On Aug. 24 Jerry Falwell Jr. announced that he would be resigning from Liberty University, the Virginia-based, evangelical Christian school his televangelist father founded, after a former Miami pool attendant confirmed that he’d had an extramarital relationship with Falwell’s wife, and that sometimes Falwell watched.
Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Liberty University, was known for merging religion and politics during the Reagan era with the Moral Majority, an anti-LGBTQ political organization. As a transgender lesbian who grew up in rural Virginia during the ’90s, it was hard for me to not take a certain vicious glee in the news about Falwell Jr. The Falwells were a household name in Virginia, even for dysfunctional secular families like mine. While I had the freedom as a teen to listen to punk rock and sneak a Pansy Division T-shirt into my wardrobe — the closest admission of queer leanings I could get away with at the time — I still lived in a staunchly Southern Baptist environment. I was the goat at the left hand of Jesus, and the sheep never let me forget. Instead of trying to assimilate, I left and haven’t been back to Virginia since my dad died in 2012.
Not everyone chooses to leave the flock.
Silas Musick is a proud father, horse whisperer, transgender man and Liberty University alumni. “It is a conservative evangelical Christian school,” he says, “and that is a lot of the reason why students apply and attend. I was one of those students. I grew up in a Southern Baptist preacher’s home and that was my ideology and belief system.”
While Falwell Jr.’s behavior has been a source of concern at Liberty for years, his recent resignation marks the end of an era. “There’s this part of you that feels vindicated by someone else’s wrongdoing in this context,” says Musick, “but then, when I actually started to peel back the layers, I have a lot of empathy for it, because I think that they’ve created a system that aims at perfection and human behavior that should only operate a certain way, and I know that that is completely limiting of who we are as human beings. There’s a part of me that feels bad that they continue to try to create standards that don’t allow for all the mess that we are as humans. I am completely baffled that students can be held to one standard and leadership completely negating that in such overt ways.”
Liberty University enforces a strict set of rules, called “the Liberty Way,” for students both on and off campus. “In hindsight I realize that is a way for them to legally require things that other schools don’t require,” explains Musick, “because it’s a separate document and every student signs off on it. The fine print says ‘if you break any of these rules, then disciplinary actions can be taken.’ It’s things like ‘no drinking’ and ‘no sexual activity of any kind,’ so it’s very biblically based. It’s a different culture because it creates standards and expectations that aren’t upheld in most other school settings.”
The constant fear of violating the Liberty Way creates a strict environment for students, especially for those who are struggling with their gender or sexual orientation. But, Musick says, “For most of us, at least for me, that was what our childhood felt like anyway. The church can be a very strict environment trying to enforce the belief system, or at least the idea of it.”
In that way, Musick is familiar with the family dynamics of the Falwell scandal. “There was this understanding, in the Southern Baptist world at least, that [a] pastor’s kids were the worst and they rebelled the most,” he says. “I look at that and I think if my dad were Jerry Falwell Sr. and I were Jerry Falwell Jr. then, you know, what has that extreme upbringing created? That doesn’t justify bad behavior and it doesn’t excuse what he’s done, but I think it speaks to the fact that these extremes can create some other extremes, like the outcome of what was seeded so early on. ... Part of me feels so angry, and part of me thinks it’s comical and hilarious, and then part of me is like ‘this is awful that it even continues, that there is an environment where complete hypocrisy exists and people still invest their lives into it.’ That saddens me — and I experienced this at Focus on the Family too — there are some wonderful, heartful people that exist in these organizations and entities, and yet the broader organization has made things look so scandalous and disgusting that it discolors the people who are a part of it.”
Despite his strong faith upbringing, Musick almost didn’t graduate from Liberty U. “I ended up sharing with a resident director about my same-sex relationship,” he says, “and the result of that was complete disciplinary action. My scholarships were taken away, I was removed from leadership, I was placed in therapy. I had to move across campus to a different dorm. I had to do community service. I was completely forbidden from seeing the person I was in the relationship with, and I was threatened with being completely kicked out of school with one semester left.”
Breaking with family and social institutions is, unfortunately, a rite of passage in the queer community. Religious institutions, which in small, rural communities are often as much of a social network as a spiritual guide, have long alienated LGBTQ people from their families and friends. “I don’t think I am the first one to be rejected from a religious setting,” Musick says. “Shame on them, because they’re missing out on some really good humans.”