Gay and Progressive at Liberty University
Earlier this week, the Spectrums Art Society, an incredible organization fostering space and community for LGBTQ+ individuals in Lynchburg, posted a piece I wrote under this title. I’ve been so humbled by the response. This has much of the same core, but it’s addressed a little differently and builds upon the narrative threads many of you have already been following.
Two separate posts with similar content, written with different intentions.
If you have a moment, check out Inspirare and the Spectrum Arts Society of Lynchburg.
For many of you, Liberty University is something you love and value immensely; perhaps it’s where you work, where you met your spouse, or where you found the passion out of which you would begin a career. Maybe it even saved your life and gave you a future you never thought you’d have.
For many of us, who we are today – for better or for worse – exists largely because of the community we found at Liberty.
I write this not as a means of demeaning the value of your experiences and love for the institution – I respect you and consider all of these things tremendously sacred. I’m sure we can agree Liberty University has its share of flaws. Instead, I’m going to give you some honest perspective from my short three years of experiences at the largest evangelical Christian university in the world.
So here’s another piece of my journey, transparently and graciously laid out with the hope you can make space.
This is what it’s like to be in a minority attending a school built by a moral majority.
It was in the fall of 2014 that an awkward, scrawny, high-voiced embodiment of teenage cynicism stepped tepidly onto the pavement on Liberty University’s East Campus. This was my new normal. This was my new home. Everything was changing, and I was floored.
At the time, my future was as bright as the light of evangelicalism shining deep inside me. The promise of the largest evangelical Christian university in the world was immense, and I was in every way expectant for what I could learn, experience, and the connections I would build throughout my education.
Having been raised in traditional Lutheran schools, this was my promised land.
I grew up in a conservative Assemblies of God family with loving, gracious parents and two beautiful younger sisters. In the region of Michigan from whence I came, you won’t find very many Baptist or mainstream Protestant educational environments aside from Lutheran schools, such being of the conservative Missouri Synod variety (not the vastly more progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).
I was active in every way, spending my school days as accompanist to our choirs, student director for our contemporary worship team, and serving on the weekends as a keyboardist at my family’s church.
Yet as you know if you’ve been following along, I had already been confronted with the immensity of my deepest secret: I’m gay.
Perhaps this new context could help me walk out of this “struggle”, and since the move was proving immensely stressful, it was the last thing on which I would expend any mental energy.
With this as my frame of reference, Liberty seemed to me the shining city on a hill into which years of pent-up liturgical angst swiftly propelled me. It was big, it was loud, and it was modern. Initial homesickness aside, to say I loved it would be a profound understatement. Liberty was everything I had wanted it to be and more.
Until it wasn’t.
The first major blow to my optimism came on December 4th, 2015. Shortly after the shooting in San Bernadino, California, Liberty’s President Jerry Falwell, Jr., made remarks during a routine Convocation on the campus’s new concealed carry push: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed us.”
He said this to a laughing, cheering audience of his most ardent supporters: his students.
I was among them, sitting on the far side of the room, shocked by the statements but humored by President Falwell’s dry wit and predictably terrible public speaking skills. I’d never imagined him as vicious or uncaring, just a poor communicator.
We laughed. We clapped. We celebrated.
Let’s step back and this question: what provoked this jubilant response?
Guns. Death. Violence.
Rhetoric certainly worthy of the label “Christian”.
These incidences became the norm as President Falwell would later give his full endorsement of then-candidate Trump, revel in partisanship, advocate on behalf of white evangelicals and their interests, and through it all, give utter disregard for the damage he was doing to his and the school’s reputation.
Yet much of the student body appeared to relish in it. We were in the spotlight making liberals mad, neoconservatives uncomfortable, and Jesus famous through our belligerent militarization of “gospel” – good news for white, straight evangelicals.
Any public opposition fed the narrative.
As all of this was happening, an internal war was being waged over my sexuality. By way of a thoughtfully composed blog-turned-letter that fall, I had acknowledged to my family my “struggles with same-sex attraction”. This was a form of coming out, though it made clear I was not affirming myself as a gay man. It offered the vague but hopeful assertion I could have a future relationship with a woman.
As you may already know, this internal tension between what I believed and what I was experiencing began to rip me apart, plunging me into one of the most difficult seasons of my life. As the spring of 2016 dragged on with a sizable serving of emotional volatility, I became the saddest I had ever been, certainly a first brush with what had hitherto been a foreign concept: depression. Thanks to a recent heartbreak, no longer was the abstract idea of lifelong loneliness a mild source of discontent in me; it was now at the forefront of my mind, forcing me to confront the devastating reality that my theology and that of my community would never allow me the freedom to be with a man I truly loved.
For a time, I found solace in the words of fellow gay Christians who had committed themselves to celibacy. As you may already know, this wouldn’t last.
I also found my community at Liberty to be wonderful in providing some reprieve from my struggles. Friends embraced me, prayed for me, listened to me process my feelings, and supported me through a genuinely dark time. I had become more politically progressive, engaging in fun and sometimes difficult conversations around big topics that seemed of interest to me. My emotional state at the time lent itself towards a greater empathy that would stay with me and develop my positions on a number of social and humanitarian issues.
My own fractured heart enabled me to see the damage wrought every day in the name of ideals I had never questioned.
Through my shift in paradigm, I observed the harshness of the conservatism I had known, and as it was trampled underfoot by the lunacy of the 2016 Presidential Campaign, I saw the tribalism surrounding me as symptomatic of deeper systemic issues. I perceived the tendency towards a lack of Christ-likeness in the politics of my origin, where capitalism was God’s economy and an embrace of any progressivism could lead down that slippery slope towards atheism (itself simply an extension of liberalism). Everything was grounded in and around fiscal, social, and theological conservatism.
If there is anything central to the heartbeat of Liberty University, it is conservatism.
This is certainly not universally true of its students or faculty, and I would never assert that to be the case.
It was hard enough working through an ideological evolution into political progressivism in this environment. I became increasingly anxious during Convocation, frustrated with the intellectual dishonesty and rampant militant partisanship displayed on stage. Pastors spoke not just as spiritual leaders, but as political advocates. Lines were blurred and in set fatigue.
Over time, it became the platform from which my humanity and beliefs were routinely attacked.
Yet this period of my life would graciously push me over the ledge into self-affirmation of my sexuality – suddenly the loneliness I had once experienced became a very different form of loneliness. Only this time, it wasn’t for fear of never finding companionship: it was the fear of being cast out and rejected by my community for who I am and what I believe, compounded by the understanding that I was locked into something I didn’t really want anymore.
Evangelicalism, even as a diverse array of beliefs undergirding theological and political convictions, is largely held together by individuals’ intellectual assent to a series of propositional truths. I had begun actively transgressing these core values.
The spring semester ended with me frustrated, sad, and confused.
By this point, when asked by friends and family how I liked Liberty, my response had evolved from exuberance to a restrained “I don’t like the school, but I love my friends.”
What was once the most exciting facet of my life became that which threatened to undermine everything I had hoped and dreamed; and my frustrations with my degree program, the school, and the administration only continued to fester until I reached a point of utter resentment, a sentiment since transfigured into a drive towards justice.
Graduation, while a realistic goal, was no longer a promising invitation into the future. It would be my confrontation with what I now considered a terribly misguided decision.
My degree had become a liability, and I would pay for it – in more ways than one – for the rest of my life.
I came back for the fall of my junior year, fully cognizant that I was now the black sheep of Liberty University, and I knew of no one like me.
Gay, progressive, and a post-evangelical Christian.
Once fully sold-out on the ideals and promise of evangelicalism, now jaded and disillusioned with my religion and its institutions.
Election season only hastened the disillusionment.
I watched as my school’s president defended on national television the sexual predator who would later become President of the United States. (President Falwell soon blocked me on Twitter.)
I watched as the student body embraced nationalism with more fervor than I could have ever imagined, in part thanks to the relentless activism of its dear leader.
I sat through Convocations as they increasingly became politically-charged, hosting some of the least respected names in all of “journalism” and governance.
Thankfully, we had some brave students making noise, speaking truth to power in their ever expanding spheres of influence. I witnessed friends participate in protest against the administration, publicly and on social media, as many of us refused to abide in an institution partly responsible for supporting demagoguery.
I began to see the value in dissent, in living a prophetic life.
My political differences and theological convictions had taken shape, and silence was not an option.
I would have to be careful, quiet, and only when it offered to make a positive difference in my community would I give myself license to speak. I began telling close friends very slowly, having difficult though sometimes productive conversations. My willingness to engage in discourse notwithstanding, these conversations typically ended with the ever-painful “I love you even though we disagree on these things”.
Yet it hurt, and though I longed for optimism, the pain only grew.
It was my experience with a certain Convocation guest near the end of 2016 that best illustrates my point.
Her name was Rosaria Butterfield, a woman who had previously been an LGBTQ activist, but was now a Reformed Christian activist, speaking at conferences and church gatherings on sexual ethics along with the apparent dangers of LGBTQ affirmation. In her former life, she was partnered with a woman and heavily involved with her LGBTQ community.
One friendly Reformed pastor and open-minded read through Scripture later, she was a converted believer, readily embracing her new identity as a Christian and stepping out of her old way of living.
I had seen her listed on the schedule and was increasingly anxious as the day drew near. Knowing who she was ahead of time had allowed me to brace for what was sure to be a frustrating exercise in spiritual discipline.
Though I thought myself ready, I was in no way prepared for this experience.
Ms. Butterfield is a very kind individual, wise, experienced, and highly intellectual. She communicates with a cerebral effervescence that keeps you engaged and emotionally invested. More than just a unique story, her rise to prominence in non-affirming circles is due in large part to her communication skills; presenting like a professor in any prestigious university, she spoke with dignified eloquence and thoughtful restraint.
As well-spoken as she was, no amount of syntactic complexity could cover for the fundamentals of her message as she proceeded to throw LGBTQ lives under the proverbial bus in the name of “righteousness”.
So did my peers.
Sitting through her talk, I knew she was striking just the right tone and saying just the right things so as to capture the heart of the student body. Not only was she playing to the evangelical crowd’s fierce opposition to LGBTQ affirmation, but she was conveying her message in an academic, intellectual voice undergirded by strong appeals to Scripture, philosophy, and the narrative threads whose confluence weaved a moving story.
She was all but guaranteed a standing ovation.
And she got it.
Beyond the ways in which I fundamentally disagreed with Ms. Butterfield, what hurt most was not what she had to say – it was seeing thousands my peers rise collectively to applaud this theology that continues to cost real lives as it denies humanity, elevates abstract platitudes over and above its tangibly dangerous implications, and promulgates a culture war whose victims are not on a side, but needlessly suffering in the middle.
I watched as almost every human being in the room stood to celebrate that which was not only a pedantic argument, but a traumatizing ideal imposed upon those to whom it was addressed, those already reckoning with intense marginalization.
They clapped as I bled.
I remember the overwhelming sense of grief, the kind that reduces a person into a fragile shell. Following Convocation and imbalanced discourse with some friends over lunch, I walked briskly back to my dorm, both livid and distressed by the way in which the day had unfolded. My social media feeds where filled with posts from friends and fellow Liberty students lavishing praise upon Ms. Butterfield, reposting links to clips and the live feed.
My emotional state translated any single post past which I scrolled into an emotional uppercut, amplifying my pain in orders of magnitude.
Walking into my room, I angrily paced as I attempted with great futility to process my emotions.
It would take well over six months of similar experiences and exposure to the proper language for me to possess a vocabulary capable of describing what I felt: spiritual trauma.
I walked into my closet and sat on the floor.
I tried to find some light in the darkness.
Eventually, I would learn how to remain secure in myself even as I suffered through traumatic experiences or situations. I’ve learned the value of making space, offering safety to those who’ve walked through life’s deepest valleys though most others appear reticent in willing to grant them rest from the pain.
Though I remained committed to a life that affirmed my sexuality and pursued justice, finding liberation in a greater community wherein that freedom is perceived as sin comes at great cost.
I’ve not yet found the limits to this cost.
I came back for my spring semester fragile, yet empowered to re-enter the Liberty bubble with a new frame of reference, hoping to apply with renewed fervor the many lessons I’d gleaned through my many difficult experiences.
As painful as this semester would be at its start, there would inevitably come a twist of the very best kind I did not anticipate as remotely possible, especially at Liberty.
I had a boyfriend.
Understandably, it took us a while to begin allowing others into the reality that we’re dating, but it’s also provided an opportunity to engage with our non-affirming friends in a unique way. For me, it offers the chance to legitimize – humanize – something that, for many, was a distant idea without much implication in their lives. It was something with which to disagree in the name of moral purity, but most hadn’t been personally presented with the possibility of two Christians of the same sex in a committed relationship fully believing God affirmed it.
While it makes for awkward conversation, it’s far more compelling; no longer is someone disavowing an idea – they must now disavow the genuine and authentic relationship in which two people close to them are lovingly participating.
At the very least, it presents one with a paradigm shift.
So what does it look like to be gay at Liberty University?
At least, it’s not something to be “seen”.
While Liberty’s code of student conduct makes explicitly clear sexual involvement with another outside of God’s strict “design” for male-female marriage is entirely illicit, and a punishable offense, it doesn’t prohibit the basic public displays of affection to which most couples don’t give a second thought.
That is, if they’re straight.
For a gay couple at Liberty, you run the genuine risk of confrontation from anyone in student leadership at any moment. I’m not privy to information regarding what is asked of RA’s and other students in leadership capacities when they’re confronted with same-sex public displays of affection, so I can’t necessarily say what is to be expected if we’re caught holding hands, per se.
But beyond the possibility of being reported to Student Conduct (and the subsequent “mandatory” counseling sessions that would follow), there is no doubt that to engage in these sorts of behaviors renders one subject to the judgment of fellow students. For me and my boyfriend to walk across campus holding hands would not only be entirely out of the ordinary, but it would be something I have never seen before.
Nor have I heard of such a thing happening.
While there are certainly those LGBTQ students on campus maintaining a low profile, I’ve not met many of them. If we’re to keep the peace and avoid the weight of the administration, it’s best to keep quiet, careful, avoiding any and all attention. Only through the reach of this blog and those willing to share my work have I been able to establish contact with Liberty students (outside my pre-existing group of friends) who also identify as LGBTQ+.
No matter what you believe, you must understand this: Liberty University is not a safe space for LGBTQ students.
The institution teaches and enforces non-affirming theology, and a majority of students hold to those same basic tenets of conservative theology. Because of this, LGBTQ students are not allowed to flourish.
Don’t believe me?
I don’t feel safe holding my boyfriend’s hand on campus.
I’ve never felt safe acknowledging my sexuality on public forums where other Liberty students, including students in leadership, can see what I’ve written.
My sexuality is not acknowledged as legitimate by the institution or its leaders.
I have friends who have been reported to Student Conduct because of their sexuality.
Transgender and non-binary students are routinely discriminated against and shamed by Liberty’s policies and students. (If you still don’t believe me, ask them.)
For a few months, my ability to graduate with my declared degree was an open question simply because no church in Liberty’s purview would be willing to grant an openly gay student an internship.
LGBTQ lives and relationships are routinely denounced as sinful and dangerous from platforms – large and small – by faculty and guest speakers.
Many of us live with incessant fear of losing scholarships, university jobs, positions of leadership, ministry opportunities, our academic standing, and even our ability to graduate should the right people in power learn of how we live.
While we’re capable of surviving perfectly adequately in our context, it’s not without great sacrifice. By virtue of the institution’s unwillingness to affirm our lives, we’re forced into silence, listening and watching as our neighbors maintain a dangerous status quo at the expense of our humanity, all the while posting every which way on social media so as to remind us of the shame to which we’ve long been numbed.
I refuse to be complicit in keeping a violent peace.
So – where do I go from here?
Well, it’s complicated, but I have one year left at Liberty; my hope is to leverage any and all influence I have towards affecting change and fostering a safe space for LGBTQ individuals like myself to find community, love, and affirmation. Liberty would never sanction such a thing in a formal capacity, but I have lofty dreams of graduating having begun a nascent, under-the-radar organization capable of meeting the needs of those it seeks to serve.
One of the practical ways in which I’m attempting to make a difference is simply by writing. Telling my story has given me the unique opportunity to raise my voice, and it affords you the opportunity to see beyond black and white text into another human being’s life.
For those in similar positions to myself, know that your story is a treasure – if you can’t share it publicly, don’t feel pressured to do so. No one is entitled to your heart, so guard it thusly – practice self-care.
Beyond sharing my experiences, I also desire to further foster dialogue with fellow Liberty students, particularly those non-affirming friends who have a willingness to listen. If anything, my hope is that my witness as a gay Christian on campus will have some measurable impact in my immediate context.
I don’t like Liberty University.
But I believe this can change.
Slowly, patiently, and with great Love – the kind that hopes against all odds – it can change.
Yet we have a lot of work to do, and it is my intention to make space where there is no space, shine a light where there is no light, and include where exclusion is the standard.
And I know I’m not even scratching the surface – but it’s a start.
We must speak truth to power, earnestly seek the dismantling of oppressive systems, give generously even when it hurts, participate in local organizations that meet local needs, and continue using our unique voices to make clear that social justice is something for which we must fight.
It’s Good News.
For those of us on the margins, it’s a matter of survival.