College of the Ozarks
Saren grew up on a cattle farm in Cassville, Missouri in a very religious, conservative home. Their parents making clear that they believed homosexuality and being transgender or gender non-binary were sinful.
When it came time for Saren to attend college, there wasn’t much discussion. Her parents expected her to attend College of the Ozarks (C of O), the same conservative Christian school her father had attended, which was just one hour away from the family home.
When Saren arrived on campus in 2001, it wasn’t long before Sarah developed close feelings for a female friend - which sent Saren into a spiral of anxiety and depression.
College of the Ozarks is renowned as a hostile environment for LGBTQ students – with strict policies that deem LGBTQ identities as inappropriate and sinful and acting on one’s queer identity as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal from the school.
In one high-profile tragedy, a gay student killed himself in a C of O dean’s garage after receiving messages of rejection from his campus community. More recently, C of O has been granted a religious exemption by the U.S. Department of Education that allows the school to discriminate against LGBTQ students while still receiving taxpayer funding. C of O was also a plaintiff in a recent lawsuit challenging regulations aimed at protecting transgender students at college campuses nationwide.
It was under this context that Saren grappled with their queer identity. One day, a school counselor told students that if there was something in their past they would like to discuss, they could talk with her. But when Saren took her up on the offer, the result was traumatizing.
“A campus counselor told me that my sexuality and gender orientation were pathological and because of my history of abuse,” Saren recalls. This painful moment only compounded the depression they were already enduring – forcing Saren to eventually leave C of O.
Sarah eventually joined the Air Force and after completing service, finished their undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2014. Saren completed their master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance – Mental Health in 2018, also from University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Now, Saren lives in Portland, OR and has devoted their career to supporting LGBTQIA people as they come to terms with their identities. Saren joined as a plaintiff in REAP’s lawsuit to ensure that no student at C of O – or any religious college nationwide – experiences the discrimination and abuse that they did.