Fired for being gay: beloved coach and trainer speaks out after becoming 5th LGBTQ educator in Indianapolis dismissed by religious institution

In her five years as coach and athletic trainer for Lutheran High School in Indianapolis, Krystal Brazel helped heal and prevent injuries in countless students; coached a team to a state championship; helped fund, build, supply and enhance the school training room; and got engaged to the love of her life. 

In February, she was fired for being gay.

GLAAD is working with Brazel to tell and share her story, including the outpouring of support from Lutheran parents and students who say they were blindsided by the school's decision to dismiss her. A comprehensive article in The Indianapolis Star described Brazel's journey and its place in the broader fight for LGBTQ job protections after conflicting U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Brazel detailed her encounter with the school's athletic director and head of school, where they showed her the school handbook:

"The handbook, a version of which is posted to the school’s website, includes this sentence: “We believe that any form of sexual immorality (including adultery, fornication, homosexual behavior, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, and use of pornography) is sinful and offensive to God.”

It says that all students, employees and volunteers must “agree to respect and act according to this statement concerning relationships.”

Brazel, 30, said she’d never been shown the handbook or asked to sign anything like it. She was asked in that meeting to sign a statement, saying she could uphold the tenants of the handbook. “I looked at him like, ‘You know I can’t. And you know that I couldn't have signed this any other year either,'” she recalled.

When she asked what was different all of the sudden, she wasn’t given an answer. Brazel said she surmised that someone new to the school complained, but she still isn’t certain. She was immediately removed from her coaching position but continued working as the school’s athletic trainer for the next month, until schools across the state were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. During the shutdown, Brazel said she waited for an update on whether she could keep the training position at Lutheran.

She was told last month that she could not go back to the school, in any capacity."

Brazel is one of five LGBTQ educators fired by religious institutions in the Indianapolis area. GLAAD is working with Indianapolis-based Shelly's Voice to provide advocacy and media outreach for Brazel and for Shelly Fitzgerald, the namesake of Shelly's Voice, who was fired as Roncalli High School's guidance counselor after 15 years when the archdiocese found out she had married her wife. The outcome of their job discrimination lawsuits appear bleak, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that religious institutions had wide latitude with "ministerial exemption," including hiring and firing, putting them beyond the bounds of job discrimination protections afforded to everyone, including LGBTQ people.

Parents say they were caught off-guard by the news of Brazel's firing. She describes herself as a spiritual person with a servant's heart .

The IndyStar reports:

'Brazel said she ran into no issues in the first 4½ years working at Lutheran as an openly gay woman. She, of course, knew Lutheran was a religious school. And while she didn't "flaunt" her sexuality, she also didn't try and hide it. She had public social media accounts, where she posted regularly about her relationship, fitness and faith.

Brazel was raised in the Catholic church but became baptized in a nondenominational Christian church at 18 years old. She continues to attend church weekly, albeit virtually during these last few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'm super faith-based,” Brazel said, showing off two rubber wristbands she wears.

One says: pray first. The other says: what would Jesus do?

“He would love first,” she said. “And I think that's the most important message that we as Christians need to live by because too many people use the Bible as a weapon instead of as a tool to share love and faith and acceptance.”

And it didn’t seem to matter to anyone at the school, either. She bonded with the athletes and the rest of the Lutheran High School community, going to them often for donations to improve their athletic training program and equipment.

In her capacity as an athletic trainer, Brazel is an employee of Franciscan Health. The healthcare network partners with schools to place athletic trainers at them. When she first started going to Lutheran, it was only for certain sports and events. There was no training facility, she said.

"I was literally taping ankles on bleachers or wherever I was, like the side of the track," she said. "I would have someone just throw their foot in the air and I would tape it or I'd evaluate a knee injury in a hallway on a folding table because that's all they had."

She convinced the school to turn part of the weight room into a proper athletic training space and asked Franciscan to place her there full time. She got tables donated and asked the school community to help her raise money for an industrial ice machine to replace the one the school provided, which couldn’t make enough in a day to treat all of its athletes.

When she realized they had no supplies to treat heat-related emergencies, Brazel said she solicited donations for large ice tubs that can be used to quickly cool down overheated kids or ice injured and sore athletes.

Her work didn’t go unnoticed. One of the athlete's families had a banner made, thanking Brazel for her work. It had her name and picture on it and read: "we are proud of the work you do, the person you are, and the difference you make."

It hung in the gym until she left.

Parents described what Brazel means to them and to their kids:

'Brazel went above and beyond for the kids she served, said Pete Elliott, whose son just graduated from Lutheran after playing four years of football. When his son was injured over those years, Brazel treated him and made sure he had referrals to Franciscan doctors when needed. She followed up, he said, and was always available for any questions from the family.

“She takes the care of the children super seriously,” Elliott said. “As a parent that’s really, really great.”

Her sexuality wasn’t a secret, Elliott said. It just didn’t matter.

That’s why he said he was “blindsided” to hear that she wouldn’t be coming back. Elliott said he knew Lutheran was a religious school but had never found the environment to be anything but welcoming and inclusive.

“That’s not what I signed him up for,” Elliott said of his son, Jalen. “I’m glad he’s graduated because I’d have to make a serious decision with my wife about whether or not he’d continue to go to school there.” '

Other parents say they haven't been told what happened to Krystal, and they're concerned for their kids.

'Roz Bauer is worried about what will happen if either of her boys — an incoming sophomore and junior at Lutheran — gets hurt playing sports during the upcoming school year. They both play football and baseball and wrestle. Last year, when one of them sustained a concussion playing football and pulled his hamstring, Bauer said Brazel was invaluable to their family.

"She's the most dedicated person that ever walked the face of the Earth when it comes to sports injuries," Bauer said. "Anytime we had a question, she was always available... We’re really going to miss her a lot."

Bauer said the school hasn’t communicated with families about Brazel’s departure or about a new athletic trainer. Football practice started this week, she said.

And even if they do get a new trainer, Bauer said it’s unlikely that person will  be as dedicated at Brazel.

“Everybody stands by Krystal and supports her,” Bauer said. “It’s hard to figure out who made this decision.”'

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told the Indy Star there are broad concerns about Lutheran's actions.

'"What happened to Krystal should never happen to any employee: to be fired for being who you are. Krystal's students, players and parents who saw her talents and heart up close know she earned her place at Lutheran High School, helping each person and the school be safer, stronger and more successful.

"To target and dismiss her just for being gay is not only unfair, it sends a dangerous signal to all young people about who will accept and love them, as they are. We sincerely hope the school reconsiders Krystal's employment, aligns with federal protections for LGBTQ employees, and rethinks the message it's sending about who is welcome and about the kind of community it wants to be."

The Ariadne Getty Foundation, another advocacy group, has also sent a letter to Lutheran administrators.'

The firing of Brazel is part of a larger conversation as the community and the country answer questions of equality and discrimination, and whether religious institutions should be exempted from laws designed to protect employees in a number of ways including race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Indy Star explained another key facet of the debate: publicly-funded school vouchers used at religious schools.

'Another recent decision from the Supreme Court ruled that publicly-funded voucher programs cannot discriminate against religious schools, but its not clear that it would preclude the state from putting strings on participating schools.

In recent years, several state lawmakers have attempted to restrict participation in the program to schools that agree to adopt non-discrimination policies in hiring and admission, as some religious schools do. The bills were a reaction to anti-LGBTQ hiring practices in area Catholic schools. The legislation has been resisted, though, by the Republican supermajority that rules the Indiana Statehouse.

And it's likely another attempt to pass that language will be made in the next legislative session, which starts in January.

About half of Lutheran's students are there through the state’s private school voucher program, which awards taxpayer-funded scholarships for families to put toward tuition at participating schools. Last school year, 119 of Lutheran’s 226 students received a state-funded scholarship. During the last five school years, Lutheran High School has received nearly $2.6 million in public money through the voucher program.'

Brazel plans to marry her girlfriend Samantha next weekend, and says she's grateful for wonderful memories of her time at Lutheran:

Brazel said she hopes Lutheran will reconsider its position, but wishes the school, its students and her former coworkers well.

“I would not take back a memory that I had for the last 5 years,” she said. “It was probably the most memorable and impactful 5 years of my life. It brought a ton of purpose to my life. And I loved every moment of it.”'

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