When Kent Thomas first signed up for his former youth ministry’s camp reunion, he was eager to show his husband Mike and their newborn child the beauty of the remote grounds in British Columbia. The Young Life camp wasn’t just where he’d spent his summers for nearly a decade — from cooking in communal kitchens to leading trekking expeditions in the isolated wilderness — it had been his second home.
Thomas, now 32 and a social worker in Tacoma, Washington, last visited the camp on the Princess Louisa inlet when he was 23 years old before he was kicked out for being gay, he told BuzzFeed News.
“I want to go back and have a moment with a younger part of me that was so impacted by that place and bring my current self there to sort of reclaim it,” he said.
Last November, a few days after he paid a $720 deposit for him and his spouse to attend, Thomas received an email that registration was closed due to “technical difficulties.” He was refunded the money, but less than a month later, a volunteer on the reunion committee called him to tell him that representatives at Young Life’s headquarters in Colorado decided he and his spouse could not attend because of the group’s policies against same-sex couples.
He went back and forth with people at headquarters, even offering to sleep in a separate room from where his husband would be. Then in early January, he said, he was told that the evangelical Christian organization had decided to cancel the weekend-long 50th anniversary event, which had been slated for fall 2023.
That’s when the floodgates opened. A member of the reunion committee sent an email to 100 Young Life members and former camp staffers, calling on those frustrated by the decision to ask headquarters to reconsider. Thomas, who previously led the #DoBetterYoungLife campaign on social media, said that nearly all eight people on the reunion committee resigned from their volunteer positions and vowed to stop supporting the organization financially.
BuzzFeed News spoke with seven former Young Life participants, including staffers and area directors, who were angered, if not surprised, by how Thomas was treated. Some shared their experiences publicly for the first time, noting that the blatant exclusion of Thomas and his husband was the last straw. They no longer wanted to stay silent, they said, as the organization, which markets itself as a place where young people can find community, has doubled down on conservative ideology and continues to reject its queer members when they come out.
For most of his life, Thomas was heavily involved with Young Life — a $500 million ministry that operates more than 8,500 chapters in public schools across the United States and in 100 countries around the world — first as a camper, youth leader, staffer, then mountain guide at the camp.
“Christianity meant the world to me,” he said, though he no longer identifies as a Christian. “The theology gave deep meaning to my life, and even to the pain I felt. Everything in my life hinged on being a part of the Christian community and believing the ‘right’ way. That made it extra scary to come out.”
Within Young Life, Malibu and its rugged mountaineering sibling camp, Beyond Malibu, are lauded as the “crown” or “jewel” of its 26 camps. A hundred miles north of Vancouver, the inlet is a three-hour ferry ride up a coastline of granite and dense forest, an idyllic setting for teen campers to nourish their sense of faith and adventure.
Though Thomas’s hopes for closure among the mountains were short-lived, his exclusion from the reunion pushed a small but vocal groundswell of former Young Lifers to speak out.
On Jan. 9, Becca Williams Leach, who became a guide at Beyond Malibu in 2006, wrote to Chad Sievert, the senior vice president of Young Life’s camping division, asking why the reunion was canceled. Williams Leach left Young Life in 2017 after her friend was banned from camp for falling in love with another woman, but she’d been eager to return for the reunion.
“I am crushed that this opportunity has been taken away from me and my family, and for what?” Williams Leach wrote.
Young Life maintains that the event was never canceled, according to a statement from a spokesperson. In early January, after Thomas tried to make plans to attend with his husband, the organization announced in its newsletter that the camp’s 50th celebration would now be moved to a one-day event in Seattle.
“The reason for this decision is so Young Life can facilitate all people wanting to celebrate this incredible ministry program having an opportunity to do so,” Sievert replied by email to Williams Leach. He did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
“Our goal was and is to plan an event that the most people can come to, and that means holding it in a place that’s easier to get to,” a Young Life spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Kate Hamman, another former Young Life guide at Beyond Malibu, wrote to Sievert the same day as Williams Leach more directly about the organization’s treatment of LGBTQ members. She has yet to receive a response.
“Since 2016, I have been asking Beyond and Young Life to be honest about its theological commitments and exclusion of LGBTQ people,” she wrote. “I quit being a Young Life leader in 2013 after two students were denied work crew because they were queer girls. It has now been a decade, and Young Life continues to cling to fear and deceit.”
Young Life neither responded to BuzzFeed News’ questions about its correspondence with Thomas nor clarified the organization’s policy on LGBTQ couples attending events.
“Young Life expects those seeking leadership positions to support Young Life’s beliefs, tenets and policies on a wide range of theological issues,” the spokesperson wrote, noting that the organization trains its leaders 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.”
For decades, Young Life has spread its Christian message by fostering friendships among middle school, high school, and college students, who work alongside adult leaders. The leaders, often young adults themselves, are tasked with “meeting [students] as they are and believing in who they can be,” according to Young Life’s website. Between weekly after-school clubs, Bible studies, and summer camps, the organization boasted reaching 1.5 million kids last year.
But in spite of its friendly image, former Young Life members said the organization has held tightly onto its anti-LGBTQ policies — even after criticism that it’s creating harmful environments for queer youth.
In 2016, it first made camp staffers sign a sexuality agreement that states that sex is only between men and women. Thomas then in 2020 launched the #DoBetterYoungLife campaign on Instagram, shedding light on the experiences of hundreds of current and former staffers who have been mistreated and hurt from the group’s anti-LGBTQ policies.
In response to Thomas’s campaign, Young Life created a council to review the allegations; in 2021, it announced its updated “sexual conduct policy,” which allows “same-sex attracted, celibate people” to be considered for staff or volunteer positions.
But in practice, former Young Life members say this policy puts queer participants in an impossible bind, forcing them to hide their sexuality or to live like priests or nuns.
“Every time something with [Young Life] comes out that’s LGBTQ-specific, it’s just a mess. They’ve never done right by the queer community,” said Conner Mertens, 28, who attended Malibu twice as a camper. He told BuzzFeed News he also initially wondered if he could’ve brought a boyfriend or husband to a reunion one day, but that thought quickly slipped from his mind.
After he came out publicly as bisexual in 2014 — and was the first active college football player to do so — he said he was ghosted by Young Life directors and told he could no longer be a youth leader.
“It’s very much ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to that point that … just the amount of folks that I know who have told me they’re going to stay closeted their whole life so they can continue their ministry because they believe in it, is just fucking heartbreaking,” Mertens said.
Lily Jensen, now an executive business partner at Google, said she was forced to resign from her position as regional director at Young Life in 2018 after dedicating 20 years of her life to the organization. A former staffer threatened to disclose her relationship with her now-wife, whom she met in Young Life, she told BuzzFeed News.
“Young Life is in service to money, not necessarily solely to the Christian God,” she said. “The people who are in power, like any organization, want to maintain that power. So Young Life isn’t going to change its policies around LGBTQ people, because the people who fund it and hold the purse strings are anti-LGBTQ.”
Today, Young Life continues to have a strong presence in public schools and colleges, but some campuses are taking a stance against its anti-LGBTQ policies. In 2019, students at Duke University rejected the organization from having an official presence on campus, and the chapter at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution, disbanded for violating the school’s antidiscrimination policies.
Jensen, who shared her experience with the organization for the first time in this story, said she doesn’t believe Young Life has much of a future if it continues its stance on queer youth. While it may preach the inclusion of all kids, she said she saw firsthand how the organization has tried to appease wealthy evangelical donors by silencing — and expelling — queer and trans members.
“Young Life will take volunteer hours and money from queer people,” Jensen said. “But I was really quite stunned … by its ability to silence anyone that speaks up, the willingness of white men at the top with their white women compatriots to keep people of color at bay, to keep LGBTQ people muzzled and marginalized. It’s like ‘Welcome,’ but there’s a shelf life.”