How a Gay Student Came Out at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University

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.

Brandon Ambrosino

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.


About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.

  • pauleky

    Zero empathy for this guy. I grew up southern Baptist and was taught that being gay was an abomination. Why would any gay person want to be part of an organization that may say they love you, but truly thinks you’ll burn in Hell? It’s sad.

    As for gays wanting to “stone Christians,” I’ve never met such a person, but I frankly could completely understand it. This is a false equivalency, though – gays are fighting back, not instigating. And Falwell? He’s done more to foster ignorance and hate towards gays then just about anyone else. I’m almost sorry Hell doesn’t exist – he would certainly be there.

    • indorri

      I have a very narrow category under which I think it would be appropriate to kill someone. I can think of few specific, known people who belong to that category and I only ever specified one here (and that was for instigating child abuse). The rest who belong in that category either are attempting to or have succeeded in punishing, torturing or killing others because they were gay, because they were the wrong religion, or because they didn’t follow their fucked-up rules.

      In the meantime, I’ve seen a constant stream in fundamentalist Christian thought that wants to punish gay people for being in relationships or having sex.

      As you say, the two are not even remotely equivalent.

  • Octoberfurst

    Ok I admit I was surprised to hear that most students at Liberty U didn’t find Brandon’s homosexuality to be a big deal. I also found in surprising that he had nice things to say about Falwell. (A man I consider despicable.) But I found one thing he said very troubling. When talking about anti-Christian bigotry he wrote: “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance.” Seriously? So we should be ok with narrow-minded bigots? Just accept them as they are? Sorry but I can’t feel empathy towards people who hate others and I don’t consider that to be the “epitome of intolerance” on my part. If you’re anti-gay, anti-Black, anti-immigrant etc you’re a jerk in my book. I can’t believe the doesn’t understand the difference between hating someone because they are gay and hating someone because they are a bigot. It’s not the same thing. That’s just my 2 cents worth.

    • Houndentenor

      It’s called Stockholm Syndrome. For examples check out the gay conservative blogs and organizations, especially GOProud.

      • Octoberfurst

        I have read articles by GOProud and it amazes me how much they support and grovel at the feet of those who despise them. When it comes to a choice between supporting a gay-rights supporting Democrat or a virulent homophobic Republican they will support the Republican every time. (They always use the excuse that the Republican has “a better economic plan.”) But to me GOProud is like “Jews for Hitler” or having an atheist Jerry Falwell fan club. It makes no sense. Stockholm Syndrome indeed!

    • Rain

      When talking about anti-Christian bigotry he wrote: “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance.” Seriously? So we should be ok with narrow-minded bigots?

      Well they are his narrow-minded bigots, so that’s okay. I haven’t really seen many good “deepities” latey. “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance.” That’s one heck of a good “deepity” there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-De-Fleuriot/611844223 Mike De Fleuriot

    It sounds like Brandon met quite a few nice storm-troopers on his stay aboard the Death Star.

  • liu

    “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance.”

    I cannot emphasize enough how much I disagree with this. It’s the sort of wordplay that anti-gay Christians like to pull all the time (“but you’re just as intolerant of bullying as I am of gays!” “you’re intolerant of my intolerance!”)

    I don’t accept the messed up worldviews that these people have, and I don’t tolerate their attempts to force there views on others, or to hurt others because of their views. Does this make me intolerant? Maybe it does, but I don’t care. We speak out against views that are damaging, and fight against attempts to have those views become the law. To say that’s intolerance is ignoring the spirit of the word.

    • Rain

      “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance.”

      I can’t disagree with that because intolerance is not tolerating. It’s a tautology. So big deal. However, since he intended it to be a deeply profound “deepity”, then I’ll play along and say that he’s just saying that because the narrow-minded people in this case are his narrow-minded people. Continuing along with pretending like I know what the hell his little tautology is supposed to mean, I will also add that he would gladly be a hypocrite if it was someone else’s narrow-minded people. I would also like to add that I don’t know what he means by “intolerance”. Presumably he doesn’t mean it literally, because there used to be a time when intolerance meant something, like not being allowed to eat at the lunch counter, or even vote. Or worse.

      • El Pirhey

        It’s simply saying “I’m intolerant. [And] You’re intolerant”.
        Not so difficult to understand.

    • Trickster Goddess

      Maybe he means “love the bigot, hate the bigotry”?

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Read a similar account in The Unlikely Disciple. He was talking about talking with the person in the same role and how he went to a support group for gay men on the campus. My problem with it is that at least one of the characters could not accept at all the fact that his girlfriend was bisexual. The guy prayed about it and basically got her to believe that it was just a phase. While that could be true, I can’t believe it.

    I can’t stand this guy because he seems to have just the hint of a persecution complex for being christian
    ” 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.”

    While I would never advocate stoning anyone to death, but if it comes down to it I think that gay people would be justified in doing this to some christians. They way they are treated is based on fear and intolerance and often leaves permanent scars. Where as some christians would love to do some queer bashing.

    • Houndentenor

      I used to be skeptical of the idea that the loudest anti-gay bigots are repressing some homosexual desire in themselves. but the evidence is overwhelming. They feel they are losing the struggle within themselves so they act out, attempting to repress it in others. It never works. Imagine how tormented they are and then listen to their rhetoric. It’s sad, really and there is a cure. Accept yourself the way you are and live a life of honesty and compassion for others.

      As for stoning and other forms of violence: I oppose that. And while gay-bashing is still a common occurrence, I can’t think of any example of groups of gay thugs beating up people for being Christian. I don’t see that becoming a thing, but if it does, I will support criminal prosecution for anyone who does that. Of course Evangelicals think that standing up to them is the same as a violent attack, but it’s not. It’s odd that such people can’t understand that everyone else has the same rights they do.

      • Tor

        Right. Speaking back to homophobes = being pistol-whipped and hung on a fence to die.

  • Houndentenor

    I went to a Baptist school for undergrad. I was not just in the closet but hiding behind the shoe rack. I wasn’t alone. Reconnecting with old classmates on Facebook has shown me that everyone I thought was probably gay too actually was. And the rest…bigger homophobes than ever, proudly displaying their Chick-Fil-A bags to demonstrate their opposition to gay rights. Some of them would never have gotten through school were it not for the help of their gay friends. I unfriended them and am sorry I ever so much as met them. But I digress. From talking to people who went to other religious-affiliated schools including Oral Roberts U and Liberty, they all had a lot of closeted gay male students. Where else to avoid dealing with your sexuality for four years than an institution where all sexual expression is discouraged and your girlfriend/beard will not expect you to try to have sex with her. “What a gentleman!” (Yeah, because he didn’t want to do that anyway.) But coming out there was a mistake. There’s no support system and while closeted homosexuals can get along just fine (so long as they aren’t so stupid to get caught) mostly because there are quite a few in the administration of such schools and in all the religious right/social conservative organizations (internalized homophobia is the worst and most destructive kind of homophobia), actually being out is what terrifies them, especially the closet-cases. That just can’t be tolerated and isn’t. He’s better off somewhere else and he’ll figure that out soon if he hasn’t already.

  • Marco Conti

    That was nice of Falwell not to want to stone him. A real prince.
    Of course he indirectly accused him and thousands of other people to cause 9/11, but hey, what’s a cult leader to do?

  • alconnolly

    In the cult in which I was raised the cult leader knew a lot about manipulating people. If someone was having “doubts” that person was treated very gently and “lovingly” to a point. If they did not come around in a “reasonable” time they were outcast broken and destroyed. But if they did and many did, they were a living testimony to the “love” of the cult leader and his “infinite (NOT!)” patience and understanding. Brilliant evil manipulation.

  • Rain

    “literally crush all decent men, women, and children.”

    That’s like the literal Bible verses like taking no thought for the morrow or having enough faith to move mountains. They are supposed to be taken literally, but the only one who would be dumb enough to think they are literally literal would be Jesus himself. Not the brightest bulb in the planet.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    “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.”

    False equivalency!

    The anti-gay attitudes, speech, and actions of the Christians is derived entirely from man-made doctrine, and causes very real harm.

    The anti-christian attitude you occasionally find in the gay community stems directly from the anti-gay bigotry spouted by a very visibly Christian segment of the population. So much of the oppression faced by LGBTQ folks is driven by Christianity that it would be quite illogical to NOT feel some hatred and dislike of this particular class of people.

    Equating these two is like saying that the victim of a bully is just as much at fault for fighting back.

    • Tor

      It is merely self-protection.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandon.ambrosino Brandon Ambrosino

    Hi,

    It’s Brandon — that one. Thanks for sharing my story. I just wanted to add as a sort of behind-the-scenes bit of info that I did end up finishing my degree from Liberty in 2011.

    Blessings,
    Brandon

  • TheAnti-Coconut

    I’m sure his experience would have been much different if he had openly declared himself gay and formed a same-sex partnership or dated around.

  • http://twitter.com/maxbingman1 Max Bingman

    I’m sorry but sweet gay kid or not, the statement “Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance” is complete nonsense. We expect Liberty U students to be idiots. He proves us right.

  • Tim Morgan

    Seems pretty clear, if you are gay, you know that it goes against the Bible, hence, why would you attend a college that clearly and openly operates on Biblical principles? Including, hating the sin, NOT the sinner?!
    It isn’t about exclusion, or inclusion, or people’s feelings or bigotry. Because I don’t like something, or I do like something doesn’t mean I have to think the way you do. Homosexuality is wrong. I’m not a homophobe, I just don’t want to be around a lifestyle that I believe is wrong.

  • Mark W.

    2156 days have passed since Jerry Falwell died….and I still don’t miss him.

  • nay mosley

    I am a Christian and I do not hate Homosexuals. I do not like homosexuality because it is a sin and God clearly states in his word that it is an abomination. I believe that being ‘gay’ is a sin the same as lying or cheating, but that it is how we handle that sin thats the problem. I am sure that there are Christians or people who grew up in church’s that who struggle with homosexuality. But it is how we react to the temptation that depends upon whether we sin or not. From reading this story about Brandon. I think Brandon made the wise choice to seek counseling, but Brandon also wasnt planning on changing his mind about his sexuality.I do not agree with Brandon not coming out of his sin. But i would never condemn someone to hell. it is not my right. i can only worry about myself. It is God that determines whether or not we go to heaven or hell. There is nothing we can do to earn our way to heaven. We can only ask forgiveness for our sins and believe that Jesus died on the cross for those sins. I am a sinner same as Brandon (i also attended LU and loved it), but i do not or at least i try not to stay in my sin. On the subject of tolerance, i do not tolerate hateful people whether they be Christian or gay. I do not tolerate sin, because God does not tolerate sin. jesus may not have condemned the woman at the well (John 4) but he also did not see her as sinless. He was letting her know that he knew her sins, that she had already condemned herself for being born a sinner, but that she had the option to go and not sin anymore. God is good and just. he loves his children but hates (righteously) their sin. I hope that people will respond if any one does kindly. thanks ~Nay


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