Malala and Me

Malala Yousafzai. CC image courtesy of Southbank Centre.
Malala Yousafzai. CC image courtesy of Southbank Centre.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kathryn Brightbill’s blog The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person. It was originally published in October 2014.

I sat here crying as I watched Malala Yousafzai talk about wanting to get an education and follow her dreams. She talks about how she decided to speak up against the Taliban because she didn’t want to be locked away in her house with no education, forced to marry at 13 or 14, and I can’t help but cry because it hits too close to home.

I know what it feels like to fight for an education in a culture that thinks girls shouldn’t get one. That believes girls should be married off young with no skills and little education beyond primary school. I know what it feels like to want more and to feel the weight of everyone around you writing off your dreams as a silly fantasy.

No, I didn’t have the Taliban forcing me home, and like Malala, my parents made sure that I had an education and encouraged me to follow my dreams. Who sent me to college, and who didn’t think that I had to marry off young and become the property of my husband.

I was lucky though.

There are so many girls stuck in the conservative Christian homeschool culture who aren’t so lucky. The stay-at-home daughter movement popularized by Doug Phillips and Vision Forum teaches that the proper place for a daughter is at home under her father’s authority until she’s given to the husband that her father has selected for her. Stay-at-home daughters are often given limited education, and dreaming of a life away from her father or husband, an education and a career, is unthinkable.

I remember going to hear popular homeschool speaker Little Bear Wheeler speak when I was in middle school, hearing from him that girls should be left as malleable clay to be shaped by their husband to best suit him as a helper. Her talents and interests don’t matter, only what her father and husband want from her.

For girls like Maranatha Chapman, long touted with her husband Matthew, as a fairy tale example of courtship and betrothal, that meant being married off as a 15 year old child to a 28 year old man. Matthew and Maranatha’s daughter Lauren was married off to a 26 year old man at 16, and I have to wonder whether it would have been sooner if Texas hadn’t raised the legal marriage age from 14 to 16.

I knew girls who started hope chests at 13 or 14 because they fully expected to be engaged or married by the time they were 17. Education? That would depend on whether their husbands decided to let them pursue it.

I’ll never forget the day that I overheard moms at homeschool skate talking about how their daughters didn’t need to learn algebra because, “they’re only going to be wives and mothers.”

Do you have any idea how hard you have to fight to hold on to a dream in that world?

I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was fourteen years old. I can’t count how many people I told that dream to who completely discounted it. How can I be a lawyer when I’m supposed to get married young and be a wife and homeschool mom to my dozen kids? No, that’s a suitable goal for your brother who has no interest in law, but not for you, you’re a girl, you need to stay home and work on your homemaking skills so you can have a parent arranged courtship.

No, I didn’t have a gun pointed at my head for daring to dream, but when Malala talks about facing a future as an uneducated child bride and rejecting that future, I understand.

It’s not just in places like Swat Valley in Pakistan where girls are being denied an education. It’s happening in America too, sometimes we give them reality shows on TLC and People Magazine covers.

I’m often asked why I keep fighting for homeschool children, why I care about this when there are so many other problems in the world.

I fight because every child, whether in Swat Valley in Pakistan or in the heartland of America, deserves an education. There’s a reason why Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for speaking out, it’s because educated girls and women are a threat to the status quo. If they weren’t, no one would be trying so hard to keep them uneducated and locked away at home.

I hope that somehow Malala Yousafzai’s words find their way through to all of the stay-at-home daughters. They deserve a chance to dream.

Guard Your Heart, Part Two: Kathryn E. Brightbill

Kathryn Brightbill blogs at The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person.


In this series: Part One | Part Two


Sometimes the hardest person to come out to is yourself.

After spending a few years post-college working as a wedding and gift registry consultant (turns out I liked studying computer science a lot more than doing it), I decided a change of course was in order, packed up everything and moved to Vietnam to teach for a year. I had a wonderful time and learned a lot about myself and also learned tons from the very talented and accomplished Vietnamese faculty at the university where I taught. Coming back to the US sent me into a tailspin of reverse culture shock and I spent a long few months feeling like I didn’t know which end was up or what ground was solid. During that time I found myself questioning all sorts of things as I tried to figure out what to do with myself and which direction was forward. It was during that time that I began to realize that it wasn’t just that I had been really good at guarding my heart, and that it wasn’t just that I hadn’t found the right guy, it’s that I never was attracted to guys in the first place.

When you’re the model homeschool child, “gay” is something that happens to other people. As a kid it was those people I’d see on TV marching, or who my parents’ religious right friends would rail against, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing that a good little homeschooled church kid would consider to have anything to do with themselves. And it’s most definitely not the sort of thing that even crossed my mind as something to consider as an answer to make sense of things in my life as I was growing up.

In retrospect, all sorts of things about my past make sense, from never having an answer when my sister would ask me who I had a crush on when I was little, to not being able come up with a guy I thought was hot when asked by my hall mates in college, oh, and the reason I watched xXx about six times in the theater my senior year of college wasn’t just because I liked the car chases (though the car chases didn’t hurt), and it certainly wasn’t Keanu Reeves who I was watching The Matrix for. But back then, I was so busy guarding my heart that I didn’t see any of that.

I won’t pretend that finally realizing and coming to terms with being gay was easy because it wasn’t. I knew that I needed to live honestly and that doing so meant that my life wouldn’t be quite the same as I’d envisioned for myself—staying in the closet was not an option I was willing to consider.

I’m fortunate though, in a number of ways. First, by the time I figured it out, I was out of the homeschool bubble. When I was growing up I was the model homeschool child. I don’t think my parents were ever aware of the pressure I felt I was under with other people telling their children to be like me—I never said anything about how kids would comment about what their parents had said about how brilliant my siblings and I were—but when you know that other people think your family is wonderful there’s pressure not to let them down. By the time my younger brother finished school, my parents were more than ready to hand any responsibility they still had off to others and to just be done with the whole homeschool world completely. While I didn’t feel it, there are a lot of queer former homeschoolers who do feel the pressure of what their coming out will do to their parents’ reputation within the homeschool community.

Second, by the time I realized I was gay, I’d already thought for years that LGBT people deserved full equal rights, and had concluded that the belief that it was a sin came from taking scripture massively out of context. For kids, homeschooled or not, who grow up in evangelical households, the sin issue is usually an enormously difficult thing to grapple with.

Ironically, perhaps, I feel like the other issues aside, my background as a homeschooler actually helped me. As mainstream as my family was, and as much as I worked to blend in with my surroundings so I wouldn’t stand out as the “weird homeschooler,” homeschooling—or at least homeschooling during the era I was homeschooled—at its core is a countercultural movement. Fundamental to any countercultural movement is a willingness to go against the mainstream, to stand out, to be different, and to question the dominant paradigm. By homeschooling, parents do not just teach their children academics or a particular set of theological or political beliefs or worldview, the very act of homeschooling is teaching children how to think and act counter-culturally. That’s not something that just gets turned off or erased when you graduate.

The recurring theme when I try to write about my homeschool experiences is the tension that exists between what is and what was supposed to be. Homeschooling was supposed to produce activists, and here I am, an activist, but I’m on the opposite side from where I was supposed to be. It was supposed to teach us how to learn and keep learning on our own, and it did. It’s just that I kept learning enough to learn how much of what homeschool “leaders” were saying wasn’t true. And homeschooling was supposed to produce young adults who could stand up for what they believe and who wouldn’t be buffeted about by external pressure. Well, here I am. I was taught not to care what society thought and I’m not going to suddenly start listening now or bending to external pressure when it comes to my sexual orientation.

I’m sure others in the homeschool world consider me to be a disappointment, wondering what went wrong because I’ve so clearly ventured off of the path that homeschooling was supposed to set me on. I don’t doubt that there are those who are trying to figure out what to do to avoid such an obvious failure as the increasing number of homeschoolers who are coming out must, in their minds, be. And, I am sure there are those—even some who are reading this piece—who are wondering what my parents did wrong, since homeschooling was supposed prevent people like me from happening.

I would argue, however, that my story is a homeschooling success story. The reason I’m here today, the person I am, is because of what my parents did right. I am the person I am today, with the internal fortitude to live my truth openly and honestly and to be my own person because of my experiences as a homeschooler. So what if that person is a politically liberal, openly gay, Christian, nerd with an activist streak a mile wide? The system worked. Just not in the way intended, and that’s a good thing.

End of series.

Guard Your Heart, Part One: Kathryn E. Brightbill

Kathryn Brightbill blogs at The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person.


In this series: Part One | Part Two


It turns out that it’s easy to guard your heart when you’re not attracted to someone, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. To begin this story, we need to go back in time, back to when I was a homeschool kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Despite my parents running the private school for homeschoolers, and my mom finding herself spending far more time on the phone giving advice to new homeschoolers than she would have liked, and that one time that they wound up helping to put together a state-wide homeschool convention (something they vowed never to do again), my family wasn’t nearly as connected to the homeschooling subculture as many people. There really wasn’t that much of a homeschooling subculture when my parents started homeschooling, since back in the mid ‘80s there weren’t many homeschoolers.

Most of the national opportunities like debate weren’t around until I was done, or nearly done, with high school. Also, my mom didn’t particularly like hanging out with other homeschool moms and talking about each other’s children, and (with the exception of the aforementioned convention) avoided homeschool conventions like the plague. The parade of supermoms in denim jumpers and white sneakers who sewed all their own clothing, baked all their bread, and still found time to design grade-appropriate unit studies made her feel inadequate—after all, she didn’t do a single unit study in 18 years of homeschooling, hated denim jumpers, and especially wasn’t going to be sewing the aforementioned jumpers. That’s not to say I didn’t have more than my fair share of homeschooled friends, but they were mostly ones I knew from non-homeschool circles, and I never considered myself one of those homeschoolers. We were about as mainstream as they come.

I don’t remember where we first heard about courtship, just that somewhere along the line when I was in middle school it began to become fashionable even among the friends who were mainstream homeschoolers. These were not the people who made their daughters wear shapeless jumpers and wouldn’t let them cut their hair; they were the cool people with the latest clothes who educated their sons and daughters equally, and it all seemed so reasonable couched in the idea that it was all about waiting until you were done with college and had a career before pursuing a serious relationship. And didn’t it make sense? After all, when my parents met my dad had already finished his first master’s degree and my mom was 28, independent, and had even studied in the UK and traveled around Europe. What was the point of rushing into a series of relationships before you even had the chance to live?

This not being the 19th century, none of us knew how this whole courtship thing was supposed to work in the modern era, but then someone had given someone else some tapes from this guy who talked about courtship, and he went by the name Little Bear Wheeler, and, oh, you should listen to him because he might be a little out there but he’s entertaining. And so off my family, who hated homeschool conventions and avoided them like the plague, went to hear this Little Bear fellow speak. That’s how these things seem to work in the homeschool world and how normal families get pulled into extremism. You start out reasonably and the next thing you know you’re wearing your one and only denim skirt (because you instinctively knew that’s what you needed to do to blend in) and you’re listing to a guy cosplaying as a pilgrim who’s telling you that the Puritans didn’t date.

I don’t remember many details, it’s been nearly twenty years, but I do remember hearing, over and over, that you needed to, “guard your heart.” If you guard your heart, then you won’t give pieces of it away to the wrong guy. If you guard your heart, then you won’t have frivolous crushes on guys who would never be suitable mates. Guard your heart. Guard your heart. Guard your heart. If you’re really spiritual and godly, you’ll be able to guard your heart until the right season of your life.

It was a message that grew into a chorus in the homeschool circles I grew up in. Guard your heart, always and in every situation, guard your heart. By the time I neared the end of high school, the chorus had grown into a cacophony, as courtship went mainstream into evangelicalism with Josh Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” And by the time I made it to college, it seemed as though everyone had read it, and even if they called their relationships, “dating,” it was still operating on those general principles.

Through all of this, I patted myself on my back because I wasn’t getting any “frivolous” crushes on guys, and clearly this meant that I was super spiritual and doing a great job of guarding my heart. It turns out it had less to do with being super spiritual than it had to do with being super gay.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ve never asked my parents about this, so I don’t know what they would have done if one of us had wanted to date in high school, or what they would have said if we’d have read all of the courtship material, listened to the speakers, and announced that we thought it all bunk. My parents didn’t have a problem with me voicing an opinion that was different than theirs, and if I had objections to courtship back then, I suspect that I could have brought those up and we would have discussed it. Except that I didn’t have any objections because my siblings and I all bought into it. It didn’t matter that we were as mainstream as they come, that my sister and I both wanted educations and careers and had been taught we could be and do whatever we set our minds to, that my brothers didn’t want to marry someone who wasn’t their equal, we still bought into it. Their experiences and opinions are not my story to tell, other than to say that despite all buying into it, eventually we all decided that the whole courtship system was a problem.

By the time you make it through college you think that you know yourself. College is when you’re supposed to find yourself, after all. And so, even after I decided that courtship was bunk, I never stopped to consider that the reason I hadn’t met the right guy had anything to do with anything other than the fact that my hometown has a serious dearth of college educated, available men. Seriously, it’s quite literally one of the worst metropolitan areas in the country for a college educated single woman to find a guy with an education, and there are plenty of statistics to back that up. It was an easy excuse, especially considering that my sister spent plenty of time complaining about the demographics too. So easy an excuse, in fact, that it never crossed my mind that it was an excuse.

To be continued.

The Many Men and Women Behind The Curtain: Noah’s Story

The Many Men Behind The Curtain: Noah’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Noah” is a pseudonym. 

"There is a homeschooling machine, whether some people want to admit it or not. There is a Man Behind The Curtain."
“There is a homeschooling machine, whether some people want to admit it or not. There is a Man Behind The Curtain.”

My family started homeschooling because they didn’t like the public schools.

This had nothing to do with God or the feared specter of Marxism. There was no prophetic mandate from above, no urge to add more offspring to Michael Farris’ cultural Illuminati. No, my parents’ reason for homeschooling was really that simple: they didn’t like the public schools. They thought the public schools were a failure.

But my story is a common one. It has a theme mirrored in so many of my friends’ stories. As time went by, my family got slowly but surely sucked into the vortex that is a particular type of homeschooling: the conservative Christian type. While a lot of people want to lay the blame at my parents’ feet, that’s not really fair. And it’s disingenuous. Because the people wanting to blame my parents are specifically not wanting me to blame homeschooling. But those people don’t know my parents. And they don’t know what my early homeschooling looked like. Those people don’t want to acknowledge that it was the homeschooling machine that changed my parents.

There is a homeschooling machine, whether some people want to admit it or not. There is a Man Behind The Curtain. Or, rather, many men (and women). Call me crazy or a conspiracy theorist. But why do all our stories bring up the same names? Gregg Harris. Michael Farris. Mary Pride. David Barton. Ken Ham. Little Bear Wheeler. Michael Pearl. Josh Harris. Etc. Etc. Etc.

You do realize that that a shit ton of money is being made by all these people, right? There is literally a homeschooling industry that is profiting off these peoples’ ideas. Their ideas are being pedaled at homeschooling conventions all over the country, month after month, year after year. Their books are being promoted in every edition of every homeschooling magazine (well, the conservative Christian magazines, but I think you know I’m talking about a particular subsection). Their ideologies are reinforced in state and local support groups, where parents that don’t follow the line get ostracized, just like the so-called “Four Pillars of Homeschooling” have long ostracized the secular homeschooling movement.

It’s really, honestly, a type of bullying. My parents experienced this from the beginning, when they tried to get into a local homeschool group when we were young. We weren’t “Christian” enough (even though we were Christians!). The other homeschooling moms talked shit about my mom until, in tears, she almost gave up on homeschooling us entirely. She eventually found a more supportive homeschooling group, but, as the years went by, she started turning into the moms she originally hated. It’s, strangely enough, just like peer pressure. As one “cool thing” like courtship became a fad, as soon as the “cool” family picked it up, everyone else had to as well. If you didn’t, if you weren’t into courtship, you became that kid in public school who got his shoes at Goodwill. You were ostracized and made fun of, rejected and abused. It’s no wonder that my parents slowly became what originally almost turned them off from homeschooling.

That’s not to say people aren’t responsible for their own actions. But my parents have honestly tried to do their best for me. I respect them and love them. But they respected and loved me not because of the homeschooling community. They respected and loved me despite the homeschooling community.

It’s really ironic, that homeschoolers hold up their practice as this alternative to the evils of bullying and peer pressure in the public schools. Because there is so much bullying and peer pressure between homeschooling parents, it’s ridiculous. Watching homeschool moms tear each other apart with their words is really scary. They’re brutal to one another.

I’m deeply grateful that I had parents that stood up for me. And I’m glad finally people are standing up for people like my parents (and in a sense, against what my parents later became), by standing up against the systematic bullying, peer pressure, and brainwashing that pervades the homeschooling world.

The conservative Christian homeschooling world, that is. I know I already said that.

But sometimes people are tone deaf.

Why I Blame Homeschooling, Not Just My Parents: Reflections by Nicholas Ducote

By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

Author edit to clarify my call for more oversight: I recommended intra-community policing in my post. State action should be a last resort. Those that care to preserve their parental rights to homeschool need to hold other parents accountable. Unfortunately, fundamentalist homeschooling communities are often isolated from anyone who would question the parents. I don’t have a solution, but I know we can’t just assume the status quo will fix things. Hopefully, projects like this will scare other parents enough to make them confront other parents. But let’s be honest, do you see that happening in these sort of communities? Most of these people laugh at the idea of children having rights and would never support anything that encroaches on their ability to teach their children whatever they want. If you suspect child abuse or neglect in a family you know, please report them to Child Protective Services. 

Homeschooling, as a method of instruction, is not intrinsically bad, dangerous, or damaging. I saw many children raised in homeschooling who were not abused by religious fundamentalism – even if they were Christians. However, as a society, we have to realize that the current state of homeschooling gives parents unique power over their children. Yes, many homeschooled children are a part of co-ops, interact with neighbors, and have relatively normal social interactions. But other homeschoolers are isolated in rural areas, with no contact with neighbors, or the outside world. Abuse develops in these environments because there is no oversight from outside the parents and, if criticism if lodged, the parents are defensive. To many homeschooling parents, homeschooling (the method) is part of a larger worldview that involves rejections of secularism, science, and academic institutions.

I developed claustrophobia, a generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks in high school. At the time, I assumed my panic attacks were the result of the Holy Spirit convicting me of my sins. The most common trigger for my panic was sexuality. As a teenager, I would often shake uncontrollably after masturbating. Homeschooling can make children feel trapped because they are literally never away from their parents. When I was quasi-dating girls in high school, behind my parents’ back because they wanted me to court, I would have a mini-panic attack when the phone rang – scared that my parents would find out. When I got in trouble it meant a few hours with mom and dad, crying and arguing about what God told them to do, ending in me feeling completely trapped. When I woke up the next day, I had no choice but to bottle up my anger, shame, and humiliation and go “do” homeschooling. In ATI, many leaders preached about how listening to rock music would literally result in demonic possession. This is abusive to teach to children. To this day, I struggle with anxiety before I fall asleep.  I was taught, by my parents and by ATI’s leaders, that demons were very real and they could possess rebellious Christians. Many in the homeschooling movement conceptualized the “culture war” as spiritual warfare — the secular humanists were literally portrayed as the minions of Satan.

Spiritual abuse is a difficult term for many people to wrap their heads around. It may seem like we are trying to say that raising children in a religious tradition is abusive, which we are not. However, I can say that when homeschooling is mixed with religious fundamentalism, abuse almost always occurs.

There is a distinction between religious fundamentalism and mainstream religions. I once told my mom, “I would have been fine if you stayed Baptist. It’s when you drifted into fundamentalism that hurt me.”  What many people fail to realize is that most parents don’t wake up one day and decide they need to start controlling their childrens’ lives and prepare them for the culture wars. Yes, my parents are to blame for subscribing to fundamentalism, but the homeschooling community and movement are also to blame.

In many states in the 1990s and 2000s, homeschooling parents received most of the curriculum, instruction, and indoctrination at state, regional, or national conferences. There are a myriad of institutions and groups that formed the movement, so it is impossible to point to a single root cause of the abuse in homeschooling. But I know abuse doesn’t just happen because of bad parenting. The bad parenting that people indict was being advocated on stage before thousands of people. There is a reason why so many homeschooling alumni share stories and experiences. Tens of thousands of homeschoolers attended state Christian Home Educator Fellowship (CHEF) conferences, where they were exposed to

  • The Harris family and their beliefs about Biblical courtship
  • David Barton and Little Bear Wheeler’s revisionist history
  • Evangelical leaders that scared everyone about the evils of secular humanism
  • Michael and Debi Pearl’s harsh ideas on corporal punishment and misogynistic ideas of gender roles
  • Huge book sales populated mostly by Christian fundamentalist textbooks — advocating creationism, teaching math based around the Gospel message, or other “educational tools.”

All of these ideas circulated around the homeschooling communities and trickled down to local CHEF chapters.

Parents’ responses have been mixed, but many of them see our blog as a tool to take control of their children away from them. Parents emphasize their rights to raise their children however they want. But, as a society, we have already decided that parental rights end where abuse begins. Thus, one of the main issue in this debate becomes whether or not a homeschooling environment is emotionally or spiritually abusive.

You might think this is only a problem of the past decades — that now, in this new zenith of modernity, fundamentalist homeschoolers that spiritually abuse their children are dying out. You would be wrong. Yes, there is growing momentum behind secular homeschooling, but there is no hard social science about homeschooling.  At this point, observational data is almost all that exists about homeschooling and its demographics. We know very generally how many people homeschool and for what reasons. But ten states do not even require the parents to inform them of their childrens’ “enrollment” in homeschooling.

This is the start of an important conversation about homeschooling. I am opposed to religious fundamentalism in all forms and I believe that the abuse that occurs when fundamentalism is allowed to dominate homeschooling has no place in the modern world. I’ve heard so many Evangelicals and homeschooling parents mock the Islamic madrasas for their religious instruction, but fundamentalist homeschooling isn’t different by much.

To those homeschoolers who are afraid of this exposure, it’s time to own up. These abuses happened, the community’s leaders encouraged it, and the community does not regulate itself. If the homeschooling community is not willing to regulate itself – lest a parent tell another parent their methods and ideologies are abusive! – then someone else will.

I am tired of sitting around hoping that the abusive fundamentalist culture within homeschooling will die out.  I don’t want it to die out, I want to trample it out so that no other children face the sort of abuse I, and many other, went through. Part of the means telling the honest, visceral truth about what happens in many homeschooling homes. Yes, abuse is ultimately the fault of the perpetrators, but why does everyone leave the homeschooling community blameless for how it brainwashed my parents?

The issue of abuse in homeschooling is an issue of the distortion of parental rights and the reality of systemic indoctrination.

You cannot stop the abuse without exposing the advocates.