Travis Brantingham sat across from me in the dean’s office teary-eyed in January 2018.
Travis used to be my camp director, then my varsity soccer coach in high school and athletic director, and now he was my boss as the Head of School for Principia School in St. Louis, North America’s only school for Christian Scientists.
He admitted to me that through his religious upbringing he did not agree with, nor understand, homosexuality. But after watching me grow up and show character and leadership on the soccer field, his previous idea of homosexuality was shattered. He became my champion and made history by hiring Principia School and College’s first openly gay faculty or staff member — me.
Principia School is a K-12 institution for Christian Scientists in St. Louis. It has a college that sits an hour away on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Elsah, Illinois. My journey as a gay man mirrors the changes that have occurred within Christian Science when it comes to queer people.
I was born into a loving supportive Christian Science family of athletes with three older sisters. From an early age my parents taught us that one of the roles of a family was to help each other find their “gift package” or simply support their goals and uniqueness. Family conversations like these made it relatively easy to come out to my family because I knew they would have my back.
Nowhere in the religious texts of Christian Science does founder Mary Baker Eddy write that queer people are not welcome in the religion. In fact, as a woman in her time period she took it upon herself to declare that gender should not play a role in hindering an individual’s expression of God-like qualities, like love. But somewhere along the way, many Christian Scientists adopted the same hate and disapproval as the rest of the world’s antiqueer movement.
In 2018 under the leadership of Travis and Dr. Peter Dry (Associate Head of School for Innovation and Strategy), Principia School published a diversity and inclusion statement to welcome all gender identities and sexual orientations (which I helped write). They now have a student LGBTQ affinity group, which I started, and conduct routine cultural competency professional development for their faculty and staff. Principia has not always been so inclusive.
I first came to Principia in 2007 as a high school freshman boarder (living in the high school dorms). I didn’t really know what it meant to be homosexual and I hadn’t paid attention to the admissions application. If I had, I would have learned that I would be kicked out if I was gay, and there were certainly no queer staff or faculty allowed.
If I was discovered, and by some miracle was not kicked out, then I might expect to have required religious sessions for healing (which some previous students experienced). I lived in ignorant bliss of my sexuality and focused on making friends through soccer and school. That year a number of students were kicked out for being gay. Unfortunately, I was less socially aware at that time and didn’t fully comprehend the inequality of these events.
I was homesick and nervous at this new school half way across the continent (my family was in Washington D.C.), but soccer became my rock and my new family. There were five other talented freshmen boys that first year and we remained brothers throughout our next four years, complete with a goalie, two defenders, two center-mids, and a forward. Sophomore year I made varsity, junior year I was the team’s leading goal scorer, and senior year I controlled the middle of the field with a fellow senior, Leif.
I remember when Leif and I had a fight our senior year that escalated quickly and he called me a faggot in the locker room. Being oblivious to my sexuality allowed me to move past this incident, but it was then that I realized that this was a word often hurled at me throughout my childhood and I didn’t know why.
Despite the run-in with Leif, our senior squad of six was pretty tight-knit on and off the field. We came up short in districts each year (always against the to-be state champions), but we were all individually recognized and awarded by the league. We were formidable on the pitch because we worked hard for each other, not for self-gain, all four years. This was because of Travis.
I first met Travis in July 2000 when I was 7 at a Christian Science summer camp in Maine, where he was the camp director for the boys camp. My mom and I were dropping my three sisters off at the girls camp and Travis looked down at me and asked me why I wasn’t going to camp. Plans quickly changed and I stayed there four weeks that summer and returned for eight more summers after.
Soccer, ultimate, rock climbing and capture the flag were my favorite activities. I graduated in their counselor-in-training program in 2009 and became a junior counselor in 2010 where I was in charge of my own cabin of kids ages 6, 7 and 8.
When I came out of the closet and I tried to apply for staff in 2017, I was not allowed to return. Board members told me that gay people were only allowed to work in the laundry room or the kitchen (away from the children), but that these were positions they only offered locals. It crushed me. I felt betrayed.
My home away from home had locked me out. Although they have since removed this discriminatory policy on paper, for now I would still steer queer staff and campers to other Christian Science summer camps, as they would encounter a much safer and more inclusive environment.
Travis was also my varsity high school soccer coach. He was simultaneously the most intimidating and loving man I had ever met. He had the ability to break down a player physically, strip away any ego and build us up strong and humble. He coached character first, soccer second, but his players excelled in both.
Travis and I were both unaware of my sexuality then, but my pure expression of good and hard work on the soccer field laid a foundation that later allowed him to shift his understanding of what being a Christian Scientist was and homosexuality’s place in this religion. As athletic director, he awarded me the Henry Morrison Award in 2011, which went to an athlete who exhibited leadership, inclusivity, generosity of spirit and unselfishness.
My love was most definitely soccer, but I also found success on the high school track and in the classroom. Both junior and senior year my relay team and I won state in the 4x800 sprints with me running a sub 2-minute 800 meter dash and earned silver in the 4x400 with a 52-second 400 meter time.
In 2011 I graduated cum laude along with several science and theater awards and represented my school as the St. Louis Post Dispatch scholar athlete. I was oblivious to my sexuality until it was time to choose which college I should attend. During spring of my senior year, I stared up at the bumpy white ceiling in my dorm room before falling asleep and said aloud: “I think I’m gay”
I received a full ride to Principia College, but its admission application at the time read: “I will refrain from premarital, extramarital, and homosexual activity” worded among the prohibitions on cheating, drinking and doing drugs. This would remain their policy until fall of 2014. So instead I chose to attend the University of Washington in Seattle. This was a Division I, Pac-12 school and I was not good enough to play on their soccer team.
My time in Washington was a hoot. I played pick-up soccer almost daily and won several intramural leagues with my new soccer friends. I slowly came out of the closet to friends there who didn’t bat an eye. I joined Seattle Stonewall, the adult league gay men’s soccer team where I learned much about gay culture. I competed with them at the EuroGames in Stockholm against gay teams from around the world including Brazil, Italy, France and Mexico.
With new-found confidence in my sexuality, I looked back at the Principia school system I left and I wanted to do more for the queer students there still unable to freely express themselves. It was also a dream of mine to play collegiate level soccer. I read a coming out story on Outsports by Bucknell soccer player Jesse Klug and emailed him with lots of questions about his experience coming out to his team.
His article, and many others like it, gave me the inspiration and motivation to make the leap. I decided in 2014 to transfer for one semester to Principia College to play Division III soccer and lied on the admissions application that prohibited “homosexual activity.” I also called my religious practitioner and I came out to him and asked for his support to return to Principia. He told me, in short, that gay people did not belong at a Christian Science school.
For their fall 2014 season my brothers welcomed me with open arms. At first I struggled to find my way socially and positionally on the team, but I worked my way up to starting center midfielder. I then began coming out of the closet to my teammates. Some were polite when I told them, but didn’t talk about it any further. Some hugged me and expressed their support. One went as far as to ask me which guys at the school I thought were cute.
Leif, though, had the greatest impact on me when he came to my dorm room, head down and ashamed for calling me a faggot in high school. I forgave him instantly, we hugged, and he has been one of my biggest supporters since.
To the college, I was closeted, but an army grew around me of people who loved me for who I was. Then the unimaginable happened: On Nov. 18, 2014, Principia changed its century-long discrimination policy against queer people.
That morning my phone blew up with texts and congratulations from teammates and friends, and my presence there no longer had to be a secret. This policy change was a result of years of hurt, prayer, hard work and advocacy by many others (including by one of my sisters after I came out to her) and it finally paid off.
Some families withdrew their kids from the school and college when Principia changed their policy. But school donations increased and Principia suddenly became a much more welcoming place.
I thought my role in changing Principia’s acceptance for queer people was over. Little did I know.
I returned to University of Washington and graduated cum laude in Biology in June 2015 with a specialization in ornithology (it basically means bird nerd). During my job hunt I was contacted by my former chemistry teacher, Melanie Shedd. Principia School was in need of a biology teacher. I applied and interviewed, but was rejected. Though their science department was short-staffed that year, the community wasn’t ready for a gay teacher. I applied again the following year in 2016 and was accepted.
In one of my interviews with Travis, I was sitting in the Head of School office. I looked across at my old camp director, my former soccer coach, and my future boss. He looked at me with that same compassion and support for me as he always had. “Why do you want to be here?” he asked me.
I started to talk about teaching and biology and he interrupted me. “No, why do you want to be here?” I then translated the true meaning of his question: why do you keep coming back? Some people here are fearful and hateful of gay people, why do you want to be here?
I mustered up the cheesiest Marvel line I could: “Travis, I am built for this.” I meant it.
I was born and raised a Christian Scientist, went to Christian Science camp, graduated with academic, artistic and athletic recognition at Principia School, graduated with top marks at university, had teaching and tutoring experience, multiple publications in scientific journals, work experience at the Smithsonian Institute, and most importantly I was loving, thoughtful, and hard working. If people had issues with me being there, then it would be for only one reason.
And people did have issues with me being there. A former classmate of mine told me that I didn’t belong at Principia and that there was no intersectionality with Christian Science and homosexuality. And several people insinuated that I was a pedophile. These were low points.
But my experience as a teacher there was overwhelmingly positive with fierce allies from the top of the ranks at Travis’ desk, down through the Principal and the deans, a large herd of inclusive faculty, and of course, the students.
I took my role of speaking up for minority students very seriously, publicly declaring my support to the St. Louis Black Lives Matter movement and hosting community dialogues, co-founding an affinity space for LGBTQ students, advocating for our school’s international students, and chaperoning students to the national Student Diversity Leadership Conference. I also had a chance to be an assistant coach for the girls’ JV soccer team for two seasons. This school continues to hold a very special place in my heart and has an extremely talented and loving faculty and staff.
In September 2018 I moved to Washington D.C. in pursuit of a new career. I joined the Rainbow Unicorns, the Washington D.C. premier gay soccer team where I play center-mid. We also took a run at the Paris Gay Games in 2018 where we earned a silver medal in Division II. In January 2019 in Las Vegas, I earned a gold medal in the IGLFA Indoor World Championship while playing with the Minnesota Gray Ducks. I continue to play soccer several times a week for gay and straight teams.
Soccer has been one of the best things that has happened to me. Not only does it bring me extreme joy, but I have also been able to break invisible boundaries as a gay athlete with my straight teammates.
I recruited lifelong friends and allies through the hard work that it takes to make a team gel and the creative art that comes from a series of beautiful passes during pickup. Soccer was also my doorway into the gay world.
By way of adult gay leagues in Seattle and DC I was able to blend a sport, in which I was familiar, with a fabulous new culture that I knew close to nothing about.
Soccer also gave me Travis: my favorite coach, a lifelong mentor, and a friend. Someone who with his power and heart made life a lot easier for the next Ross who steps foot on the Principia campus.
Ross Furbush, 26, lives in Washington D.C. and works as an analyst. After teaching high school biology for two years, Ross continues to pursue his passion for the environment and wildlife where he is a bird-banding instructor for a nonprofit (CECCOT) in the Peruvian Amazon. He graduated cum laude from the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at University of Washington with a B.S. in both Biology and Environmental Science. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram or Twitter.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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