Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University
Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Atlantic which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.
After a few minutes, I got out bed to get a drink, and there in the kitchen, I found my roommate Jake looking into the open refrigerator, buck naked.
“Oh, hey, man,” he said when he saw me. “Midnight snack?” he asked.
“Yeah, I just can’t sleep.”
“I hear ya,” he said, and bent over to grab some jelly from the bottom shelf.
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.
“So you went to Liberty…” and they let the last syllable of that word trail off.
“Ya, I went to Liberty,” I say, preparing myself for the next two minutes.
“So…how was that?” And then they smile.
Even though I have the reply down to an exact science, I still ask them what they mean.
“You know, because you’re… well, I’m assuming…” and they do this gesture with their hands which, I think, means “gay.”
“Well, Liberty is very different from what you might think of it. It gets a bad rap because of a few of Falwell’s soundbytes, but all in all, I really enjoyed it.”
That, apparently, isn’t a satisfactory enough answer for them, and they want to know the real juicy stuff.
“Well, you know, I’m not a very gay person,” I say, which causes their smile to grow even bigger. I know this smile because it’s the one my friend Mary gave me when I told her I was gay. She smiled and said, “Of course you are, honey.” She was the first student I came out to at Liberty.
“I mean, I’m not a parade-and-politics type of gay,” I continue. “I’m gay, sure, and most people know it. But I don’t really work it into conversations unless it naturally comes up. So at Liberty, most people probably figured I was gay, but most people kept that suspicion to themselves.” Most people, that is, except for Dr. Prior.
After I made an ambiguous and slightly off-color remark about Oscar Wilde during her British Literature class, Dr. Prior (who writes for The Atlantic from time to time) asked me to come talk with her during her office hours the next day. I agreed to stop by because, well, she was fabulous, and I couldn’t imagine having an awkward conversation with someone that fashionable. After all, her daily mantra—which she borrowed from her beloved Wilde—is, “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
“Well,” I huffed, “You asked me to come in…” to come out, I thought to myself. My wit shines in tense situations.
“You wanted to come in and talk, Brandon,” she said, and she reclined back in her chair. You liar, I wanted to scream. You know very well you asked me to come in and talk to you because of the gay joke I made about Oscar Wilde. And because of the clippings of naked Abercrombie men that fell out of my bag. And because I literally drool over the hunky history major who sits next to me.
So we sat. And sat. And stared at each other. And every now and then mentioned something trivial (for instance, my turkey sandwich) that, for some inexplicable reason, made us laugh uncontrollably. Finally, she told me she had to get going because her next class started soon.
“Ok, ok, wait,” I told her, and she cocked her head.
“Yes?” she asked me, and the tone of her voice calmed me down. It was as if she was saying, Brandon, I already know what you want to tell me. Please, just say it.
And I did: “Alright… for the last few months… well, really, for years, I’ve felt… ok, who knows how long? I mean, anyway, it doesn’t matter.” She just nodded and made mm-hmm sounds.
“Homosexuality!” I blurted. “I’ve been struggling with homosex…” and I broke down. Here I was in the English chair’s office at the world’s most homophobic university, and I’d just admitted to her I was gay.
She got up from her chair, and rushed over to me. I braced myself for the lecture I was going to receive, for the insults she would hurl, for the ridicule I would endure. I knew how Christians were, and how they clung to their beliefs about homosexuals and Sodom and Gomorrah, and how disgusted they were by gay people. The tears fell more freely now because I really liked this teacher, and now I ruined our relationship.
“I love you,” she said. I stopped crying for a second and looked up at her. Here was this conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage woman who taught lectures like “The Biblical Basis for Studying Literature,” and here she was kneeling down on the floor next me, rubbing my back, and going against every stereotype I’d held about Bible-believing, right-leaning, gun-slinging Christians.
The story centers around Jesus’ declaration that he does not condemn this woman. This is something that really resonates with me. Many of the same passages of Scripture that condemn adultery as abominable also condemn homosexuality. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with Torah or the Book of Romans would have to admit that both activities are regarded as sinful. Jesus, a first-century Rabbi, would have also held this belief. And yet, when the abstract sin is given a human face, Jesus responds with acceptance and mercy, proving the truth of Alexander Pope’s adage, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” It’s easy to despise an idea. But give that idea a human body, beat her up, and toss her down on the sand in front of you—do this, and then try to hate her. It’s not that easy.
Before I moved off-campus I lived with the coolest group of guys in perhaps the coolest and most esteemed hall on campus: E-6. When we weren’t jumping off the James River Bridge naked, we were four-wheeling naked. And when we weren’t playing naked “Man Games” on Thursday night (which were a two-hour series of homoerotic slap-and-tickle games), we were sneaking into the East Campus pool after hours… naked. Everyone on campus loved our guys because they were cool; I loved them because they were constantly naked.
One of my favorite stories to tell about my ex-boyfriend, Eddie, is how we met. I was very good friends with the guys in his quad, and they wanted me to move in with them. Eddie’s roommate moved out, and so he had an open bed in his room. My friends went to him and asked if I could move in with him.
“The kid from room C?” Eddie asked. “Isn’t he gay?”
“The Dean of Men wants to see you,” I was told by my RA, a guy that I didn’t really care for. When I was moving in to the dorm, he saw my collection of Will & Grace DVDs, then quickly explained to me our three dorm rules: “No pink. No Friends. No Will and Grace.” He then told me about the time he got so disgusted by a showing of Brokeback Mountain that he left. Apparently, he’d had no idea what the movie was really about. Apparently.
“Why does the Dean want to see me?” I asked.
“Well… he just wants to check in with you.” Then he left my room as quickly as he entered. Right away, I texted Eddie to find out where he was.
“You want him to cure me?” I asked.
“No,” and she rolled her eyes, “just to talk with you. If you even want to talk.”
I definitely did want to talk with someone about being gay. The secret was boring a hole inside me. “Sure,” I told her, with only a hint of hesitation.
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.
“Yes, you’re right,” he chuckled in agreement. “We all fall short of God’s intentions, don’t we?” I said “Amen” or something like that, because I thought it might persuade him to end our little meeting.
“Brandon,” he asked, and focused his eyes intently onto mine. “Have you ever struggled with anything… else?”
“Ok,” I said in a way to let him know I was confiding in him. “For the past few months I’ve been questioning my sexual identity, and I’ve been working through those questions with Dr. Reeves. He’s a professor in the counseling department.”
“Yes,” he said, lighting up. “I know Dr. Reeves, and he’s a great man.” And then he leaned in a little closer to me, and said, “I would just encourage you to keep meeting with Dr. Reeves, and talking with him. And keep asking questions, Brandon. Every question you can think of.”
I told him I would do that, and asked if I could go back to my dorm to work on a huge paper. He agreed that I should attend to my studies, and then stood up to shake my hand, and dismiss me. As I was leaving his office, I texted Eddie and told him I was on my way back to the dorm, and that when I got there we should look into moving off campus. That night, we both posted on Facebook that we were looking for a place to live, and the next day in choir, a cute curly-haired poli-sci major told me that he had two open rooms in his apartment. Of course, we only needed one room, but I didn’t think it was the right time to say that.
“You guys moving out?” Peter asked me one night over video games.
“For real?” I asked. Davis was one of our roommates, and one of my closer friends on campus.
“Yeah, he said he was just uncomfortable with you guys sleeping in the same bed naked.”
“We were in our boxers,” I said.
“Still, some people don’t like it. I mean, I don’t mind it cause I’m from Boston. But you gotta respect other people’s feelings. If he don’t like it, he don’t like it.”
“What’s not to like? We’re not a couple!”
Peter laughed. “Ok. Sure…”
“I’m serious,” I said, “Eddie isn’t gay.”
“Nobody’s buying it. You guys are practically married.”
He was right, though—no one believed Eddie and I were just friends. But for some reason, we believed it. Or at least we pretended to. Even though our relationship started out with late-night cuddling and commiserating, it certainly didn’t end there. Before I knew it, we shared our first kiss. Then… well, there were lots of firsts that we shared. But through them all, Eddie remained convinced that he was straight.
I remember four things about Dr. Reeves’ office: his degrees, his coat rack for his cardigan, his books, and a poster that hung on the back of his door which contained the words of Proverbs 20:5—” The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
After spending ten seconds with this guy, I knew I liked him. But what was cooler was I knew he liked me. And that’s why I kept going back to talk to him.
“OK. That’s fine, too,” he said. “We can just talk.”
“Perfect,” I said. “I love talking.” When he told me he could tell, we both laughed. Nothing about Dr. Reeves was insincere or put-on. He was the most gentle, patient, loving man I’d ever met, and I grew to trust him with the deepest secrets of my heart. He let me say the word “fuck” in front of him. I’ll never forget when he raised an eyebrow about something I’d told him. “Two words for you, Brandon,” he told me. “Bull Shit!” I realized I wouldn’t be able to get anything past this old man.
One of the most emotional conversations I ever had with him began when he uncrossed his legs, put his elbows on his knees, cocked his head to the left, and asked me if I liked myself. Immediately, I started sniffling and rocking back and forth, trying to keep from crying. It didn’t work. I started crying. Sobbing, really. Then Dr. Reeves asked me again, “Do you like yourself, Brandon?”
I wanted to tell him to shut up, to run out of his office, but all I could do was cry and shake. Finally, I managed to answer him, “Yes.”
He didn’t buy it. He exhaled and asked me, as quietly as he could, “Then what are the tears for, Brandon.” He swallowed a lump in his throat, then asked me again, “Why the tears?”
I ended up sitting under Dr. Reeves and Ryan for three more years. Most gay people couldn’t be paid to attend Christian counseling. But me? Well, those sessions were the highlight of my week. Not only did I get to spill all of my juicy sex gossip (which I always did, usually just to try to gross them out… which never worked!) but I got to talk openly with two men who loved me for no other reason than being Brandon.
I’m still friends with both of my counselors. Just yesterday, Ryan told me that when my partner and I come to visit, we’re always welcome to stay at his house.
But what about when he opened the Liberty Godparent Home to take in unwanted children? Or when he hosted a forum on campus about homosexuality, and invited 100 prominent gay leaders to take part in the discussion? Or when he would drive around campus every night at lights-out to blow his horn and wave goodnight to all of us students?
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 ended up dropping out of school less than 30 credits shy of my degree for a few different reasons. One major reason was because of the internal conflict that was tearing me into two people: the guy who liked Jesus, and the guy who liked guys. For a long time, I thought these two parts were irreconcilable; and so, unable to process this identity conflict, I withdrew from my classes to try to get my mind around what was going on inside me.
I was waiting for only one more response, and then I could go cry myself to sleep. I was just calming myself down when I saw Dr. Borland’s name flash on my phone (I had all my teacher’s numbers programmed in my cell… I was that student). Really? I thought. We really have to talk about this? The ringing stopped and then almost immediately started again. And then again. Dr. Borland decided to call me five times before finally leaving me a very urgent-sounding voicemail asking me to call him right away. Not wanting to seem more cowardly than I already did, I decided it would be best to return his call, which I did the next morning.
What’s Greek for “shit?”
“Oh… OK, that would be… nice,” and I tried to imagine what that might be like. A group of ten Religion professors, all in white robes, tying me to a wooden chair in the backyard and carving 666 onto my queer little forehead.
“Great. Then what about tomorrow at 2 pm? Does that work?” he asked. I told him sure. After I’d hung up the phone, I began to cry. This guy 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 in spite of the Bible-KO I knew he’d deal me, I figured going over his house was something I had to do. Not only was it respectful to oblige him, but it was also like an initiation of sorts. I was passing on from a cushy, closeted life at the world’s holiest university to—well, who knew what was next?
About a year after I left school, I sent Dr. Reeves an email update. I told him I was doing well, and that I was planning on finishing my degree. I told him I was taking life one day at a time, but wasn’t really sure what the future would bring. I also apologized that I didn’t have a fairytale ending to share with him about the closure of my bout with homosexuality.
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.
Eventually, though, I decided that if Jesus met me some time, and if he got to know me, and hear my ideas, and listen to me laugh, then he would like me. What made me come to that conclusion? Meeting people like Dr. Prior and Dr. Reeves. All these people—including Jerry Falwell—helped teach me about Jesus, and I figured that if they liked me, then maybe Jesus might, too. Gandhi once said that he liked Christ, but not Christians because they were so unlike their leader. But the people I met at Liberty… well, Gandhi would have liked them.
My afternoon with Dr. Borland was very enjoyable. He took me on a tour of his house, showed me his enormous collection of antique books, and took me outside to chop some firewood. We had tea together, and discussed some theological concepts from class, like predestination and the difference between eternity and timelessness. When his wife came in, he introduced me to her, and then apologized to me for what he was about to do, which was grab her and kiss her on the mouth for about seven seconds.
He paused again, as he searched my face for who knows what.
He spoke again, this time quieter than before. “I just wanted to let you know that you’re my friend and I love you.” And with that, he nodded his head and then gave me a bear hug, before walking me to the driveway and telling me to make it home safely.
I climbed into my car almost in slow-motion. I was shocked. I was expecting Dr. Borland to act differently towards me. I was expecting him to be… well, a homophobe. But as I put on my seatbelt, I realized that all that time, I was the one who was afraid. Not him. I’d been warned my whole life about homophobia, but no one ever said anything about homophobiaphobia.
I put my car in reverse and backed out of his driveway, still watching as he smiled and waved. I thought about the story of the whore, about her walking away from Jesus. How did the two of them part ways? Did he smile at her? Did she smile back? Or did she possibly distrust his smile and run? If I were her, I would have just stood there speechlessly, staring in astonishment at the empty hands of the bearded Rabbi who’d just gone against an entire religious community and tradition for my sake.
As I pulled out of Dr. Borland’s driveway, I glanced back at him one more time. He was still there waving to me, this time with both hands. And as I made a left onto a winding country road, I looked down at the gravel path under his feet, and saw the only stones that had come my way.
By Brandon Ambrosino and published in The Atlantic on April 4, 2013 and can be found here.