I read with great interest that Liberty University filed a suit against its former president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. Liberty says that he damaged its reputation after last year’s revelations of “a years-long sexual relationship involving Falwell; his wife, Becki; and another man, Giancarlo Granda.” It’s ironic to watch this institution paint itself as a victim, when it has victimized so many of its own students. I was one of them.
I still vividly remember my meetings with Dane Emerick, Liberty’s former in-house conversion “therapist” and the pastor I met with over the span of my undergraduate studies. At Emerick’s behest, I was consistently expected to offer a detailed stock of my teenage sexual history and activity. He told me that despite being attracted to men, I was not actually gay but, rather, a heterosexual “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
He claimed that living “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that is) would lead to years of unhappiness and ultimately to hell. And as a college freshman at the age of 18, I thoroughly believed him.
Now, over a decade later, I am one of 33 plaintiffs suing the U.S. Department of Education. Brought by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, the lawsuit centers on the question of whether or not religious colleges and universities (mostly of the evangelical or Mormon varieties) should receive federal funds while actively discriminating against their LGBTQ+ students.
I joined this class action lawsuit — at least in part — because of how Liberty “dealt” with me as a gay student when I attended from 2008-2012.
I chose to attend Liberty because, as a kid who was a part of a faith tradition that hated queer people, I earnestly thought I could become straight, and I knew that Liberty had a program for it. For years, Liberty has offered one-on-one conversion “therapy,” a bogus pseudo-scientific attempt to change individuals’ sexual orientations and/or gender identities/expressions. The school has also offered a group version of this “treatment.”
These programs tried to convince me that I desperately wanted to be straight. They were of course wrong, and they should never have been offered in the first place. As experts have established, conversion “therapy” catalyzes and compounds a litany of psychological issues, and many even recognize it as a form of torture. Thus, it is deeply troubling that Liberty, an institution which receives millions of taxpayer dollars annually, wreaks such havoc on its LGBTQ+ students.
I wholeheartedly acknowledge that everyone has the right to practice their religion freely. I also know that trying to turn people straight does not constitute religion.
Rather, at Liberty and elsewhere, conversion “therapy” is homophobia cloaked in the false robes of Christian “love” for LGBTQ+ persons. This cruelty and discrimination should not be supported using federal funds, and this harmful practice should be outlawed all together.
In addition to my personal motivations for attending Liberty, there are a number of reasons why other LGBTQ+ students attend the school. For some, their parents would only finance their education if they went to Liberty. For others, they received scholarships, which made it possible to afford college. And for still others, they went to Liberty because they simply didn’t know any better after being raised in repressive evangelical households and churches.
The motivations to attend are as numerous as there are LGBTQ+ students at the school. But what ultimately unites so many of us are our experiences of shame, guilt, and anxiety, in concert with our experiences of fear and self-hatred, that are a product of Liberty’s anti-queer campus culture. It should not have to be said, but I will say it nonetheless: No student should have to deal with such emotional and psychological onslaughts nor should any student ever face discrimination, exclusion, and/or spiritual violence while at college.
This is yet another reason why I’m part of this lawsuit: To stand with the countless LGBTQ+ students whose lived experiences expose the wrongdoings of Liberty and of similar institutions. To stand with my friend Eli Germanotta (they/them) who also went to Liberty. One night while walking back to their dorm, the word FAGGOT was spray-painted on their back by a group of male Liberty students.
To stand with my friend Tessa Russell (she/her) whose resident advisor forced her to return to Liberty’s campus and humiliatingly followed her to her room until she climbed into bed simply because she suspected that Tessa was out with another woman.
And to stand with the dozens of LGBTQ+ students and alumni who have reached out to me over the past year and described the numerous ways that Liberty administrators, professors, and students have targeted them for simply being their queer, beautiful selves.
While it’s fascinating to follow Liberty’s action against Jerry Falwell Jr. for his misdeeds, Liberty should take a hard look at its own wrongdoings. I’m suing the Department of Education because I want to see that what happened to me, my friends, and other LGBTQ+ students at religious colleges happens no longer — or at least not on the American taxpayer’s dime. If we are successful in this lawsuit, Liberty and schools like it will finally be forced to choose: either treat LGBTQ+ students equally and with dignity or find another way to finance their homophobia.
The Justice, Equity, and Transformation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Calgary, Dr. Lucas Wilson has contributed to The Advocate, Queerty, LGBTQ Nation, Religion Dispatches and RVA Magazine.