It took one weekend to leave Tessa Russell truly exposed.
On 6 April 2019, her girlfriend Ash Ables traveled to Liberty University in central Virginia to surprise her. They had been dating for four months, but it was her first time visiting Russell on campus.
The two were eating pizza in front of the TV when Russell’s resident adviser (RA) swiped into the room, catching the couple off guard. Because same-sex relationships are effectively verboten at the evangelical Christian school, Russell immediately tried to pass the relationship off as platonic.
Her resident adviser wasn’t buying it, and ordered Ables to leave campus. Russell frantically reached out to her Liberty LGBTQ network, and the couple crashed at a friend’s apartment.
Then Russell’s cellphone rang. Her RA demanded that she return, saying the two “could not be together”. Feeling that she didn’t have a choice, she left Ables and went back to her dorm at 3am, where her adviser was waiting.
“You know, you can get counseling for this kind of thing. These relationships are sinful. I recommend you go to therapy for this,” Russell was told.
“It was just painful because it was so shameful – even though it’s something that should not be – I have a girlfriend who I love. There was nothing wrong with that, but it was just so looked down upon by my peers,” Russell, who graduated in the spring, told the Guardian.
Later, she found out one of her two roommates had reported her.
“I was so livid for the first couple days, I tried to stay out of my dorm as much as possible. I felt unsafe, betrayed and hurt. I wasn’t really ready to be out out,” she recalled. When Russell later told her roommate she would rather have been confronted privately, she was told her relationship “wasn’t right”.
The Liberty junior had been slowly revealing she was gay – confiding in one person, who led her to another gay student and then another. Eventually, she found an underground group of queer students. When she first joined two years ago, there were about 30 members in an online group. Now there are 133.
They fear they have to remain in the shadows to graduate.
Upon matriculating at Liberty University, students have to sign an honor code called The Liberty Way, which describes accepted and forbidden behaviors (the latter includes drinking alcohol and having premarital sex).
The 22-page document also states that “sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University”.
That there is any LGBTQ community at Liberty University may be surprising. The school was founded in 1971 by Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell, a man renowned for his attacks on the gay community. In the 1980s, he notoriously claimed that “Aids is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” He continued to make inflammatory statements about gay people throughout his life, but he also made overtures to the community in later years.
Falwell’s longtime ghostwriter, the Rev Mel White, was gay. After coming out in 1994, he stopped working for Falwell, but the two hosted a meeting addressing LGBTQ civil rights in 1999. Falwell maintained that the “gay lifestyle” was a sin, but agreed to tone down anti-LGBTQ language, only to later blame the 9/11 terrorist attacks on gay people, feminists and “abortionists”.
After Falwell’s death in 2007, his son Jerry Falwell Jr took over and transformed Liberty into a $1bn empire. By 2015, it was the second-largest provider of online education in the US. The undergraduate population on the central Virginia campus is 15,000, but the majority of its 100,000 students are enrolled online.
In August 2020, Falwell Jr resigned amid a sexual scandal involving his wife and a business associate. His fall from grace did not sit well with LGBTQ students who battled internally for years to hide or change who they were, or suffered mistreatment for living outside of Liberty’s sanctioned behavior.
In March, a month before the incident with her adviser, Russell participated in a demonstration supporting LGBTQ+ rights and #MeToo survivors. A friend draped a rainbow Pride flag over Russell’s shoulders – a coming out of sorts. She was “terrified”. For weeks afterward, classmates sent her messages with “out of context Bible verses that I was going to hell and that I must not really be a Christian”.
Two years earlier, as a freshman, Russell’s health had taken a severe turn. She tried dating a guy. She slid into depression and attempted suicide. She relapsed into anorexia. In retrospect, she said she depleted herself of calories to shut down her libido and her attraction to women. After a stay at a psychiatric hospital specializing in eating disorders and months of secular therapy, she returned to campus recognizing she was a lesbian, albeit closeted. Her story is one of many: several students interviewed by the Guardian said they struggled with internalized homophobia, mental health problems and suicide attempts.
At least she was able to avoid “pastoral counseling”, offered by the school, but which students assume is, in effect, conversion therapy. Because Liberty only sanctions sexuality within a heterosexual marriage, Russell assumed she would be guided into suppressing her attractions. During her decline in her freshman year, she went to one Liberty counseling session and did not mention she was gay out of that fear, she said.
Repeated attempts to contact Liberty for comment have not been returned.
After the confrontation in her dorm, Russell contacted Liberty’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. “I worked things out so that I did not have to go to conversion therapy, which Liberty does still do even though they might not call it that. Regardless, I was able to get out of doing therapy and paying fines,” she said. (Violations of the Liberty Way can be fined monetarily or with discipline.)
But other LGBTQ students and alumni did speak about what they call conversion therapy, which Liberty considers pastoral counseling.
Men “who struggle with same sex attraction” have access to a weekly group therapy session where they discuss these feelings, with the aim of not acting on them. Historically, it’s been called Masquerade, then Band of Brothers. It’s currently called Armor Bearers.
Dave, a 24-year old who graduated from Liberty in 2018, told his parents he was bisexual before college. Concerned, they enrolled him in Armor Bearers. He spoke without using his full name because he is in the process of coming out.
At the time, he said he leaned more towards liking men. “I was really worried that they were going to try to pray the gay out of me,” he said.
“Armor Bearers is certainly unique in the way they approach things. They try to walk this balance between saying ‘God made you this way and it’s OK’– that it’s this thing that you have no control over, but at the same time, you have to repress,” he said. “They certainly walked the line between telling you that being attracted to somebody of the same sex, romantically or sexually, was not sinful, while making you feel like it was a sin to be confessed every time you had that attraction.”
Every week, Pastor Dane Emerick “would start by trying to guide us into being biblical men, basically using the Bible to redirect the homosexuality into a more platonic form, while also having time where we would confess our urges to one another and how we had ‘struggled’ with same-sex attraction that week and if we’d ‘overcome’ it or not. All the while stating that they weren’t trying to make us straight, but if we did turn out straight that was OK,” Dave said. “They didn’t want to try to make us straight, but they didn’t want us to really express that part of our sexuality because it was still viewed as sinful.”
Many of the men would hook up, he said.
“We’re really trying to avoid our urges, but at the same time, you know that some of these people are basically boyfriends while they’re out of the room.”
After two years, Dave gradually stopped going. Romantically, he vacillated between two students: a man and a woman. Right after graduating, he married the woman, who is also bisexual – they met through Liberty’s queer network.
For Dave, it’s important to communicate that conversion therapy did not work.
“My wife and I still see hot guys passing by and she’ll be like, ‘Dang, you see that guy?’” he said. “It wasn’t that I was miraculously cured. I just happened to fall in love with a girl and get married.”
Despite his heterosexual Christian marriage – the couple even waited to have sex until they were married – the damage from Armor Bearers persists.
“Many years later, it still kind of affects my sexuality because I still worry, sometimes in the back of my brain, is it really bad to be bi? Even though Armor Bearers would say ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, you can find people attractive, you just can’t act on it,’ I still felt that there was something wrong with me. Whether they wanted to say it or not, that’s what their teachings led you to believe,” he said.
“I want to come out as bi because I want to clarify that the Armor Bearers didn’t ‘fix’ me. My queerness is a very important part of me, even after I’m married.”
In many ways, broader US culture has changed dramatically in the last decade. Most notably, in 2015 gay marriage was legalized. As of 1 July, Virginia became the 20th state to ban conversion therapy for anyone younger than 18.
At Liberty, the culture had begun to shift also, students say. For example, in 2016, the dress code relaxed so that women could wear leggings, although the maxim, “modest is hottest” still makes the rounds.
But the same year, with Falwell Jr’s endorsement of Donald Trump, the school became more overtly political. All Liberty students on campus are required to attend a mandatory thrice-weekly chapel service called convocation, or “convo”. Instead of former speakers like Bernie Sanders and the actor Sean Astin, students had to sit through the likes of Candace Owens and Dinesh D’Souza on a continuous shuffle.
“I came to Liberty as a Libertarian Christian, and I left as an atheist Democratic socialist,” a 25-year old who describes himself as a “femme gay”, said. He spoke anonymously because he still has family ties to Liberty and fears that his sexuality could threaten the job of a relative employed by the school.
He fretted that these services increasingly became a megaphone for the far right wing.
“In convo, they’re talking all about how we need to value free speech. OK, I’m a gay liberal. I have no voice at the school,” he said, noting that the College Democrats were defunded for insisting on a pro-choice platform.
As a student who worked for Liberty, he said he experienced homophobia, but also incredible support. Some of his co-workers congratulated him when he moved in with his longtime boyfriend after graduating in August. But he also reported his roommates to the Diversity and Inclusion office because their flagrant homophobia made him feel “unsafe”.
Brooke Smoke, a current senior who is currently coming out as bisexual, was surprised to find any queer community on campus. She’s active in progressive causes including Black Lives Matter, as is her boyfriend of the past eight months.
Having been homeschooled in a conservative Christian home, Smoke said she used to hate herself for being attracted to women – she had found it “disgusting”. Despite being disillusioned by Liberty, she remains strong in her faith.
“I think that it was in God’s plan, for me to be here and to witness Christianity and culture in this way,” she said. “Grappling with some gender-related struggles and sexuality and orientation – just knowing that God has always known those things about me, that’s something I find comfort in.”
But recently Jackie Hill-Perry, a “reformed lesbian”, spoke at convocation, which Smoke found frustrating.
“I’m just annoyed that that is what the LGBT representation at Liberty was. A lesbian who converted and is now married to a man. While I think her journey is totally valid, it was framed as though that was the healthy and correct choice for every Christian. Conversion. When in reality I don’t think the mental health statistics at all line up with that vision,” Smoke, 22, wrote in a text.
She contacted the senior vice-president for spiritual development, David Nasser, to ask him to clearly state what “LGBTQIA+ people’s place on this campus is (if any),” she texted. “And I wanted to know if he endorsed conversion therapy.”
This week, Smoke met with Nasser. He told her that there’s no required conversion therapy on campus at present, but the option was there for students who wanted it.
For Russell, life after Liberty has gone well.
She and Ables got engaged in July. They plan to raise their children in the Christian faith, albeit a more progressive one. Russell is currently “healing her relationship with God”, she said. She doesn’t really keep in touch with anyone from Liberty who wasn’t in her LGBTQ circles.
When she and Ables get married next year, she hopes, but doesn’t expect, her family to come to the wedding.