Joel Andrew is a gay man, and that was just fine with his parents, as long as he didn’t, you know, “act” on it. But when Joel, an eighteen-year-old freshman in Oklahoma City University's dance program, told his parents he’d planned on living his life, his life, as an openly gay man they kicked him out of the house and cut him off financially.
Yes, it’s 2015, I know, but this is Oklahoma, and these are Oklahomophobes.
And his parents, Paul and Anita Pawelski, even asked him to stop using their name, so he became Joel Andrew.
And so Joel, homeless, and with no money to pay for his continued education, prepared to drop out of college until … a friend created a GoFundMe page to raise the $40,000 needed to cover the cost of Joel’s education.
Last week, the page topped $60,000 … from strangers who wanted to help Joel attain his goal when his own parents refused to help … because he’s gay.
Now, of course, the Pawelski’s are saying that none of this is true, calling Joel an “amazing young man” and saying they are proud of him. But let’s dig back a little and see how supportive and proud of Joel his parents are, or aren’t …
Joel grew up in Michigan as a member of a small fundamentalist Christian denomination. He went to a private Christian school through the third grade, but spent fourth grade in public school where a bully called him gay. Joel had no idea what that even meant and went home to look it up; the bully was right, Joel Andrew knew he was gay.
After fourth grade, Joel was homeschooled, and by age twelve he’d come out to his parents, who sent him to a gay conversion therapist to set him, um, straight. He attended weekly sessions where he talked about the "gay" or effeminate things he'd done that week, and was told to resist those things; to, in effect, resist being himself. He was also told to practice what his church called "praying through," and he spent hours praying he would be straight.
"Every night, I would pray to God to make me straight. It didn't work."
One night, a group of homeschooled families to which Joel’s parents belonged, held a dance; he didn't want to go, but his parents made him, and he was surprised how much he liked it. Afterwards, he asked his parents about taking dance lessons and they agreed.
A few years later, Joel and his parents began to talk about college. His dance instructor had attended Oklahoma City University and thought it was a perfect place for Joel, and his parents said they'd support him, but told him to prepare to be disappointed if things didn't meet his expectations.
It seems like the only thing that didn’t meet his expectations were his parents, because, before college, when Joel started a relationship with a young man, his parents told him that he would have to move out of the house if he didn’t promise to simply be friends with the other boy, but not see him romantically.
"I wasn't OK with still pretending to be straight."
He said, ‘No,’ and says his parents told him to move out of the house and to stop using their name publicly. So Joel packed up, moved out, and changed his last name to Andrew.
Paul and Anita Pawelski say they never forced him to move out, never rejected him because he was gay, and never demanded that he stop using his last name. They do say, however, that they suggested he not use his real name when sharing his story for privacy reasons.
But here he was, in school ,studying what he loved, and suddenly he was cut off. When he started at OCU, Joel received financial aid and had taken out student loans but it wasn’t enough to cover the cost. He says his parents were taking out a loan to help him, but changed their minds after he said he wanted to live openly and gay.
And that’s where the story might have ended, where it not for the friend who started the GoFundMe page and were it not for Dan Savage, LGBT activist.
After fact-checking Joel Andrew's story with the university and with Joel’s parents, Savage wrote a column about it, in which he included the link to the GoFundMe page. He asked his readers to donate to the campaign, and within days the donations began to flood in. After the page reached its fundraising goal, Savage asked readers instead to donate to the Ali Forney Center, a nonprofit in New York City that provides housing to homeless LGBT youths.
“There are a lot of Joels out there." — Dan Savage
And sadly, there are a lot of parents like Joel’s out there, too, who turn their backs on their children because their kids are gay. And yet these are the same parents who talk about the evils of being gay, and the horrors of being gay, and the sadness of living that “lifestyle,” while they cast their children out into the streets simply for being who they are.
As Savage said, the Go Fund Me page to pay for Joel Andrew’s education has reached its limit, but there is always the Ali Forney Center, and they’d be happy to have a check in Joel Andrew’s name.
Ali Forney Center