Jacksonville valedictorian, rejected by parents for being gay, given heartwarming surprise by Ellen DeGeneres

Published September 12 2018
Updated September 12 2018

Over the summer, Seth Owen’s story went viral. The young valedictorian, who was forced from his Jacksonville home for being gay and couldn’t pay for his first year of college, raised more than $140,000 on his GoFundMe page and appeared Monday on Ellen DeGeneres’ show.

DeGeneres awarded the Jacksonville high school graduate, now a freshman at Georgetown University, a check for $25,000 to add to a future college scholarship he plans to create for LGBTQ students who do not receive support from their parents, much like him.

On the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Owen discussed how — in his sophomore year — his parents discovered he was gay from photos found on his phone. They put him in a gay conversion therapy program held by the church, Owen said.

"They sent me to conversion therapy, and after a few months, that ended," Owen, now 18, said. "The dangerous part about that is, as a patient, I believed this health care professional was doing what was best for me, and they didn’t see any progress, and that was very depressing."

There have been efforts to ban conversion therapy for minors, a practice that is still legal in most of Florida, across the country as some have accused the practice of being child abuse. The city of Tampa’s ban was established in March 2017. The practice also is a central plot in this year’s films The Miseducation of Cameron Post starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Boy Erased starring Lucas Hedges.

RELATED: Lawsuit attempts to end conversion therapy ban in Tampa

In Owen’s senior year of high school, a new pastor at his church was more outspokenly against the LGBTQ community. When Owen expressed his opposition, his parents gave him an ultimatum: stay in church or move out.

The teen then lived from couch to couch until he could stay with his best friend’s family for the summer. His future at Georgetown University also was in jeopardy since the college calculated his financial aid based on his parents’ support, which they had retracted. That meant there was a $20,000 gap to pay for his first year’s tuition.

One of Owen’s Jacksonville teachers, Jane Martin, stepped in to help by creating a GoFundMe page. The tuition fundraiser closed with more than $140,000 donated from the LGBTQ community and allies who had learned of his plight from news coverage and social media.

Owen now wants to take the extra money and, after he graduates from Georgetown, put it toward a scholarship for other LGBTQ high school students without family support.

"The goal was $20,000, and I was blown away when it hit $2,000," Owen said. "I mean, I was so surprised that people would put their money in and support me."

DeGeneres said she partnered with Cheerios for their One Million Acts of Good program to give Owen $25,000 to kickstart the scholarship.

Earlier in the interview with DeGeneres, Owen expressed his admiration for the LGBTQ civil rights icon and trailblazer who also was once rejected — by the nation and entertainment industry — for coming out, and how much DeGeneres’ show has helped him.

"When I was writing my papers at 2 a.m., I often had to look up your videos for inspiration," Owen said, crediting DeGeneres for his valedictorian honor. "There were so many times that you really pulled me through."