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Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

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Andrew Hartzler: Fighting Discrimination

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Andrew Hartzler: Fighting Discrimination

Andrew Hartzler, nephew of fmr. Representative Vicky Hartzler, talks about his viral video and how he has faced discrimination as a gay man.

In early January, Andrew Hartzler went viral on TikTok for calling out his aunt, fmr. Representative Vicky Hartzler, for her homophobic comments on the house floor. As a result of that video, Andrew received national attention, and was invited to the White House to watch president Biden sign the Respect for Marriage act.

For Andrew, his Aunt's comments did not come as much of a surprise. Most of his family, including Rep. Hartzler, have not accepted him for who he is. Andrew came out to his family as gay when he was fourteen, and as a result, he was sent to conversion therapy. His father also forced him to attend Oral Roberts University, a homophobic, christian private school. During the interview, Andrew had this to say about the discrimination he faced at ORU:

I'm grateful that I was able to experience that firsthand. So, now, I can hopefully make a difference for others.”

To learn more about Andrew, visit his website, andrewhartzler.com. There you’ll find his post, Fix Him. You can also find Andrew on TikTok and Twitter.


Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Andrew Hartzler:

All of this federal funds is being used at this university that's then nitpicking who has access to their resources that are being funded by the government. So, that's really discrimination at its finest. Not allowing LGBTQ students to have that same access.

Ken Harbaugh:

My guest today is Andrew Hartzler, whose video calling out his aunt, Republican Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler from Missouri went viral.

In a speech on the house floor, Aunt Vicky, as Andrew refers to her, pleaded tearfully with her colleagues to vote against LGBTQ rights. Andrew himself is gay, and advocates against discrimination, conversion therapy, and public funding of anti-LGBTQ+ institutions. Andrew, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Andrew Hartzler:

Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

I have been following your activism and your lawsuit ever since that video came out, and I am incredibly impressed. But for our listeners who aren't familiar with how this all started, I want to play that video if you can indulge it one more time. I'm sure you've seen it a million times. Is that alright?

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, no problem.

Ken Harbaugh:

Alright. Here we go. Hang on a second.

[Video Clip Playing]

Andrew Hartzler:

Today, a United States Congresswoman, my Aunt Vicky, started crying because gay people like me can get married.

Vicky Hartzler:

I hope and pray that my colleagues will find the courage to join me in opposing this misguided and this dangerous bill.

Andrew Hartzler:

So, despite coming out to my aunt this past February, I guess, she's still just as much as a homophobe.

Vicky Hartzler:

Let's be clear, Obergefell is not in danger, but people and institutions of faith are.

Andrew Hartzler:

Aunt Vicky, that's not right. Institutions of faith religious universities are not being silenced. They're being empowered by the U.S. government to discriminate against tens of thousands of LGBTQ students because of religious exemptions, but they still receive federal funding.

Vicky Hartzler:

The bill's implications, submit to our ideology or be silenced.

Andrew Hartzler:

It's more you want the power to force your religious beliefs onto everyone else. And because you don't have that power, you feel you're being silenced, but you're not. You're just going to have to learn to coexist with all of us, and I'm sure it's not that hard.

[End of Video Clip]

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Andrew did you have any idea that that video would get the reaction it did? I mean, appearances on cable news, it blew up online. Were you expecting any of it?

Andrew Hartzler:

No, not at all. Actually, I had never really posted on TikTok except once before, and I maybe had 10, 20 followers, and then overnight, this had over a million views. And then ultimately, it ended up with me going to the White House the following week. Or this video came out on a Friday, and then I went to the White House on a Tuesday.

But yeah, it was incredible that the video had such a positive response in general. I have so many lesbians actually have reached out to me, saying that they'll be my aunt and I don't need Aunt Vicky anymore, which has been really comforting.

But ultimately, I wasn't really surprised when I heard my aunt say this really when I first spoke up on … I believe the video came out on a Thursday of my aunt crying. I thought that it was from 2015 or when the Quality Act was trying to get pushed through. I didn’t realize like, whoa, this is today. And I kind of sat on it for 24 hours because I wanted to make a response, but I needed to find the right way. And ultimately, I stayed up all night, Thursday night and posted this at 6:00 AM and then finally went to bed. And when I woke up at a few hours later, yeah, I had a missed call from Buzzfeed.

Ken Harbaugh:

As positive as that response was, I got to believe it was painful at some level. And I'm going to ask you about some of your trauma growing up, but the decision to call out someone in your family that publicly, it must have given you pause. I mean, you pulled it off brilliantly. Your poise and your affect in that video struck all the right notes. But I got to think that at some level, it hurt.

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, it's definitely something that no one should ever have to do. It shouldn't be necessary to have to correct your own relatives. And even after coming out to my aunt this past February and being met with a really like, “I still love you, but you know that this lifestyle that you're going, the path that you're going down, is a sin and I don't support it.” “Well, how can you not support me as a person, but say you love me?”

And oh, really, when Congress first voted in the house to be able to start discussing the Respect for Marriage Act back in, I think, it was September, early September — I remember seeing that my aunt didn't vote that day. And I knew that she was in Washington D.C. So, I was a little confused and I was like, “Oh, well, maybe she refrained from voting on the Respect for Marriage Act,” the initial vote for Congress to be able to start talking about it. I thought that maybe that was in response to me coming out to her. So, I kind of got my hopes up.

And then I was specifically called out by her, inviting — she said to my mother, “Let's have Thanksgiving dinner at my house this year and make sure Andrew knows that he's invited.” And I was like, “Okay, that's kind of weird.” But why wouldn't I be invited?

But then this happened with the Respect for Marriage Act, and it really was a surprise because it wasn't what my aunt was sending signals as to like how she would react. But I mean, now she's no longer in office, so-

Ken Harbaugh:

I read your blog post, titled Fix Him, and it was hard to read. It was gut-wrenching and so deeply personal, and we're going to share a link in the show notes. But I want to use that as an entry point to your story because I think listeners need to know how you arrived at that video. I mean, you're coming to this from a place of a deep personal experience and trauma.

If you're okay talking about it like you did in the blog post, can you share the story of that moment that you describe in that blog post with the title Fix Him?

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, that was talking about the very first time that I came out to my parents when I was 14-years-old, it was in the summer. I had just gotten back from this trip in California where I spent a week at UCLA, doing a leadership camp. And I got a lot of exposure to people outside of the Christian bubble. And it was finally I could be like, “Oh yeah, I'm gay.” And people around me were like, “Oh, that's so cool.” And I think I came back from that trip just really empowered and I wasn't hiding myself as I usually would be. And my parents got kind of suspicious.

Well, ultimately, my mom found a reason that I was in trouble for something obscure. So, she took my phone and I always would delete all my messages. And she decided to go through my photos to see if I had any family photos she wanted. And she found a screenshot of a text message between me and a boy where I was referring to a boy as attractive in some sense. And I remember my mom, she called in my father, from the office where he works. And my dad came in and we were sitting on the couch. They were sitting on the couch and I was sitting across from them, and my dad said, “Is what you said in this text true?”. And I didn't really respond. I just kind of looked at him and was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “Are you attracted to other men?” And I was like, “Yes, I like boys” because at that time, I was 14. And I remember I think I said it in the blog post, the way he looked, it was a tearful moment for him. And my mom was just like, “Oh, sweetie, no, no, no. That's how you'll get aids and die.” And I was just like, “No.” But yeah, it was definitely a long road from there where ultimately, my parents told me to go to my room, and I remember just standing outside their door listening to what they were having to say, and they were bickering between each other about whose fault this was. And my mom said to my dad like, “This is your fault. You need to fix him.” And I think that the reason that blog post is entitled Fix Him is because that was a very monumental phrase that kind of stuck with me, that feeling like I needed to be fixed. And then ultimately, being sent to conversion therapy in multiple forms.

But most specifically with conversion therapist in Kansas City, who was also named Andrew, and that same conversion therapist, my sophomore year of college, my Aunt Vicky hosted at the U.S. Capitol for a conversion therapy leadership conference. And I remember when I was a sophomore in college and I saw the Huffington Post article, and it was Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler host conversion therapy group at Capitol. And it showed a picture of all the ex-gay conversion therapists, and there was Andrew Franklin, my old one.

Ken Harbaugh:

And your college experience wasn't exactly the liberating moment that it is for a lot of people. Can you talk about how you wound up at a deeply conservative evangelical Christian University, Oral Roberts University?

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah. So, I went through the conversion therapy process. That was really starting right on the beginning of my freshman year of high school. And then it was three times a week. And then for a summer, I did an intensive, inpatient type conversion therapy.

But really, with my parents, I told them what they wanted to hear because that was the only way to hopefully, survive. And I mean, I did, but I just was saying anything to have to not have to keep going to these people. And I think that my parents started believing it, or they were believing it because I was telling them what they wanted to hear.

And then my senior year came along, and I remember it was near sometime in December of my senior year of high school. And my dad just came up to my room with the sheet of paper and it said the Hartzler Scholarship Fund. And he was like, “Here.” And he handed it to me and I'm like, “What is this?”

And it was like, go to Oral Roberts University and receive full tuition benefits, and then you get X, Y, Z, which was some pretty good incentives and go to any other college, and you're on your own. And he was like, “So, what are you going to pick? I'm like, “Are you kidding me? This isn't an option. Like, I guess, I'll go to ORU.”

But the thing was, I had never heard of Oral Roberts University at that time. Before that, my dad had never brought it up. I never heard of it. It was not even on my radar. I wanted to go to Pepperdine. But-

Ken Harbaugh:

Have you visited Pepperdine?

Andrew Hartzler:

I did not visit Pepperdine.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's absolutely beautiful. I wish you had gone there in some ways, but your advocacy, having experienced ORU is a pretty incredible story as well, so I'll let you keep going.

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, I would say that I really don't regret it, going to ORU. I mean, not so much that I had a choice, but I was asked like, if I could do it over again, I would do the same because knowing that the harm that I would be putting myself in, but also, if I would have gone somewhere else and perhaps paid my own way through college, as many do, but then I may be 24-years-old and still not realize that there are hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ students across the country that are enduring this type of suffering that I would still be unknown to that harm.

So, I'm grateful that I was able to experience that firsthand. So, now, I can hopefully make a difference for others.

Ken Harbaugh:

That's an incredibly wise outlook. I'm not sure I would have the strength even in hindsight to see it that way. You have described yourself as a survivor of Oral Roberts University, which it's a chilling phrase. Can you share your experience starting sophomore year of being reported on and monitored, and what it was like to be a gay student at a school like Oral Roberts University?

Andrew Hartzler:

There were a lot of other gay students, particularly theology majors and psychology majors, which I was. And I think that the mindset is that is if you go into ORU, you're either going to try to study the Bible so much so that you can hopefully fit yourself into the Bible, or you're going to study the mind so that you can figure out what's wrong with you.

But my junior year at college, I was called into the dean's office for something that I had no idea what, and ultimately, it was because I had brought my partner onto campus. He went to TU, Tulsa University, which is a private college in Tulsa. And I brought him into my dorm room to hang out. And one of my neighbors had reported me apparently. Anyways, they threatened me with expulsion if I didn't attend these accountability meetings, which, the accountability meetings was really kind of the same rhetoric that was being pushed at me during conversion therapy. I was like, “Oh, this again.” But thankfully, it was right before COVID started. So, I didn't have to attend too many of those. Because once COVID started, they went virtual and I was like I just kind of fell under the radar, and then I kept my head down and I graduated a year later.

Ken Harbaugh:

Does Oral Roberts University receive federal funding? It's a loaded question, because this leads to your activism over the last couple of years.

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah. So, actually, last year alone — Oral Roberts University like all religious universities are non-for-profit, so their tax records are public knowledge. You can google them, and they pop right up. I made a TikTok this past weekend about it, and according to their tax records (this last year), they received $59 million in federal funding. And some of that is from the COVID-19 federal relief money for higher ed institutions. And some of that is from Pell Grants and of course, FAFSA, and other government funding, and research grants that they do at the university.

All of this federal funds is being used at this university that's then nitpicking who has access to their resources that are being funded by the government. So, that's really discrimination at its finest. Not allowing LGBTQ students to have that same access or telling them that they have to go through conversion therapy type practices, or denying them readmission. As in, like, there was someone who's also a plaintiff, and in the summer, they got married to their wife, and then they were told that they wouldn't be readmitted. And when you go to a school like Oral Roberts University, a lot of your credits that you're required to take are these religious classes. So, all that money's wasted because those aren't going to transfer to other places.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. And then while you're there, there's sometimes overt persecution. I want to read this account from you, from one of your accountability meetings with the dean. This was, I believe, your junior year.

You said:

“The dean instructed me to read several verses from the Bible, which he referenced while condemning me for my suspected romantic encounters with other men.

The dean pressured me for names and information about other students at ORU who were, as he said, struggling with their identity, saying that I was ‘allowing them to suffer in hell’ if I did not reveal their names so that such students could receive help.”

This is an institution that receives millions of dollars of taxpayer money, my taxes, and your taxes, and is essentially subsidized for that kind of persecution of students. Is that a fair description of the situation?

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah. No, that's very fair. And it's like currently, the government is complicit. It's almost because they're funding this money and they're not really batting an eye at it, it's like they're putting their stamp of approval on this discrimination, which contradicts everything I know about the Biden administration, but it's still being done.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you give us an update on the status of the lawsuit? It's a group of students, right? The REAP lawsuit.

Andrew Hartzler:

It's the reap.org and it's the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. So, they basically just partnered with a group of … there's 44 of us, of plaintiffs from religious institutions across the country. Some are current students which is extremely brave of them, and most of them are alumni like myself. But actually, this past Friday, a federal judge in Oregon granted the defendant's claim to dismiss the lawsuit. So, the lawsuit was dismissed this past Friday. But it was an unfortunate initial ruling as in the legal team with REAP is currently looking at options and how to move forward, and our fight is far from over because even though the lawsuit may have had that initial ruling now, it doesn't mean that students still aren't being discriminated against. So, our work is nowhere near finished.

Ken Harbaugh:

I hope that you are successful in the courts. But knowing how long these things sometimes take, it's going to be a tough road.

In terms of changing hearts and minds, short of changing the law, have you noticed a shift on campuses like ORU? Are young people hopefully opening themselves up to your way of thinking in a way that their parents didn't?

Andrew Hartzler:

See, that's difficult because ORU is such a unique bubble and it's such strong indoctrination. But one thing I will say is that everything that I've done and put out there, I received feedback and people message me from past students or current students, and I would say that this class this year that started this past August, I've had multiple, more than any other class of students from ORU reach out to me in a favorable way, which has been very encouraging to see that. There's people that are that young in their time at ORU and they're realizing that what's going on here isn't right, and they're being aware of it by what they see that I put out there, and they're upset. And also, one thing that the lawsuit has brought with it is information, and informing people. As in like there was a time where two years ago before the lawsuit started that I'm sure tens of thousands of people had never even heard the word religious exemptions. People that didn't grow up in that area had no idea what it was. But hopefully, the millions of people that saw my TikTok, they know what religious exemptions are, and people are getting upset. Reading through the comments on some of my posts, I see that people have no idea that their federal money is being used at these universities because you always think like, oh, private institutions, no federal money, but there's loopholes.

Ken Harbaugh:

What do you say to those students who reach out to you? I imagine some of them are LGBTQ+ students, but how do you counsel them about being at a university that denies their very identity?

Andrew Hartzler:

So, this past Thanksgiving, I was invited … this is before any of the stuff with my aunt happened, but I was invited home for Thanksgiving, and I chose to stay in Tulsa. Because there was a student at ORU and they had come to me through social media and basically, they had come out to their parents in the fall and then their parents told them that they weren't welcome home for Thanksgiving. And I was like, “Okay, well we're going to have Thanksgiving dinner together.”

Ken Harbaugh:

Good for you.

Andrew Hartzler:

So, it's actually, I've really enjoyed that part and probably, it's a big reason why I still stay in Tulsa. It's not going to keep me here forever, but it certainly, is making my time here very worthwhile.

Ken Harbaugh:

The larger fight for enshrining and expanding LGBTQ+ rights has hit some roadblocks of late in Congress, at least during the democratic control of the house. There was some major success. But you're seeing some revanchism across the country.

Do you keep tabs on the status of conversion therapy laws and the things that are happening at the state level?

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, I mean I try, I have a bunch of Google alerts for any time certain words are mentioned in the news, I get an email. So, I try to keep myself up to date, but there's so much always happening. And sometimes, it's just overwhelming and I have to take a mental health break.

But I saw recently, Wisconsin made conversion therapy — it was illegal and then they made it legal again, which is kind of a confusing process what's going on there.

But a big thing that I've been doing is what's made me very curious is the people that are pushing these laws — for instance, when I heard that someone made conversion therapy legal again, I'm like, “Who is this lawmaker?” I think it's my psychology background, but whenever I see someone pushing like, “Oh, we have to make all these anti-trans bills.” Like in Oklahoma, someone just introduced a bill that would ban transgender healthcare for anyone under the age of 26, which I'm like, “That makes no sense.”

So, it’s like, “What, when, where, why?” And it's disturbing.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you discovering common themes when you look at these lawmakers who are doing it? I have my own ideas. There's a fair amount of projection or latent issues, but are you noticing anything?

Andrew Hartzler:

I mean, that always is the first suspect, projection because often, if people hate something for such a reason, it's because they're hiding it within themselves. But this particular lawmaker in Oklahoma is actually a part of kind of weird cult called The City Elders and like I’ve dug up these old YouTube videos, and he had said some really crazy things, and I made a TikTok about it.

But as far as actionable things that you can do in a place Oklahoma, a deeply red state where it's such overwhelming majority of politicians are Republican — and what's crazy is there's even some Democrat. Like the few Democrats members of the house in Oklahoma will vote no or will vote yes with anti-LGBTQ legislation. So, I've kind of shifted my focus less from trying to counteract the Republicans and more to like Democrats, like, “Hey, what's going on?”

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. What is your overall sense of the degree of progress or backsliding? I'm an optimist by nature, so I guess it's how I fall asleep at night. I think that things over time are getting better and most of that, is because I just have enormous faith in young people to fix what we broke. But what is your sense of the direction in which we're heading?

Andrew Hartzler:

I think a big thing that I've always kind of kept going on is that I would say over half of the homophobic legislators and politicians and people in the world right now, they're going to meet their end at some point and I'll still have a full life to live. That's something that's really kept me going.

But then, the reality of that is that hate is taught. So, for everyone that they nurture and they raise up to be adults, there's that reality of them also being homophobic. So, I think that people will always do better if they can, and I hope that people can.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you are proof that the cycle can be interrupted. Thank you for all you're doing.

Last question: what was it standing on the White House lawn a couple of days after you released a video to your 13 followers and seeing the president of the United States enshrined in law the Quality for Marriage Act?

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, I mean, it gives me goosebumps to this day. But the Biden administration did a wonderful job of making it very … I don't know if it is on purpose, but they had Sam Smith come out play a really like kind of sobby song. And looking around, there were people sobbing. I know I was crying, trying to not shake my phone, taking photos. But yeah, it was, it was really incredible. Like little me standing there in the crowd and to the left of me is two contestants from RuPaul's Drag Race in front of me, is like one of the directors of one of the largest LGBTQ organizations in the world. And to the right of me is his mother. And that was actually very… I wouldn't say hard is the right word. That was just like, “Wow, your mom's here with you. That's cool.”

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I said last question. I have to ask one more. How are you doing now? You’ve managed to get yourself through Oral Roberts University, what are you up to now, and do you have any hope for reconciliation with your family and Aunt Vicky?

Andrew Hartzler:

I think that, yeah, definitely, I have hope for reconciliation soon. I haven't been back to Kansas City since everything's started (that's where I'm from), but I hope the next time that I'm there, that I'll be able to like walk across my lawn into my aunt's yard because we're literally next door neighbors, and say hi.

But my parents, they've been really good, because I put them through a lot as far as coming out when I was 14 and going back in the closet, and then coming out again when I was a sophomore in college. So, it's kind of this rollercoaster that we've been on together. But now, they've come along ways, and they'll continue to hopefully go a much longer ways because they still do have a ways to go.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, if hate can be taught, passed down the generations, I sure hope that love can be taught, teaching our parents. Thank you for that too. Andrew, it's been great talking to you. Good luck.

Andrew Hartzler:

Yeah, thank you so much.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Andrew for joining me. You can find him on Twitter at @andyhartzler.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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