On Being Gay at One of America’s Most Anti-Gay Schools

LGBT people at anti-gay Christian universities are a perennial hot topic, from 2011′s banned “queer zine” by students at Arkansas’s Harding University, to students attempting to create LGBT student organizations at places like Baylor. One of the most infamous of these “hardcore” anti-gay Christian universities is Liberty University, the Lynchburg, VA school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971. Yes, that Jerry Falwell, who said gays and feminists were to blame for 9-11. Though he died in 2007, Falwell’s spirit has lived on at the school he created, courting controversy for reasons ranging from its promotion of young Earth creationism to its shut-down of a Democratic student club due to believing the Democratic Party is anti-Christian. As such, Liberty has become the face of the most extremely conservative campuses in the nation.

All that taken together makes Liberty seem like a pretty scary place if you’re not a strict fundamentalist Christian of Falwell’s particular stripe – and especially terrifying if you’re gay. But the idea that these places might not be as bad as liberals think led one writer and Brown University student, Kevin Roose, to spend a semester at Liberty and pen a book about his experiences, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Roose had been raised in a mostly secular household and knew little to nothing about evangelical culture, though he tried to brush up on it so he would fit in at Liberty. He found the students a lot more open-minded than he expected, though it was still quite a culture shock (such as friends coming home engaged after only one date). Yet, he admitted that part of his enjoyment of his time at Liberty was likely due to the fact that he was straight, white and male, and if any one of those variables had been taken away, it probably would have been a vastly different experience.

So what would that experience have been like? A recent essay in The Atlantic, by Brandon Ambrosino, a gay graduate of Liberty, gives a rather eye-opening account about it was like to come out in a seemingly unaccepting environment like that which one would expect at Liberty – which is so conservative stuff as minor as a massage between members of the opposite sex, watching an R-rated movie, or drinking alcohol (even for faculty) result in fines. So it must have been awful to be gay, right? After all, having sex with someone of the same gender is one of the university’s biggest demerits. Well, according to Ambrosino, that’s not necessarily true.

Unlike Roose – and presumably like most LGBT students who decide to go to places like Liberty – Ambrosino does come from a fundamentalist Christian background. He explains his decision to attend Liberty here:

No one in my family is a college graduate, so when my girlfriend announced she was going to Liberty, it was just understood that I’d go there, too. My parents were extremely religious, so they liked that Liberty was a Christian school. My dad was actually a pastor. We went to one of those obnoxious churches where people pray in tongues and parade around the sanctuary carrying banners that said “Maranatha.” Because this church marched to the beat of its own drum-driven worship music, we thought we were liberal Christians. The irony, though, was that the congregation was incredibly legalistic and nitpicky. If you smoked, you were going to hell. If you drank alcohol, you were going to hell. If you listened to secular music… well you weren’t necessarily going to hell, but you were backslidden. You can imagine, then, that even if I felt same-sex desires, I was scared to act on them, let alone think about them. And anyway, I wasn’t free to think about my sexuality because I was dating the girl God sent me to marry. Of course, that all changed when we got to Liberty and broke up. I was on my own, away from my parents, away from my church, and surrounded by charming Southern gentlemen… But I wasn’t about to make a move on any of them. After all, this was Liberty.

By the time he did realize the truth – after a secret relationship with another male student at Liberty – he considered dropping out of the school, and actually did withdraw from classes for a while. Yet, Ambrosino eventually came back because of the surprisingly understanding reception he got from his professors, even from the most unlikely ones. He describes an encounter with a religion professor who

“was in his 60s, and was one of Jerry Falwell’s close friends. He was a biblical fundamentalist, and a systematic theologian. I was sure he and I had very different ideas about religion. I was also sure he knew a thousand more anti-gay Scriptures than I did, and that he would effortlessly recite them to me in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics.” But when Ambrosino actually came to his house, after they had tea, explored the professor’s house and discussed theology, all he had to say was “I got your e-mail, Brandon. I just wanted to say that you’re my friend and I love you.”

Overall, Ambrosino’s account repeatedly discusses cases where his conservative and seemingly anti-gay professors, deans and fellow students actually gave him a chance and showed compassion and understanding for Ambrosino’s issues, including his coming to terms with his sexuality. His counseling, far from a harmful “reparative therapy” session, was one of his favorite experiences, and was all about making Ambrosino comfortable with himself – just like “secular” therapy.

It is encouraging to find out that places like Liberty are perhaps not as bad for their LGBT students as they may initially seem, although Ambrosino’s account is just one on which to judge that (and it’s worthwhile to think about how Brandon’s experience may have been different if he were a queer woman, or of color, or if he were not cisgender). Even though many might look at a place like Liberty and think it’s a queer student’s fault for choosing such an anti-gay environment, circumstances are rarely that simple. For many fundamentalist parents, a fundamentalist university is often the only way they’ll let their kids get a college education. Many students might come in thinking they could honestly “pray away the gay” and it’s only when they’re juniors or seniors – and thus, likely too much of a hassle to transfer rather than just finish their degree – that they could realize that that’s not the case. Students may not themselves be aware of or willing to acknowledge their own sexual orientation when they enroll. Or, there may be other aspects of the school that they enjoy. While it’s easy for secular LGBTs to be disdainful of or confused by that particular struggle, religious LGBT people should not, ideally, have to choose between their religion and their sexuality.

Ambrosino talks about how he personally was able to see that Jesus really would love him because he was embraced by so many of the people at Liberty whom he thought would condemn him. He relates his experience to the story in the Gospel of John where Jesus tells men who want to stone a woman for adultery that “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

It’s when he ties his experiences to the larger issue of tension between secular LGBTs and anti-LGBT Christians that some of his piece loses his punch. Although it’s fantastic that Ambrosino’s experience coming out at Liberty was ultimately a positive one, his personal interactions with his professors don’t mean that the anti-gay work done by the university and its founder no longer matter. It may be that his professors are understanding people in spite of their fundamentalism, but it rings a bit hollow when he tries to extend the metaphor to Jerry Falwell himself.

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…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.

As one commenter says, ” This is very naive. Anyone will have a human side, that’s not saying much.” While he may have been understanding to individuals – Ambrosino doesn’t give any concrete examples, just that it’s his impression that Falwell would act that way – the fact that Falwell spent much of his career stirring up hatred for gays, supporting anti-gay theology and policies, makes it hard to see him as “not that bad.” Being a nice person to someone’s face shouldn’t make up for support for systematic inequality.

Yet, the very fact that so many people at places like Liberty try to be understanding of the individual LGBT people in their lives show that these places aren’t quite as awful as many might imagine. And maybe, if even at a place as stalwartly conservative as Liberty University, there are people who try to make gay people feel like they’re not alone, things are truly changing in American culture as a whole.

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime New Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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23 Comments

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    Hmm. Reminds me a bit of fundies in Northern Ireland who are very nice people if you meet them socially or even come to them with a problem on a personal level, but can still switch in a second to telling you that the Pope is the Antichrist and Catholics are all going to Hell.

    I think the issue is that these people believe there is a certain absolute moral order of the universe, on the same level as physical laws. So for the ones who are in their nature nice people, they’re nice people, but they are crippled by a worldview that means, however, nice they are, gay is an abomination, etc. Which is why they will say with deep sincerity “hate the sin, not the sinner” and can get upset if they’re accused of bigotry over the issue. They’re not living in the same reality as most folks, since from their viewpoint they’re trying to help people avoid an awful fate.

    Not sure what can be done about it other than wider social change gradually marginalizing them out of political importance.

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    Wow, thank you for this. I think if there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s that there’s room for queer religious people to be more bold in their assertion of both sexual and religious identities.

    It’s easy to confuse public stances for personal attitudes, and to think that everyone will condemn you for being what you are. But, even in my experience, people can be a lot more open minded, especially if they get to know you first.

    Not to excuse the public stances, because those need to be changed. But it definitely gives me pause about being so in the closet.

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    Oh, Liberty. They hosted many high school indoor track invitationals, so I ran there frequently. My personal experiences is limited only to their athletic facilities, but I can attest to the intimidating posters “don’t wait until six strong men carry you into a church” (with a photo of a funeral procession) that lined the hallways.

    Anyway, this is an interesting article. Thanks.

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    This was a really interesting read. I have grown up in The Christian Tradition (specifically Catholic) and have met a ton of people who were wonderful on a personal level, but would harbor so much judgement and hate for specific groups of people. I guess it is just easier to differentiate between “us” and “them’ if both are abstract groups as opposed to individuals that we get to know personally.
    I think that if these people (at Liberty, and fundamentalists in general) are capable of such great love amongst each other, they can maybe grow to love others far more different from them. But I struggle to understand how they think that “loving all God’s children” and hating LGBTQ(etc) is ok.
    Oh well.

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    I feel like it’s a really important distinction to make that people being nice to you, or simply not cruel to you in the ways that you feared, is not remotely the same thing as people actually being understanding of you.

    What I’m trying to say is that the author of the Atlantic piece sets the bar very, very low for his Christian associates. If they don’t tie him to a chair and carve 666 in his forehead (he actually cites this as an example of his fears), he is so incredibly relieved and thankful that he embraces them wholeheartedly.

    That’s actually an effective strategy of an abusive system: instill so much fear through your threats and cruel actions that when you are less than terrible you flood your victim with relief and win their loyalty.

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      That is such an important distinction that I never read about. There is so much that goes on behind the “nice”, so many unspoken things that lead to relentless fear for anyone who doesnt “fit” into their views. I agree that this causes inappropriate feelings of safety and care, when really all that has happened is that the monsters they create are pushed back behind doors they carry the key to.

      True liberty is free from monsters, fear of them, doors to hide them behind, and key-carriers.

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        “The monsters they create are pushed back behind doors they carry the key to. True liberty is from monsters, fear of them, doors to hide them behind, and key-carriers”

        Beautifully, beutifully said!

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    This bit reminds me of a blog post I read recently about the Westboro Baptist Church people; specifically, this excerpt:

    “To me, this commentary reveals much about the binary, dehumanizing manner that “culture wars” in the US are waged. The WBC is often put forth as perhaps the most problematic anti-gay hate group in the US. Indeed, if opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage can agree on anything, it’s that the WBC is hateful and extreme. And, I would agree.

    Yet, are we truly confounded by the fact that Shirley Phelps isn’t 100% pure evil?

    Is it a shock that she can, say, be friendly in some contexts and really problematic in others?

    It seems to me that an important step in recognizing, owning, and acknowledging problematic beliefs is ridding ourselves of the notions that (a) if a person holds bigoted views then that person must be entirely evil, and likewise, that (b) if a person is nice in some (or even many) contexts than that person is largely incapable of wrongdoing in other contexts.

    That seems obvious to point out, but it’s not often treated as an obvious proposition.”

    ( http://fanniesroom.blogspot.com/2013/03/wbc-gets-new-neighbors.html )

    I guess it gets into the whole idea of seeing some other group of people purely as a uniform “other” rather than as individuals; this applies to all sorts of things, of course.

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    “Being a nice person to someone’s face shouldn’t make up for support for systematic inequality.”

    In fact I think it should reveal just how two-faced and hypocritical that person is. If you truly believe a queer person doesn’t deserve to be treated the same as any other person such that you’re willing to enshrine it in the law or your theology, then have the guts to act that way to their face. If you are kind and compassionate to a queer person but then turn around and campaign against everyone like them, your head deserves to pop from the hypocrisy like a water balloon.

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    I have a very very similar story to this guy. Growing up in a charismatic Christian home, Christian college, AND Christian law school (actually just up the road from Liberty)… I started coming out my final year of law school to a bunch of super fundamental Christians (which was terrifying) but not one of them shunned or condemned me. I was pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions and really feel that many Christians have become more accepting of LGBT people.

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    as a trans* woman who just dropped out of a similarly conservative, anti-gay, fundamentalist christian university, I appreciate this piece, but I wish it had been stressed more that part of Ambrosino’s positive experience is likely related to other sources of privilege. I am still part of the struggle for LGBT acceptance at my old university, and trying to motivate the cisgender members of the lgbt alumni group to take more meaningful action can be infuriating.

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    My father lives in Lynchburg (which wasn’t named for the horrible thing you probably think it was – but rather the founder’s last name) and I’m constantly surprised by all the rainbow and HRC stickers I see around the town. I don’t know if I could go to a school like this (and I’m baffled by how a school that doesn’t believe in evolution has nursing degrees) but I’m glad that this writer didn’t have a horrible time. I just don’t think it’s a representative experience, either.

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    I’m really happy to read this. I’d heard rumblings about this and wanted to know for myself how my future fellow classmates would treat a classmate of the LGT community. I fell in love with LU when I went to visit the campus and the greatest part of this was the people who were so nice. What will be a big test is whether or not the majority of them will show Christ-likeness and love everyone regardless of sexual orientation. Love God above all else, and love others. These are clearly stated to be the two greatest commandments. When it comes to interacting with people, you are considerate-you show them God’s love. Period. LGT people already know Christian’s views on homosexuality, so they don’t need a sermon. Like any other person they just need to be loved and respected. Christ loved everyone, and we ought to seek to live like Christ.

    I want to attend a gay rights event holding a sign that says, “GOD LOVES YOU. DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU OTHERWISE.” I hope that one day I will get to do that WITH fellow Liberty students.
    I’m one person, I can’t really effect the reputation of a university with 12,000 residential students for that many people. However, I will be a student there and I will be vocal about my love for God and I will be vocal about how much I love my LGT friends. And who knows? Perhaps my love-first mindset will spread.

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      Oh dear.
      Believing that “every man [is] a liar” is the greatest way to give an entire species self esteem issues.
      God was invented to soothe certain people’s fear of the dark, but has turned into a way to soothe fear of people unlike yourself having choices.

      Keep your God at home please.

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    I attended an evangelical christian college from ’97-’01. I understand that everyone has different experiences and lots of things have changed in the last decade but it is one of my biggest regrets. I thought if I was the best christian and did everything right including attending a christian college God would make me straight. The college required all students to sign a “Lifestyle Covenant” which was basically a contract that allowed them to kick you out of college for any behavior that didn’t exemplify a christian life. This didn’t just include sex(gay or straight outside marriage). It included smoking, drinking, going to bars and even dancing. It also covered any behavior during breaks and summer. They were allowed to monitor your phone conversations, online activity and even search your room anytime they wanted to because it was all school property. One of my fellow students broke up with his girlfriend in his last semester and she went to admin and said he pressured her into allowing him to touch her breasts. He was suspended for a year and had to have counselling with his pastor before he could finish his degree. I could just imagine what they would have done if I had acted on my feelings. I felt very isolated and lonely because I couldn’t just be myself. I eventually came out after college to mixed reactions from my college friends.

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