Equality Ride 2006

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First group photo of the Equality Riders in Washington, D.C., with Phil Lawson and Mel White.

First group photo of the Equality Riders in Washington, D.C., with Phil Lawson and Mel White.

L-R; Equality Ride founder and co-director Jake Reitan, Soulforce co-founder Mel White,  Equality Ride 2006 co-director Haven Herrin, Equality Ride 2006 logistics coordinator Bill Carpenter.

L-R; Equality Ride founder and co-director Jake Reitan, Soulforce co-founder Mel White,  Equality Ride 2006 co-director Haven Herrin, Equality Ride 2006 logistics coordinator Bill Carpenter.

A Letter from Rodney Powell, Gay Man who Helped Lead the Freedom Rides

 

"History reveals to us that those who oppose the movement for freedom are those who are in privileged positions who very seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance. And they very seldom do it voluntarily."

- Martin Luther King Jr.

I have long been an advocate for more meaningful involvement and leadership of youth, both straight and gay, in the struggle for GLBT equality and justice. It wasn’t until my student protest experiences in the Civil Rights Movement in the South under the leadership and guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his trusted advisors, during medical school in Nashville, 1957 – 1961, that I had new language and positive strategies to affirm my racial identity. The new language and positive strategies to affirm my sexual orientation were not part of that experience. In fact, the palpable homophobia of the black clergy in the black Christian churches where we trained in nonviolence and the homophobic attitudes of my fellow students necessitated that I keep my “secret” to myself, if I wanted to be an effective student leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired youth across America to fight racial oppression and seek justice. Many closeted GLBT persons, white and black, also risked their lives for racial justice during the African American civil rights movement, especially those who participated in the Freedom Rides. Their contribution and personal sacrifices have never been acknowledged. The Equality Rides are in keeping with the very best strategies and application of the power of love and nonviolence, as inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the African American civil rights movement, to overcome segregation and racism. The 1960 Nashville, Tennessee strategic nonviolent relentless student sit-ins, stand-ins, boycotts, and eventually their contributions to continuation of the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South provide valuable and inspiring lessons learned about the power of nonviolent direct action and harnessing the power of student activism.

The Equality Rides address the oppression and persecution of GLBT Americans ensuing from misguided Christian dogma. Conservative Christian dogma and its resultant bigotry have been encoded into social customs and codified into laws to deny justice and equality to black Americans and homosexual Americans for centuries.

Gay and straight youth alliances should give major emphasis to the lessons learned from the African American civil rights movement and the Legacy and Dream of the Beloved Community by Martin Luther King, Jr. The liberation of America’s GLBT community through the redemptive power of love and nonviolence will require relentless struggle, sustained nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience by gay and straight alliances throughout American society, in every rural and urban community and at all local, state and federal levels. To be effective, the character and intensity of our social protests and civil rights struggles must match the character and intensity of the sit-ins, freedom rides, voter registration drives and other acts of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience used by African Americans to overcome racism.

It will require radical action to change the way American society accommodates the vile and narrow interpretation of Scripture by conservative Christians. It will require sustained, massive protest and nonviolent resistance to change the way American society accommodates the sense of righteousness that allows “born again Christians” and other conservative Christians … Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. …to justify and politically pursue their persecution of homosexuals as a moral obligation. Under the constitution, Christian churches can impose their literal Biblical interpretations on themselves, but not upon their neighbors. It must be the dedicated purpose of the Equality Rides to make certain conservative Christian colleges do not teach homophobia and persecute enrolled GLBT and straight students who question homophobic policies. Conservative Christian colleges must be held accountable for freedom of inquiry and academic freedom, which must be the gold standard of institutions of higher learning, including conservative Christian colleges.

I immensely admire and respect the carefully structured strategic plan for the Equality Rides. The Equality Rides in this new millennium provide the language and positive strategies, based on the power of nonviolent resistance, to overcome conservative Christian bigotry towards our GLBT community and unconditionally confirm the immutability of sexual orientation.

Drawing from my 70 years as a gay, black American, I want to leave you with the clear message that homophobia is more hostile and deadly than any racism I experienced in the deep South. Why? … because of the mistaken belief that homosexuality is a choice. The immutability of race and the lack of choice regarding race meant there was no closet for black Americans to hide in or to be forced into. Homosexuality is also not a choice. We must not allow the belief that it is to be used to force us to retreat into and behind dehumanizing closet walls. Nor should we accept or be cowered by literal Biblical interpretations to condemn us and deny justice, equality and first class American citizenship.

I also want to leave you with these thoughts. We must be willing to go beyond whatever we have achieved today in the form of hate crime legislation and executive, judicial or legislative decisions prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and education. We must not be lulled into believing that domestic partnership/civil unions and marriage are equal civil rights. Separate has never been equal, not fifty years ago and not now. We must go beyond where we are today in tolerating homophobic oppression, persecution and denial of equality and first-class citizenship.

The Equality Rides offer the opportunity to stigmatize homophobia and American society’s acceptance of conservative Christian homophobia based on the Bible. We must vigorously embrace the redemptive power of love and nonviolence used by Gandhi and King. We must follow the guidelines and strategies used by the African American Civil Rights Movement to sustain massive nonviolent resistance and social protest throughout the nation until justice is achieved. We must inspire our fellow Americans who believe in equality and justice to join us and work together to expedite political and social change.

In the spirit of love and nonviolence,

Rodney N. Powell, M.D.

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A Drive for Understanding
Gays, Colleges Hope Tour Helps Dispel Mutual Stereotypes

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006; B09

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The meeting was a bit awkward. One side brought the other chocolates. People wore big name tags and fussed over one another, saying “Hi” effusively and smiling broadly. Clumsy jokes were made — but everyone laughed. There were long silences.

The discomfort was understandable. Eight officials from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 133 “Christ-centered” schools that forbid homosexual behavior, were mingling with 35 young gay men and lesbians in the sunny conference room of a Northwest Washington church — to plan, of all things, a road trip.

Two days after the meeting, the gay activists embarked Thursday on their journey, a cross-country bus tour of 19 colleges with policies against homosexuality. They are calling the seven-week trip the Equality Ride, saying it is modeled after the anti-segregation Freedom Rides of 1961.

As they visit the schools, most of which are Christian, the “riders” will talk about their experiences in facing hate and explain why they believe the Bible is accepting of homosexuality. All the riders are younger than 26, and about half are Christian, including two who were expelled from colleges on the route.

But the ride is turning out to be much more than organizers expected. At least eight of the 19 schools — with the council’s encouragement — not only have agreed to let the activists on campus but have planned open forums for them, including talks in classrooms, visits with student leaders and the school president, panel discussions and, in one case, a coffee klatch titled “The Message of Brokeback Mountain.”

Other colleges are allowing the group to speak on campus but are not cooperating with it, and a few have threatened to arrest the riders.

At many of the schools, the only public talks about homosexuality up to now have featured Christians discussing how they gave up being gay. But officials at the schools hosting the Equality Riders said the national debate over gay rights has become so prominent in the past couple of years that an educated young Christian needs to be well-versed in the arguments used by gay rights activists — even if only to rebut them.

They also said they saw an opportunity to replace the stereotype of the intolerant conservative Christian with a more compassionate “Christ-centered” response — albeit a response that still views homosexuality as a sin.

"The conversation is coming into the open. We don’t need to go into a holy huddle," said Terry A. Franson, dean of students at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian school in California that is hosting the gay activists April 5 with a welcome breakfast, chapel service and panel discussion.

Robert Andringa, president of the Christian colleges council, contacted organizers of the Equality Ride last summer when he first heard about the event, offering to help arrange visits on the tour.

Andringa said the colleges in his organization, which cover 27 denominations, are united in believing that the Bible forbids sex between people of the same gender — as well as premarital sex between men and women. Typically, the schools require a student who acknowledges being gay or lesbian to seek counseling, and in some circumstances the student can face expulsion.

But the schools disagree over how to engage with the broader culture on homosexuality, Andringa said.

"It’s a touchy topic, and we don’t want to be viewed as homophobic. We know every church is struggling with it, so if our students are going to be prepared to be leaders in this society, they need to experience the real world," Andringa said.

At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., the first stop and the one closest to the Washington area, officials made it clear that the Equality Ride was not welcome.

"The parents of our students have entrusted their sons and daughters to our care," Chancellor Jerry Falwell said in a statement. "Liberty has an obligation to these parents not to expose their children to a ‘media circus’ that might present immorality in a positive light."

Fifteen of the activists and 10 of their supporters were arrested yesterday morning when they tried to walk onto the Liberty campus and deliver a speech.

Soulforce, a Lynchburg-based group, helped raise $250,000 for the ride. The group advocates for religious acceptance of gays and is led by the Rev. Mel White, who lived closeted for decades as an evangelical seminary professor and ghostwriter for Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham before coming out.

Even at schools that have organized events for the riders, there have been questions about officials’ openness. Several students at Biola University, a nondenominational school in Los Angeles that is hosting the activists, said the school’s Internet screener this week did not allow them to open the Equality Ride Web site or Soulforce’s site. Biola spokeswoman Irene Neller denied that officials were intentionally preventing access to the sites.

The visitors and their hosts said they are hoping for the same thing: to supplant stereotypes.

"Scripture would say Christians will be known by the way they love. Christians have dropped the ball. They are known by hate," said Andrew Mollenbeck, 21, an editor at the student-run Chimes newspaper at Biola. "I’d like to see an interaction of love."

Dawn Davridge, one of the riders, isn’t sure what to expect. The 23-year-old said she was expelled from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., in 2004 after school officials found out she was in love with her roommate. Raised as a conservative Christian, she had come to the Baptist school in hopes of quashing her lesbianism but later found books in the county library and on the Internet that led her to conclude that homosexuality is not a sin. “I can’t believe I sat there and blindly listened to these people,” Davridge said. “I want to teach students to think for themselves and to let them come to beliefs on their own.”

Several of the riders said they also intend to read desperate letters they have received from gay students at Christian colleges.

To White, the sight of Andringa and other council officials handing out candy bags to the gay activists Tuesday was amazing. The officials gave a two-hour presentation about the schools on the route. “This is a historic moment,” he said as the meeting began at Luther Place Memorial Church on Thomas Circle. “They know it’s time.”

Yet neither side expected minds to be changed.

"You aren’t going to stop for a day as young people who haven’t studied in seminary and take it on, on a theological basis," Andringa said. "I’d advise them to stick to telling their [personal] stories and don’t get in over your head.

"We agree with them that our campuses, to be consistent with our Christian worldview, should not be a place where any student feels unsafe or condemned or rejected," he said. "But we disagree about what the Bible says about sexuality."

At Abilene Christian University, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ and will host the Equality Riders in Texas on March 27, school spokeswoman Michelle Morris said she didn’t think the visit would change the atmosphere on campus. “I’m not sure if on our campus, or in Texas, or in the South … [gay] students would be comfortable being open, to be honest,” she said.

White said of the colleges: “We’re not asking them to change their policies. We just want to expose to the country the spiritual violence that is being done” to gay, conservative Christian youths. “We want academic freedom and personal safety.”

Standing before the 35 Equality Riders, Andringa tried to find common ground with this question: “Would you mind if we opened with a word of prayer?”

Outside the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, D.C.

Outside the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, D.C.

Soulforce Press Release, March 6, 2006

Soulforce Equality Ride Embarks from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Headquarters

(Washington, D.C.) Thirty-five young adults begin a national journey for gay rights outside the offices of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) this Thursday, March 9. Over the next 51 days, Equality Riders will travel by bus across the country to confront schools that ban the enrollment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. “We must cut off the suffering at its source. The source is religion-based oppression, and it has taken place for centuries,” says Jacob Reitan, Founder and Co-Director of the Soulforce Equality Ride.

The CCCU, headed by President Bob Andringa, represents fifteen of the eighteen schools on the Equality Ride route. Andringa himself approached Jacob Reitan and Rev. Dr. Mel White, Founder and President of Soulforce, to facilitate communication between the activists and the schools. “We share some hopes even though neither I nor our presidents are going to embrace some of your ultimate goals,” Andringa said. “But we can agree that the ride should advance education, civil dialogue, learning to respect differences, and making safe places for students exploring their own sexual identities.”

Over the past year, Andringa has encouraged CCCU schools to work with the Soulforce Equality Ride to schedule productive days of presentations and discussion. On that point, the riders have succeeded at a majority of schools on the route. Andringa and several of his colleagues at the CCCU will meet with the riders during the Soulforce Equality Ride training from 2-4pm on March 7 at Luther Place Memorial Church. The guests will speak about the character of CCCU schools and talk informally with Equality Riders.

Inspired by the Freedom Rides of the 1950s and 60s, the Soulforce Equality Ride seeks to dialogue with students and administrations of colleges regarding the discrimination of the anti-gay enrollment policies. “We share the goal of creating physically safe places for students,” states Haven Herrin, Co-Director of the Soulforce Equality Ride. “However we also seek theologically and educationally safe environments. Higher education should not include discrimination of any kind. The cost of a college education should never be at the peril of a student’s sense of personal worth.”

The Big Queer Bus.

The Big Queer Bus.

The Equality Ride bus hits the road.

The Equality Ride bus hits the road.

Equality Riders meet with original Freedom Rider, Congressman John Lewis. Congressman Lewis told the Equality Riders to “Make good trouble.”

Equality Riders meet with original Freedom Rider, Congressman John Lewis. Congressman Lewis told the Equality Riders to “Make good trouble.”

L-R: Jacob Reitan, Haven Herrin, Dawn Davridge, Congressman John Lewis.

L-R: Jacob Reitan, Haven Herrin, Dawn Davridge, Congressman John Lewis.