This is not how things were supposed to go for Seth Owen. The 18-year-old First Coast High School co-valedictorian, student leader, athlete and extremely snappy dresser was supposed to spend his last summer at home, getting ready for college in the Ivy Leagues. Instead, he’s crashing with a bestie and preparing for his first semester at Georgetown University; granted it’s second-tier, but it’s not in the elite eight.
The story of how Seth Owen tried and failed to get into an Ivy League college is puzzling—he’s so smart and studious (you actually believe him when he says he likes public speaking), most folks would feel like terrible underachievers listening to him talk about taking the SAT more times than he can count to get that coveted 1,500-plus score. The more intriguing story, however, is how Seth came to be couch-surfing just months before graduating from high school. Unwinding that colorful, tangled yarn will make you want to cry, or scream.
Seth does neither when we meet for coffee at Bold Bean on Stockton. Instead, he laughs. It’s easy to laugh along with him; the lanky teen has one of those open, affable faces that inspire feelings of friendship. He’s bright, smart and strong in his convictions, and bubbly, though not excessively effervescent. The laughter is a nervous habit, explains one of the two teachers from his alma mater who’s come along with him. It could be nerves; not a lot of 18-year-olds have had an occasion to open themselves up to the scrutiny of the media. It could also be that, sometimes in life, one chooses laughter over tears.
See, in addition to all the other supposed-to’s, Seth Owen was supposed to be straight. The fact that he’s not has driven a wedge between him and his strict Baptist family who, as he tells Folio Weekly, have kicked him out of the house and refused to sign the financial aid package Georgetown put together, leaving Seth without the $20K he needs for tuition. Seth’s father, Randy Owen, denies kicking him out, and says that he’s willing to provide Seth with the same assistance as the family has done for his brother. “I made it very clear to him that he was not being kicked out, that he would have to make a decision … . We worship as a family. He would be going to church if he lived in our home,” he says.
The elder Owen also denies that his son asked them to sign financial aid paperwork, and says he was not aware before a reporter told him that Seth is gay, though he did admit to seeing “a video of him kissing another boy” roughly a year-and-a-half ago.
Since leaving home, Seth has been going round and round with the financial aid department, trying to amend his application, but says he’s had no luck thus far. Not that he’s giving up—far from it. He plans to study international politics, then attend law school (naturally), after which, he says, he’s leaning toward a career fighting for juvenile justice.
The subject is more than a passing interest; for his college entrance essay, Seth wrote about child marriage. “I think that’s what got me into Georgetown,” he says. His commitment to the subject is also what he says finally, after years of conflict about his homosexuality, cleaved him from family hearth and home.
The niggling awareness that he wasn’t drawn to the opposite sex began when Seth was just a tot. In childhood, he’d sit in the pews and absorb restrictive sermons and lessons, following along obediently as a good boy does, while deep in his heart, he didn’t agree with some of the lessons being imparted.
Seth says that his parents discovered evidence that he is gay a few years ago while searching his phone. Not wanting to hurt them, in his early youth, he’d tried to convince himself that he was “straight with some issues,” but by then, the closet was only a place he knew at home and in church.
Afterward, he says, they attempted conversion therapy—though no one specifically called it that, it was obvious this was the intent. For a few months, Seth says a counselor tried to help him pray the gay away, encouraging him to partake in stereotypical straight masculine behaviors, like fixing up an old car, or watching straight pornography. His father characterizes it as typical, not conversion, therapy, and says that neither parent knew what Seth discussed with his therapist. “We did nothing to try to persuade or convince him not to be something that he shouldn’t be,” Randy Owen says.
Either way, eventually, the therapy stopped and the family went back to the way things had been before—pretending.
But now that the truth had come out once, going back into hiding proved almost more difficult for Seth, who says he felt “extremely comfortable” with his sexuality among his peers. Nevertheless, he lived a double life: out at school, closeted at home.
“I can remember driving home and being in tears because I had to put on a mask,” he says.
Oh, there’d be ripples in the tranquility of domestic life. “Naturally, he started pulling away and did not agree with the message, the word of God that is preached at our church, which believes, we believe, that homosexuality is wrong,” Randy Owen says. Seth says all would be well for a while, with everyone just ignoring the issue, then there’d be a big blow up, followed by another period of relative calm.
“Seth would just come in some days and you could just tell, a light had been dimmed,” says coach and teacher Kaylee Petik. “He was muted.”
In February, during one of those more tranquil times, Seth was sitting in a pew at church as usual, listening to the sermon, when a switch flipped inside him. The sermon was about children being required to obey their parents regardless of the circumstances. Someone in the congregation asked the question on Seth’s mind: ‘What if the parents are abusing the child? Must they still obey?’ ‘Yes,’ was the response.
This was a bridge too far. “It was that comment about the little girl, that she would have to sit there and take this abuse,” Seth says.
Later, Seth says he confronted his family. The conversation ended with Seth giving them an ultimatum: He’d go to any church they want, but not that one. It did not go over. “I’m the dad and I’m not going to sit back and take an ultimatum from a son, I’m the one responsible for this home, and I’m the one in charge of this home,” Randy Owen says.
“I had to leave that night,” Seth says.
Since then, he stayed with a few friends and mentors before settling in with a close friend for the summer. And he’s remained in communication with his family, who also attended his graduation. It’s obvious when he talks that he still loves and respects them; he’s just no longer willing to be anything but his authentic self for their benefit—even though in his case, it’s more about his principles as they apply to the treatment of others than it is about his sexuality.
“Seth speaks very diplomatically about people who have openly rejected him,” Petik notes.
But man cannot live, nor pay tuition, on principles and diplomacy alone. On June 18, another of his teachers launched a GoFundMe page to help the young man pay tuition and expenses. Though as of this writing, the fundraiser is well short of its $20,000 goal, the smart money’s on the perseverance of Seth Owen. To borrow a line from his valedictorian speech, “Because of our struggles and life circumstances, we know that we are strong enough, and we are resilient enough to overcome anything and to accomplish everything on which we set our sights.”
More at gofundme.com/hoyaseth.