Cole Watson, a 2018 graduate who refused to be closeted even while attending the school.

"I had a teacher in one of my classes lead a discussion about what part of Hell I would end up in because of my choices," Watson told the news outlet.

"Discrimination against the LGBT community is not something that's new for Valor," Watson told another local station, KDVR, "it's something that's baked into the foundation when the school was opened."

Watson said he hoped the school's administration would take notice of the "messages shared on social media from past LGBT students about the discrimination and psychological abuse they received at this school. I hope they hear it, I hope they are willing to change.

"But every time Valor has been confronted in the past with the option to change, they've turned it down," the alumnus added.

A number of police officers were reportedly on the school's property, and they ensured that students and reporters alike stayed off the campus.

EDGE reported previously that Tonga says he was given the choice of his job or authenticity when a post at his Facebook page caught the administration's attention.

As Tonga put it in comments to News9, "Be gay, or admit that I wasn't gay and that I was just having what they call a spiritual battle."

"After that conversation with staff, Tonga said he couldn't stay at the school any longer," the news channel reported.

When Inoke's story broke, a second coach — Lauren Brennan, who left the school in 2020 — came forward, breaking her silence around how she, too, had been given a choice of authenticity or keeping her job.

"The word 'fired' wasn't mentioned, but it was, you would be asked to leave, that you can no longer work here if that's what you continue to pursue," the Brenner recounted in an Instagram post.

"When Coach Inoke and Coach Benner's stories came out in the past three days, my heart broke for both of them and it broke for every queer teen at this school," Sarkissian told KDVR.

Watch the 9News clip, below.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.