We live in strange, exciting, and unstable times. Perhaps most people do, or at least they feel that they do when they’re stuck in the middle of it, but it’s not unreasonable to say that things like the culture wars are coming to a head, reaching a zenith that began it’s arc a little over 30 years ago.
And that’s why I get a bit frustrated when I see so much attention given to articles like Brian Ambrosino’s piece for the Atlantic about coming out as gay while attending Liberty University.
It’s not that I have a problem with Ambrosino or with his story. While I find it somewhat unbelivable, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was luckier than people like Marc Adams, who was forced to go to reparative therapy at Liberty because of his homosexuality.
That being said, Ambrosino’s article focuses on the people he encountered and entirely ignores the message being sent.
What do I mean? Let’s look at some examples.
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.
When I heard her sniffle, I looked up at her. “It’s going to be ok,” she said. “You’re ok.” She nodded her head, squeezed my shoulder, and repeated, “I love you.”
She sounds like a really nice person, and I think that’s great, but it doesn’t change that the university officially prohibits any non-marital sexual relations which, by its nature, includes same-sex sex until such time as the law changes (and even then I suspect they won’t count the marriages as valid). This is the school that employs Matt Barber. He goes on to talk about the people who didn’t immediately start hissing and throwing holy water at him and seems to think that this is somehow remarkable or unique. But here’s where I really lose it.
Well, what about Jerry Falwell himself? After all, he did blame 9/11 on the gays. He did make that remark during service about “even barnyard animals knowing better than that.” He also did make certain to ban Soul Force, a gay-affirming Christian ministry, from stepping foot on our campus.
Yes. Yes, he did. He did all of those things and so much more. I agree with Chris Hitchens who said, “If you gave Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox”. He spent the majority of his adult life calling homosexuality a “perversion”, viciously attacking anybody who spoke positively of LGBT people, and violently abusing the English language in the process. He is in many respects the father of the organized anti-gay movement. Yes, he was a terrible person and should be remembered as such.
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?
What about those things? Seriously, what about them? Are we saying that it’s ok to hurt people as long as you help a comparable number of other people? It does not matter what else he’d done if he remained an unapologetic bigot the rest of his life. The animus that he has inspired in the religious right against LGBT people is still a driving force in today’s politics, and I’m supposed to give a shit that he drove around campus at grown-up bedtime every night re-enacting his personal version of the Waltons?
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.
Again, we have this attempt to humanize Falwell, but it falls a little flat. He slid down a water slide in his suit? He wore a blue afro wig? So? I wonder if Ambrosino is under the impression that in order to be a horrible bigot, you have to be one all the time to every person?
As to the rest of that paragraph, first of all, what does he mean “allowed”? I’ve mocked Jerry Falwell at many a coffeehouse, and my house, and now on this blog, all without his express or even implied permission. This is not a sign of goodness or humility. The very fact that the rules of Liberty University make it so that a student can be awarded “demerits” and subsequently fined (more on that later) for mocking Falwell or anybody else that they want to protect makes his forbearance in this regard pretty dastardly. “I will punish you for speaking your mind about people who we approve of, but I won’t enforce that if you light-heartedly rib me a bit at this one spot on campus.”
Finally, we get his proclamations of love. I really, really hate hearing shit like this from Falwell, because it reads as obligation, not actual feeling. He didn’t “love” those students. He didn’t even know most of them! Had never met them in person. But because his faith tells him he has to love everybody, he throws around the word and the concept to mean “not feel active, constant animosity.” I am much more inclined to believe Roberto Benigni than I am to believe these people who claim to love everybody without reservation, especially when they behave like Falwell.
I never told Dr. Falwell that I was gay; but I wouldn’t have been afraid of his response. Would he have thought homosexuality was an abomination? Yes. Would he have thought it was God’s intention for me to be straight? Yes. But would he have wanted to stone me? No. 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.
Again, we have an example of where he seems to think the perfectly mundane is somehow extraordinary. You mean Jerry Falwell wouldn’t have either actively attempted to or idly allowed other people to violently murder you with rocks? Shocker! No, even Falwell would have realized that calling for stoning of gay people was a political non-starter, a public advocacy that gets you nothing but a job writing curriculum for Ron Paul’s homeschool program.
Not endorsing murder while trying to make the lives of LGBT people as miserable as possible is not some sort of praiseworthy act. Ambrosino discusses part of Falwell’s strategy earlier in the article when he says that the big fear wasn’t that gay students would be kicked out, it’s that their fellow students would spend time publicly and conspicuously “praying for” them, which indicates to me that when he says that most of the students weren’t bigots, what he means is that most of them weren’t actively calling for his murder, but certainly had no problem harassing queer students with their “prayers.”
And let’s not forget that not automatically expelling students even suspected of being gay like at BYU or BJU is not some act of altruism, it’s an act of greed. You see, at Liberty University when you break any of their ridiculous rules, you are given demerits. In order to remain in good academic standing, you have to clear those off the books, and the way to do that is by paying fines to the university. So instead of just kicking them out, they bleed gay kids (and kids who curse, watch R-rated movies, or hug for more than three seconds) dry of their cash first, then kick them out for not clearing the demerits off the books. That’s not tolerance, it’s a scam to bilk more money out of their students on top of the tuition they pay for a sub-standard education.
The thing is, I have absolutely no doubt that one on one Jerry Falwell was a gracious and kind person. He wouldn’t actively spit in my face, at the very least. Similarly, I think the “dinner table debate” between Dan Savage and Brian Brown showed that Brown doesn’t carry lighter fluid to set all gay people on fire wherever he goes. I have no doubt that Antonin Scalia is a wonderful host despite being one of the most corrupt and statutorily challenged Justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court, and would treat me as an honored guest if I were to go to his home. Just as I wouldn’t call him a homophobic, misogynistic, wingnut who’s approach to jurisprudence is “whatever I don’t like is illegal.”
We often will treat people in front of us differently than we treat them in the abstract. That’s why dehumanizing tactics like the ones that Falwell perfected are so useful: it’s harder to show animosity to people who you know as people than it is to show it to a vaguely defined group that you can make embody everything that people will fear the most. It’s why I know several people who think that queer people are perverts bent on the destruction of America and banishment of god from all corners of life, but also think I’m a good guy.
What Ambrosino seems to be arguing is that a person’s personal behavior should be used to counterbalance their public behavior, and I can’t buy into that. Unrelated good works don’t cancel out terrible actions, no matter how good they are. No amount of personal kindness makes up for political viciousness.
When you’re involved in activism on any level, the ability to maintain healthy relationships depends on your ability to recognize that people are complex, and sometimes it is necessary to attack a person’s position, even if they are close to you. It’s not always easy, but pretending that personal graciousness gives somebody a public free pass does nothing but enforce that bad behavior has no social consequences. This doesn’t mean that you have to jump down everybody’s throat about everything, but it does mean that reminding them not to use “gay” as a slur, or that something being a “sincerely held belief” doesn’t make it any less bigoted, are entirely appropriate, even to your friends.
We can’t pretend that the political and the personal are separate realms that never intersect. Even my pro-LGBT friends who vote Republican are still voting for policies that will negatively affect me, and they need to know that I adore their personal support, but I can still be fired in my state for who I am and they are facilitating that. Sorry, but that’s the case.
The way that we approach those closest to us is different than the way we debate in public, but a realization that our friends can and should be better people should always be present. We, too, can and should be better people, so hopefully our friends will be there to help us leave bad ideas behind and embrace better ones.