Inoke Tonga, the former high school volleyball coach who was forced to leave his job after it was learned he was gay, joined The Ellen Show to reveal the details of his dismissal, as well as the heartwarming outpouring of support he received since the story went viral.
Tonga had been employed as the girls' volleyball coach at Valor Christian High School in Highland Ranch, Colorado until school officials confronted him and forced him to leave after learning he was gay. Tonga told Ellen a Christian blogger reached out for an interview after seeing social media posts about his sexuality and religious beliefs. Tonga explained he believed his attributes and identities were created by his god, and therefore he should celebrate his life as a volley coach, friend, fiance, and gay man.
"Most importantly I am a child of an amazing Heavenly Father, and younger brother to a redeeming, and loving Savior. I am becoming who they want me to be," Tonga wrote in that post.
Several months later, Tonga was called into a meeting with school officials. The interview, his past social media posts, and his sexuality were the last things on his mind as he sat down with his employers. He thought he was going to receive a promotion to coach the entire boys' volleyball program. Instead, he was grilled about his social media posts and told he could no longer be a coach at the school as long as he was gay.
"You're a danger to put in front of the kids," Tonga recalled being bluntly told.
The meeting left Tonga devastated.
"Broke my heart," he told Ellen.
Tonga also felt he let himself down by not standing up for himself as a gay man.
"I was a little disappointed in myself because I didn't advocate for myself as much as I should because I was kind of taken back," he shared.
As Tonga was leaving the meeting, he said school officials handed him books on converting to Christianity and offered him spiritual counseling and his job back once he denounced being gay.
"You know we're not holding the coaching position over your head," Tonga recalled the officials saying. "But when you are ready to denounce being gay and accept our help to becoming a child of God, then you can have your position back."
Tonga described an emotional evening after he got home from school, telling Ellen "I remember I cried a lot." The firing caused him to revisit his childhood and adolescence, a period in his life when he was still in the closet, and how he was routinely "belittled by other people" who believed being gay was nothing more than "letting temptation into your mind." Tonga said he was then "overcome with such emotion" remembering how "proud and free" he felt when he finally came out at age 26.
"And I promised myself I would never go back," he recalled deciding at that time.
The next day, Tonga emailed the school, saying many of the things he didn't say at the fateful meeting the day before. No, he would not remove the supposedly offending posts from social media. No, he was not going to denounce being gay. And no, he was not going to be quiet.
"You asked me to denounce being gay, you asked me to delete any posts," Tonga said he wrote in the email informing them of his new resolve, adding instead he now felt "obligated to post more."
Ellen noted the outpouring of support, and Tonga revealed a personal story to demonstrate the reception he has received from parents and students.
He said he went to the first volleyball game after he was dismissed, describing the experience as nerve-wracking and likening it to "entering the lion's den." He tried to stay in the background, not causing a scene or taking the attention away from the competition. But a parent came up to him after the game and said that since "you got your nerves out, next time you better come sit with us."
Tonga's story came to light after he wrote about the experience on Instagram and Facebook, saying everything in his life was falling into place until he was suddenly called to a meeting where he was forced out of his job for being gay. It was later learned this was not the first time Valor Christian High School had forced an LGBTQ+ educator to leave their position because of their sexuality. Lauren Benner, the school's former girls lacrosse coach, was forced to leave her position last year after school officials discovered she is a lesbian.
"It's not, 'You're fired,'" Benner recalled last month. "It's, 'You're no longer in alignment.'"
Ellen closed the interview by giving Tonga and his fiance Charlie a special gift of a trip to Puerto Rico to celebrate their nuptials.
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