For some LGBTQ students at Lynchburg’s Liberty University, life was tough even before coronavirus came to campus.
Eli Germanotta had finished their meal at the Reber-Thomas Dining Hall and started to walk back to their dorm when they began to smell alcohol and spray paint.
“There were jocks running away shouting slurs like faggot,” said Germanotta.
Once Germanotta, who uses they/their pronouns, returned back to their dorm located on the east side of campus, they took off their jacket and laid it out on their bed. Spray painted in large letters on the back was the same word that their peers had yelled at them as they walked away from the dining room.
As demeaning and possibly traumatizing as the experience was, Germanotta didn’t consider the event surprising, since it had occurred at a University that has proudly proclaimed itself “Politically Incorrect since 1971.”
Conservative activist and televangelist Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church, had a vision that came to life in 1971: a fundamentalist Christian university located in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia.
Originally named Lynchburg Baptist College and housing 154 students, Liberty University has become one of the largest evangelical Christian universities in the world and one of the largest private non-profit universities in the United States, with a student body of over 15,000.
“From the beginning, the goal was not to create another bible college,” said Falwell Sr, quoted on Liberty University’s website. “The vision was to create academic excellence, world-class facilities, NCAA Division-One athletics, student activities, and to provide it all with a distinctly Christian environment.”
When Falwell Sr. passed away in 2007 at the age of 73, his sons took up his work. Jerry Falwell Jr. became the president of Liberty, while Jonathan Falwell became the senior pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. Both men still hold those positions today.
Even though the University and its founder have been known to take an anti-LGBTQ stance, the school still welcomes students who are members of the LGBTQ community — as long as they obey the school’s guidelines.
Germanotta was raised in a Christian conservative household outside of Richmond in the Mechanicsville area. Despite the environment of their upbringing, Germanotta knew from an early point in their life that they were gay.
“Whenever the fantasies about who I wanted to be with happened, it was always a guy. I’ve always had an open mind about things,” said Germanotta. “I just never expressed those views because of how my family environment was.”
While Germanotta was in their senior year of high school, their parents made it clear that the only option for college they would support was a Christian one. They chose Liberty after making a friend group at “College for a Weekend,” where the school welcomes prospective students to spend four days attending classes, staying in dorms and eating in dining halls.
During their first two semesters at the religious University, Germanotta enjoyed the friendships they made in addition to the education they were receiving. It wasn’t until their sophomore year when things began to become complicated.
Another student in a biology class asked Germanotta for their phone number so the two could study for an upcoming test. Once the other student discovered that both of them lived on East Campus, he suggested they meet in a treehouse, to which Germanotta agreed.
“He crawled in after me and asked all these questions about where I was from and if I was seeing anyone,” said Germanotta.
After a while of questions and uncomfortable interaction, the other student got in front of Germanotta’s face and pulled down his pants, asking if they would give him a blowjob. Germanotta refused to perform the sexual act, pushed the other student away, and left the treehouse.
Germanotta reported the incident both to his residence hall assistant and Title IX services. The University took no further action against the student who had harassed Germanotta, but moved him to a different dorm on campus. Title IX failed to act, both when Germanotta reported the incident in the treehouse and when their jacket was spray painted.
Although Liberty University was apathetic about the harassment they had endured, the school did take action when they began showing their own homosexuality more overtly.
Students at the fundamentalist Christian college are required to abide by their student honor code, termed the “Liberty Way.” Among the violations in the code is a prohibition against “sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.”
“They leave it specific enough to scare you but vague enough to do whatever they want,” said Germanotta.
During their time at Liberty, they had become involved in a secret romantic relationship with a male student from another college. When they posted a photo of the two of them kissing in front of a Christmas tree to their private instagram page, someone following them reported the photo to the school’s Residence Life office.
Germanotta’s response was to write the Residence Life office a letter saying they had been dared to kiss the other student. However, this didn’t dissuade the university’s pursuit of the matter, and eventually, they were required to meet with Pastors at the school’s Community Life office. The meeting pertained to a series of “red flag” behaviors that had been reported to school officials, pertaining to their actions and views on homosexuality.
“If, for example, I was in an old-testamant class and they brought up homosexuality and I wrote an essay about what I thought about it, versus what they wanted me to say about it, it would get a failing grade,” said Germanotta. “A lot of those little flags got sent to Residence Life.”
Germanotta was required to meet with Pastor Dane Emerick twice a week to look into what “god’s word” had to say about their behavior. When they began skipping their required meetings, the school sent him a voicemail threatening to drop them from a class. Germanotta decided they’d had enough.
“The environment there beyond the administration level is toxic,” they said. “I decided to drop out because I was tired of all the pressure that student conduct was putting on me.”
Liberty University’s long history of holding anti-LGBTQ and other socially conservative views reflects the political orientation of both men who have presided over the school. Both Jerry Falwell Sr. and his son have been known to support right-wing politicians while denouncing liberal causes such as gay marriage and abortion.
Days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Falwell Sr. stated in a televised interview with fellow Virginia-based televangelist Pat Robertson, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
In the late 1970s, Falwell Sr. launched the Moral Majority, a political organization which would become a driving force behind conservative politics in the ensuing decade. The organization lobbied on issues it believed were important to maintaining Christian moral law.
Before the Moral Majority’s dissolution in the late 80s, the organization had over four million members and over two million donors. Falwell Sr. would go on to credit the Republican group with Ronald Reagan’s election victories.
Prior to his political activism with the Moral Majority, Falwell Sr. made public comments about his skepticism toward civil rights activists.
“I must personally say that I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others who are known to have left wing associations.” said Jerry Falwell Sr. while giving a sermon in 1965.
His son has followed in his father’s footsteps, supporting Republican causes while running the evangelical university. To the shock and disappointment of other Christian conservatives, Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and has called conservatives critical of Trump “fake Republicans.”
Some members of the LGBTQ community on Liberty’s campus have had a much more positive experience than Germanotta’s, despite some of the school’s history and policies.
“When I first came to Liberty I was closeted, so the school’s history of LGBT issues never crossed my mind,” said Jonah Lackey, an LGBTQ student at Liberty majoring in Cinematic Arts.
Lackey contends that his experience at Falwell’s college has strengthened his faith and pride in being gay. Growing up in a Christian home made him believe that one would have to choose between being gay or being a Christian. But Lackey says that meeting other gay Christians on campus made him rethink the dichotomy and realize you can be both.
“Once my perspective changed from ‘being gay is a choice’ to ‘God made me gay’, my entire way of seeing the Bible in regards to this issue has changed,” said Lackey. “Issues with the school regarding the LGBT community are highly complex, but I think people would be surprised at the amount of staff who are loving and encouraging,”
According to Lackey, the stigma around homosexuality is changing dramatically among the younger student body, which is gradually creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment within the school.
“Now that homosexuality is being more widely excepted in American culture, people are starting to realize they know more gay people, and it’s causing them to re-examine their thoughts on the issue,” said Lackey. “For professors there’s still a negative sense, but I’m starting to see that less and less amongst students.”
Even Falwell Jr. has made small attempts to back away from his previously outspoken opposition to LGBTQ rights. In an appearance on Fox & Friends in 2019, he claimed he had never made any comment about gay rights, and that people misrepresent Liberty University as being anti-LGBTQ.
Weeks prior to his comments on the show, though, Falwell Jr. denied transgender identidies at a CPAC event, saying that God chooses the gender of people. These comments later sparked a small protest on Liberty’s campus, showing that things are indeed changing at the Christian university. For their part, though, Germanotta is still upset by Falwell Jr.’s continued comments.
“If you opened your mind as much as you opened your mouth we’d all be in a better place,” said Germanotta. “If you read some of the original Jewish or Greek translations of the bible, you might find something that’s a little different.”
Germanotta is currently studying studio arts at the University of Lynchburg with ambitions of a photography career. They are also minoring in gender studies, psychology, and business.
“I don’t constantly look over my shoulder anymore,” said Germanotta. “I don’t have people looking at me with a funny face every time I wear makeup. I can do whatever I want to express my gender and I’m not belittled because of it.”
Top Photo via Liberty University