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Seth Owen in Flux

A nation’s compassion allowed the gay valedictorian to pay it forward

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Search for Seth Owen on the internet and you’ll find all the signs of a glamorous life.

Here he shares a laugh with former Vice President Joe Biden. There he accepts a prestigious award. Over there he appears on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Hundreds of stories and dozens of television clips feature Seth Owen. His résumé is similarly packed with impressive stats: Co-valedictorian. LGBTQ activist. Georgetown University student. Congressional intern. Ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign. One of Queerty’s Pride50 trailblazing individuals. Founder of a scholarship for LGBTQ+ youth.

Clearly, Seth Owen is an exceptional young man with a bright future.

But right now, he’s running late.

Being behind schedule is a more recent development, just one of the many small changes in the evolution of his life this last year. In this and many other ways, he’s a typical 19-year-old student finding his way in the world.

“The college life has hit me,” he says, laughing. “I’m late now. I’m always running late and I’m always running out of clothes because I don’t wash clothes that often. ... There’s been a few times when I go and buy more underwear so I don’t have to wash them.”

Unlike his classmates, Owen isn’t running behind because he overslept or lost track of time at the beach: The televised interview he was doing ran late. This weekend, he’s on a media blitz to announce the launch of the Unbroken Horizons Scholarship Foundation. Inspired by his experience, according to the website, the scholarship program is “dedicated to providing LGBTQ+ youth of all backgrounds with the opportunity to further their respective educational journeys.”

Like so many LGBTQ+ people, Seth Owen is acutely aware of what it’s like to have your future threatened because of who you are. Hard work, great friends and mentors, and the generosity of thousands of strangers helped him overcome obstacles put in his path by those who would not accept him for who he is. Now he wants to help others do the same.

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The early spring day when Owen sat down with Folio Weekly was his second date with the publication. The first was a year ago, but so much has happened and his life has changed so indelibly that it feels much longer.

When Owen sipped coffee at Bold Bean in Riverside last June, his life was in turmoil. Recently graduated from First Coast High School, he should’ve been preparing for the fall semester at Georgetown. Instead, he was effectively homeless, couch-surfing with friends and teachers, trying to figure out if he would even be able to go to college.

A few months prior, Owen’s parents kicked him out because he refused to attend their strict Southern Baptist church any longer. He didn’t decide to leave the church because he is gay, though sitting in a pew and enduring homophobia from the pulpit must have been painful; he left because he couldn’t stomach the idea put forth in church one day that the scripture requires abused children to remain obedient to their parents. He told his family that he was willing to go to church, just not that one.

His parents refused. So he packed his things and left home that night.

In spite of this, at first, things still seemed to be proceeding as planned. All he had to do was finish high school, work one more summer at Publix, and begin his new life in Washington, D.C. But Georgetown refused to let him amend his financial aid paperwork to remove his parents’ income and anticipated support, which meant he wouldn’t qualify for the financial aid he needed. Hence, no new life, no Georgetown University, maybe no college at all. All that hard work for nothing. It was devastating.

Unwilling to give up on him, Owen’s biology teacher started a crowdfunding campaign to cover tuition. By the time Owen was introduced to the world in these pages a couple of weeks later, on July 11, 2018, it had raised a few thousand dollars, well short of the $20,000 goal.

Then, seemingly overnight, everything changed.

From here it went to local television station First Coast News; from there it spread, going national, then international. By the time it was all said and done, more than $140,000 had been raised in his name. Better still, Georgetown gave him a full scholarship.

This was living proof that dreams can come true. But dreams are not fixed, and Seth Owen has plenty of dreaming left to do.

****

Settling into a table at Chamblin’s Uptown, Owen, accompanied by former teacher Zenja Key Stallworth, who is on the board of Unbroken Horizons, says he loves Georgetown with all its history and vibrancy. The stairs and all the walking, on the other hand, took some getting used to, he laughs.

As he talks, it becomes clear that he hasn’t had the luxury of a typical college experience.

When Owen began school, his story was still finding its way into hearts across the globe. In addition to learning a new city and adjusting to a new school and more difficult courses, he was flying out every other weekend to do press or attend events like the Human Rights Campaign dinner at which Biden made a speech about him, saying, “Stay strong, son. We have your back.”

Owen soldiered on in his usual, never-give-up fashion, but confesses that it wasn’t easy juggling school and newfound fame (he would never call himself famous, but the proof is in the Wikipedia).

“It was definitely difficult, a big academic adjustment,” he says. “I would be walking up these steep stairs with papers in my face, trying to read on my way to class, eating guacamole.”

Last September, he was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Owen says that being on the show was the first time that it felt real, like, ‘This is all actually happening, this is my life.’ The episode was a hit, earning a nomination for a GLAAD Media Award. Ever-humble, he claims that he was “super nervous” to the point that he had trouble picking out his socks. (Owen is something of a sock aficionado; on the day of his interview with FW, he wears blue socks with DeGeneres’ face on them that he calls his “Ellens.”)

Many would cherish the glitz and glamour of appearing on a nationally syndicated show, but for Owen, the most precious memory is the kindness and humanity shown him by DeGeneres.

“She gave me the best hug ever … I got there, and she hugged me, and I thought it would be like a brief hug and she sat there and she held me for a few moments, and I just felt so much love and support.” He adds, “I think that was the most impactful thing about my experience.”

It’s easy to forget that the reason why so many people know Owen’s face and name—he was once recognized four separate times while dining in a Jacksonville Olive Garden—is actually heartbreaking: His family rejected him because of who he is. And no amount of adoration from strangers, or awards, or speaking engagements can change that.

Things got so bad between him and his parents that, for a time, they were not on speaking terms. By the spring, they were back in contact. The relationship remains stained by the words and deeds of the past, some of which have been hard to forgive. He can’t help but recall those nights when, in the depths of depression, he’d sneak out of the house for a midnight milkshake or drive down to the beach and just stare at the waves. Or when he’d be so full of dread to put the mask back on and become someone he isn’t that he’d break down crying on his way home.

Yet in spite of everything, he still longs for that familial bond.

“There are times when I just wanna call my mom. Like, I don’t want to talk to anyone else but my mom. But I don’t feel like I can because I don’t feel like I can be honest with my mom. I can’t be genuine with my mom …  All we want, I feel like, is our mother’s love.”

To cope, Owen focuses on positive things, like a black-and-white painting of a midnight beach that hangs in the “hippie corner” of his dorm room. He spends time with friends such as Emma Chuck and Jaye Thomas, who are both on the foundation’s board. He dreams of the future—maybe law school, though he might teach for while, in part to pay homage to the teachers who practically saved his life.

These days, he also writes. He’s found peace in pen and paper and thinks that one day, he might turn his experiences into a book. Though it was a shock that his story resonated with so many people, it made him appreciate the good that it could do.

“Writing through the stuff, I’m doing it for me right now. I’m willing to put it out there and endure the criticism if it will help someone else who is going through something similar,” he says. “They need to know they’re not alone and they need to know it’s overcome-able.”

Launching the Unbroken Horizons Scholarship is another way that he has chosen to give back. Life has taken much from him; life has also given him a lot. Owen says that he probably wouldn’t have received the level of response that he did had he been someone else, that his white privilege helped him in ways that are difficult to quantify, but undeniable. So he’s resolved to bridge that gap for others who might not be as fortunate as he’s been.

The thing about Seth Owen that sticks with anyone who meets him is his mindfulness. Everything that he has been through—all the pain, the struggling, the hard work, the hate and the love—has forged a young man with greater depth and wisdom than many will attain in a lifetime. And he’s still evolving.

“I feel like a different person every morning when I wake up,” he says.

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