Equality Ride to protest schools’ anti-gay policies
By EARTHA MELZER
May. 20, 2005
Recent non-violent protests at Liberty University and Focus on the Family headquarters are test runs for a new Soulforce project that will travel the country to demonstrate against religious and military schools that ban gay men and lesbians, organizers said.
Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va., is an organization that seeks to free gays from religious and political oppression through the practice of nonviolent resistance as modeled by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The organization was founded by Mel White, a Christian minister, author and filmmaker who ghost wrote books for Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson before coming out as gay in 1993.
In protests at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and at James Dobson’s Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., White, and Soulforce Youth Director Jake Reitan, worked with activists from across the country to test what Reitan calls a new "take it to the street" style of confronting homophobia.
Their experiment involves identifying the institutions and policies most responsible for spreading hurtful stereotypes and misinformation about gays and lesbians and confronting those organizations.
The first step is to write letters. In the case of Liberty University — where Falwell’s 12,000 students are forced to sign pledges condemning homosexuality and attend presentations by "ex-gay" activists — White and Reitan asked for the opportunity to provide a different, more affirming, perspective to students. In the case of Focus on the Family, White and Reitan asked Dobson to stop hurting families by broadcasting violent claims such as: same-sex parents are unfit, gays want to destroy marriage and homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured. In both cases, the institutions did not respond to written requests, so Soulforce escalated its tactics.
At Liberty University activists mingled with students and initiated discussions about homosexuality and attempted to donate books on gay and lesbian topics to the school library. At Focus on the Family, activists held a picnic and attempted to hand deliver letters explaining the negative impact of Dobson’s claims about homosexuality. Rather than engage in a conversation about the effects of their actions, Focus on the Family shut down their offices that day, Reitan said.
Reitan said that both actions were successful and prove that Soulforce is now ready to begin organizing a larger campaign of direct action modeled on the Freedom Rides in which students traveled through the South to challenge unconstitutional racial segregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Reitan has put together a Web site, www.equalityride.com, and a list of religious and military schools that ban gays and lesbians. He said he is recruiting young adults who are prepared to spend two months next spring travelling the country by bus and engaging schools about their anti-gay policies.
Equality Ride has the support of major gay and lesbian civil rights organizations such as HRC and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, officials said. The plan also has vocal support from some of the original Freedom Riders.
"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," Rodney Powell, a gay man who helped lead the original Freedom Rides, said in a written statement. "The Equality Rides are in keeping with the very best strategies and application of the power of love and nonviolence."
Reitan, a recent graduate of Northwestern University, said he became aware of the need to confront religious schools when a friend of his who was a student at Wheaton College in Illinois explained how he suffered because of that school’s policy banning homosexuality. Since he began planning for the Equality Ride, Reitan said, he has received letters from closeted students at religious schools who are looking for help.
Eartha Melzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.