Let me say outright what we’re all thinking: If you’re gay, Liberty University is not the right school for you.
That’s what one former student thought at first, too; after all, Liberty’s founder, the infamous Jerry Falwell, is perhaps best remembered for founding the anti-gay Moral Majority, claiming that pagans, feminists and gays caused 9/11, and warning of a “homosexual steamroller” that would “literally crush all decent men, women, and children.” (In the years since his passing, the misuse of “literally” in Falwell’s steamroller quote has inspired one of the best Oatmeal comics of all time, but that’s another story.)
But in a piece for the Atlantic this week, former Liberty student Brandon Ambrosino says that when he came out as gay at Liberty, he was pleasantly surprised — at least to an extent. Ambrosino followed a girlfriend to Liberty, assuming God had intended for them to eventually get married. As the story often goes, they broke up, and it wasn’t long before Brandon knew he was actually gay.
As Brandon was raised in an “extremely religious” household, it’s pretty understandable that this was a difficult realization for him:
I always grew up hearing God loved me, that God loved everyone, even the really terrible sinners. But I had this idea of love that it’s something you just do because it’s something God just does. In other words, it was a sort of automatic behavior, and God just loved people because he had an obligation to — that was the requirement for being God. That was also the requirement for being Christian: You had to love people, no matter whether or not you liked them. I’ve actually heard some Christian friends say something like, “I mean, OK, I love him because I have to, but I totally do not like him at all!” I’ve never really understood this idea. It just seems like a way to satisfy both divine mandate and personal resentment with slippery semantics.
When I finally came to terms with being gay, I questioned if God loved me. I came to the conclusion that of course God loved me because he was God and he had to, but probably he was disappointed in me, and therefore didn’t really like me.
It didn’t take long for professors and classmates at Liberty to figure out Brandon’s sexuality, either. One professor called Brandon in to chat after he made a joke about famous gay writer Oscar Wilde in class, eventually getting him to admit he’d been “struggling” with homosexuality. Friends who generally accepted him had their suspicions, and eventually someone tattled to the school’s Dean of Men (yep — that’s a real position) that Brandon and another guy had been lying in bed together in their underwear:
My meeting with the Dean of Men was very short. He told me that someone had told my RA that Eddie and I were in bed together in our underwear, and he wanted to know if that was true. When I told him it was, he asked what we were doing. I told him we were sleeping, which led him to ask why we were sleeping in our underwear. I asked him what he slept in, and he blushed and admitted that he also slept in his underwear. I then gave him my lecture on heteronormativity, to which he simply listened and nodded his head in a way that told me he didn’t agree with me but that he heard me. I told him that we as a society were conditioned to believe our categories of sexuality and gender are rigid and absolute; but that we forget how constructed and even arbitrary those categories can be. I went on and on about David and Jonathan, and Naomi and Ruth, and about how some boys really like the color pink and doing laundry. After that awkward mess of three minutes, he asked if he could ask me a question.
“Brandon, is there anything you’re struggling with?”
“Sure,” I said as nonchalantly as I could, “I’m human. I struggle with all kinds of things.” I was being a smartass, but the worst kind of smartass. I was being a saintly smartass.
But it seems the response from Liberty professors and administrators could have been much worse. Brandon wasn’t excommunicated or forced through so-called “reparative therapy,” as he (and probably many others) would have expected on such a conservative campus. Instead, the few professors who raised questions about his sexuality also made recommendations about counselors Brandon could work with in order to accept himself:
When people find out I underwent therapy at Jerry Falwell’s Christian college, they assume I went through something like gay reparative therapy. But that isn’t what happened. I saw two counselors at Liberty — Dr. Reeves also had me meet with Ryan, one of his grad students, once a week — and neither of them ever expressed an interest in “curing” me. Did they have an agenda? Yes. Their goal, which they were very honest about, was to help me to like myself, and to find peace with the real Brandon. I remember one time telling Dr. Reeves I felt like I was being a different Brandon to each person in my life. Dr. Reeves raised his eyebrows and asked, “Isn’t that exhausting?” Dr. Reeves and Ryan knew I was tired of hiding and lying, and living in fear and subjection to others’ opinions; and so they told me that I should try liking myself because, after all, I was a likable guy and they enjoyed spending time with me.
Ultimately, Brandon writes, while some students and faculty do embody a Jerry Falwell-esque mentality that renders them utterly blind to any kind of open-mindedness or appreciation for diversity, not everybody at Liberty is like that. In fact, most aren’t. He says even Falwell himself had a good side, like when he actually invited a hundred gay leaders to take part in a campus-wide discussion on homosexuality.
Though he ended up dropping out of school, partly due to the internal conflict of being both “the guy who liked Jesus, and the guy who liked guys,” Brandon’s time at Liberty showed him that evangelical Christianity isn’t always synonymous with virulent homophobia, even when it’s associated with Jerry Falwell:
Many of us view the world as an ugly place with a few beautiful redeeming characteristics. Unfortunately, that’s also how we view humans. But what I learned at Liberty was that this idea is the exact opposite of reality: The world and the people in it are really wonderful with just a smidge of ugliness about them. I think the really vocal anti-gay Christians display this smidge, but I also think the really vocal anti-Christian gays display it as well. Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance. I learned from my time at Liberty that this bigotry happens on both sides: not only were there some Christians who wanted to stone some gays, but there were even some gays who wanted to stone a few Christians.
I don’t think I could ever bring myself to think Jerry Falwell was a good guy deep down, for all the reasons previously mentioned. Brandon doesn’t seem to share those feelings. But I’m okay with that, because ultimately it’s kind of amazing that a gay person could get through nearly four years at such a conservative institution and “live to tell the story,” so to speak. I respect Brandon deeply for coming out to the world and to himself, and for leaving Liberty when it became too difficult to continue living two lives. I respect him even more for speaking out about it now.
But when it comes to Jerry, we’ll just agree to disagree:
When I think of Jerry Falwell, I don’t think about him the way Bill Maher does. I think about the man who would wear a huge Blue Afro wig to our school games, or the man who slid down a waterslide in his suit, or the man who would allow himself to be mocked during our coffeehouse shows. I think about the man who reminded us every time he addressed our student body that God loved us, that he loved us, and that he was always available if ever we needed him.
I never told Dr. Falwell that I was gay; but I wouldn’t have been afraid of his response. Would he have thought homosexuality was an abomination? Yes. Would he have thought it was God’s intention for me to be straight? Yes. But would he have wanted to stone me? No. And if there were some that would’ve wanted to stone me, I can imagine Jerry Falwell, with his fat smile, telling all of my accusers to go home and pray because they were wicked people.