Equality Ride Bridges the Gap Between Gays, Christians

Christian Schools Acknowledge the Reality of Sexual Minority Students

For Immediate Release
Contact: Brandon Kneefel, West Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6138, brandon@equalityride.com
Brandy Daniels, East Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6284, brandy@equalityride.com

(Fresno, California) — This week, after almost 4 weeks on the road, 26 young proponents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality visited a small Mennonite Brethren-affiliated college in Fresno, California. While conventional wisdom might predict culture clash, the 2007 Soulforce Equality Riders make it a practice to deny conventional expectations about religion, sexuality, and youth.

"We’re on this journey to begin conversations about what it means to be Christian, what it means to be gay or transgender," says Haven Herrin, Co-director of the 8-week Equality Ride, which will bring a total of 50 young equality advocates on 2 buses to 32 Christian colleges with policies that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.

This is the second year of the Equality Ride, which made a debut visit to 18 schools in 2006.

"What’s different this year is that, with all of the national media attention on gay evangelicals and ex-gay therapies, these schools can’t say ‘it doesn’t happen here,’" says Herrin. "It’s harder for them to look away from the suffering created by these policies."

At Fresno Pacific University, administrators collaborated with the Equality Riders on the westbound bus to create a setting for meaningful dialogue. On April 3rd, Equality Riders participated in classroom discussions and gave presentations on topics such as "Progressive Theology" and "In God’s Image: Identity and Scripture." Over meals, Equality Riders talked with concerned faculty who wanted to learn what they could do to make Fresno Pacific a safer learning environment for LGBT students.

The Fresno Pacific student handbook states that "the university is opposed to homosexual, premarital and extramarital sexual relations." But while FPU Director of Communications Diana Bates Mock affirmed that the institution’s views had not changed, she acknowledged that "there is a better appreciation for listening to each other."

Previously, at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where an LGBT student group has already been working towards official recognition, Equality Riders found similar opportunities for genuine dialogue. Although the Pepperdine student handbook identifies "homosexual conduct" as grounds for discipline, Equality Riders were invited to lead the prayer at a prayer service in which Riders, students, and faculty joined hands.

The image of hands joined across differences is a stark contrast to the Riders’ experience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a school that was also on the 2006 Equality Ride itinerary.

Before the westbound bus arrived in Utah, Equality Riders received a letter from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) asking that they "not enter church property for any purpose." Several westbound Equality Riders were raised in the LDS faith, including Kourt Osborn and Matt Kulisch, a former BYU student.

Ultimately, Osborn and his mother, Karel Allen, were arrested on March 22, when they stepped onto campus to deliver more than 50 pages documenting the isolation, intimidation, and suffering caused by the University’s honor code, which states that "no one known to be guilty of overt and active homosexual conduct is to be enrolled or permitted to remain at Church Educational System (CES) campuses as students…"

"We weren’t even allowed to touch the grass," says Osborn. "It was such a surreal experience."

In spite of BYU’s refusal to participate in an open dialogue about its policy, BYU students took advantage of several off-campus opportunities to meet with Equality Riders and talk about the climate for LGBT students at BYU. On March 21, nearby Utah Valley State College hosted a day of presentations about faith and sexuality, and the Provo Public Library hosted a panel of current and former BYU students. Later, more than 50 BYU students crowded into an informal meeting at a private home to meet with Equality Riders.

"That night, I learned a great deal not only about LDS Doctrine, but also about the possibilities of dissent within the church," says Equality Rider Emily Van Kley.

"I learned that, regardless of BYU’s policies, there is a great hunger among students to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities, and that these conversations can be had with deep respect for all the people involved."

Future Stops on the West Route

The westbound Equality Riders will continue to challenge the BYU honor code when they travel to BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho on April 16-17. In the meantime, they will make stops at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington, Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, and Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. Each of these four schools is collaborating with the Equality Ride to create opportunities for education and exchange of ideas.

At BYU Idaho, the Riders will again face the LDS church-issued mandate to stay off of all church property. But, in spite of the official stance, students from BYU-Idaho have already begun contacting Equality Riders to describe the suffering of LGBT students and allies on campus. The stop at BYU-Idaho will likely feature an attempt to deliver these statements, some of which must remain anonymous for fear of disciplinary consequences for students who identify themselves as lesbian or gay.

East Bus Faces Challenges to First Amendment Rights

As they travel through the South, Equality Riders on the eastbound bus have faced efforts by local law enforcement officials to abridge their First Amendment Rights. On Tuesday, March 20, ACLU-Mississippi intervened on the Equality Riders’ behalf when police in Clinton, Mississippi informed the Riders that members of their group would be cited if they "attempt[ed] to gather or travel in a group of four or more" near the campus of Mississippi College.

On March 22, Riders on the eastbound bus were harassed by Clinton police exhorting them to "go on and get out of town" after a day of vigils and civil disobedience. The bus driver was threatened with arrest if the bus did not leave the city of Clinton immediately. Jarrett Lucas and Katie Higgins, Co-directors of the eastbound bus, penned a letter to the Mississippi Attorney General, which can be accessed at www.soulforce.org/article/1214.

When Equality Riders arrived in Williamsburg, Kentucky, home of the University of the Cumberlands, police from throughout Whitley County surrounded the bus and informed the Riders that any attempt to enter onto campus would result in arrest. The riders exited the bus and lined up along the street in order to stand vigil, but were promptly told by police that they were not allowed to stand along the public sidewalk.

The Equality Riders began to walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the campus, singing songs from the civil rights movement. After 15 minutes, the young adults broke up to speak with students waiting on the periphery of campus. At various times, police from different departments warned that no individual could stand stationary on the public sidewalk or that only groups of 3 or more would be arrested for standing stationary. It soon became clear that no individual could stand still along the sidewalk, even to converse with students.

One Equality Rider, Jake Reitan, was arrested for standing still along the sidewalk. Upon witnessing Reitan’s arrest, two students from the University of the Cumberlands decided to stand on the sidewalk. After about 15 minutes the students were arrested and charged with failure to disperse.

Yesterday, April 4, the Equality Riders arrived at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina — an institution notorious for its long-standing prohibition on interracial dating, which was repealed in 2000. Upon arrival at Bob Jones, Equality Riders were met with groups protesting their visit and message of inclusion for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. Operation Save America, Truth Ministry, and Americans for Truth were among the anti-gay groups present. Through bullhorns and signs that proclaimed "Sodomy is Sin" and "Three Gay Rights. 1. AIDS. 2. Hell. 3. Salvation," they loudly and forcefully spoke against the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Three Riders were arrested as they attempted to walk on to campus to deliver artwork and a call for change to the campus. They were cited for trespassing and then released.

Future Stops on the East Route

Next week, the East bus will make stops at Montreat College in Montreat, North Carolina, Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

On April 23 and 24, the eastbound bus will make an extended visit to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they will visit Calvin College, a school which has collaborated with the Equality Riders to create intellectually rigorous opportunities to discuss faith and sexuality — even going so far as to integrate the Riders into the school’s ongoing series on sexuality. Ironically, just three miles away, at Cornerstone University, the Equality Riders will not be welcome, although the campus plans a week of programming and a special 12-hour overnight worship service to respond to the Equality Ride visit.

The Equality Ride will conclude on April 26 with a joint visit by both buses to Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. For a complete itinerary of stops, go to www.soulforce.org/equalityride

Soulforce Q is the young adult division of Soulforce, a social justice organization that works to end political and religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For more information go to www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.

Equality Riders Inspire Gay Students at Pepperdine University

National Tour of Gay Youth to End Religion-Based Discrimination on Christian Campuses

For Immediate Release
Contact: Brandon Kneefel, West Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6138, brandon@equalityride.com

(Malibu, CA) — The Soulforce Equality Ride spent two days at Pepperdine University sitting in on lectures, leading presentations, sparking dialogue, visiting the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and reaching out to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community at Pepperdine to address discriminatory policies against LGBT people on campus.

The Equality Riders headed to Pepperdine for a welcomed dialogue regarding faith and gays following the arrest of an Equality Rider and his mother at Brigham Young University for attempting to delivery a list of BYU students’ concerns to the administration. Pepperdine has discriminatory doctrines and policies that harm LGBT individuals on campus. The Pepperdine University 2006-07 student handbook states that "homosexual conduct" will result in disciplinary action.

Pepperdine stop organizer Brian Murphy, a Los Angeles area resident, says: "I cannot in good conscience remain silent when there is a school in my own community that silences people solely on the basis of sexual orientation."

This is the fifth stop for the Equality Ride. The Equality Riders are fifty young adults of varying sexual orientations and faith backgrounds on a mission to end religion-based discrimination against LGBT students on Christian campuses. The fifty young adults are dispersed between two buses with two routes, one bus is eastbound and the other is westbound. From Notre Dame University to Brigham Young University, the westbound bus has connected with many student leaders who have honored this conversation despite the avoidance of administration, while the eastbound has endured arriving to campuses with policemen on rooftops, being held in jail for over 24 hours, vandalism of their bus, and hostile policemen, all for attempting peaceful dialogue regarding the wellbeing of LGBT students on these campuses.

"On the west bus, we are fortunate to have had opportunities to begin this dialogue, especially knowing that our brothers and sisters on the east bus and the students they come to help are still working to simply be recognized as beings that are due this conversation," says Haven Herrin, West Bus Co-Director.

"Pepperdine needs to recognize that having tolerance for us [LGBT students] is not the same as having love for us. We are worthy students and deserve an equal place on campus, a place to formally congregate to do good work, to support one another, and to diversify the student body, because when they [the administration] ignore us and deny us formal recognition as a good and functional student group they send a message to the student body that we are not worthy and in someway wrong," Anthony Barnes, freshman at Pepperdine University and member of the unrecognized student organization Malibu GLEE (gays, lesbian and everyone else).

This Thursday, Pepperdine’s administration, including Mark Davis, Vice President of Students, agreed to meet with GLEE to continue this dialogue.

The Equality Riders will continue their mission to end religion-based discrimination against the LGBT community as they visit Brigham Young University, Idaho in mid-April. The next stop on the Ride will be Fresno Pacific University, where Equality Riders will engage in a welcomed dialogue regarding FPU’s discriminatory policies.

Soulforce Q is the young adult division of Soulforce, a social justice organization that works to end political and religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For more information go to www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.

Soulforce Q Launches Nationwide Journey to Christian Colleges to Talk About LGBT People and Faith

Second Annual Soulforce Equality Ride Departs Today

Notre Dame – Pepperdine – BYU Among Stops

For Immediate Release
Contact: Brandon Kneefel, West Bus Media Director
Cell: 612-715-6138, brandon@equalityride.com

(Minneapolis, MN) — Today 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight young adults from diverse faiths will begin a mission to dialogue with tomorrow’s conservative leaders at Christian colleges across the nation.

Christian colleges are the fastest growing segment of higher education. At more than 200 Christian colleges in the United States, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are silenced, forced out of school, or referred to harmful "ex-gay" therapies.

At 32 schools on 2 separate bus routes, the 2007 Equality Riders are determined to open a conversation about the devastating impacts of anti-gay policies. While some schools will welcome the Ride and the opportunity for dialogue, others have announced that they will arrest the Riders for trespassing. The threat of arrest will not deter these dedicated young people, who are determined to sharing their life-saving message about the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.

The Westbound bus will start off heading south to the University of Notre Dame, rated by students in a Princeton Review survey as the least hospitable school for gay and lesbian students. The administration at Notre Dame does not welcome the Ride, and arrest is a possibility for Riders, students, and community members who partake in direct action. However, the Riders are committed to meeting all campuses with peace and understanding, and many campuses will work to do the same: for example, Pepperdine University has invited the Riders to attend the Tolerance Museum with Pepperdine students. The Westbound bus will also make a return visit to Brigham Young University in Utah and make a debut visit to the BYU Idaho campus. The Equality Riders have been barred from both campuses and will be met by police upon arrival.

For a complete West bus itinerary, go to www.soulforce.org/article/901

The East bound bus will also start off heading south, traveling down to Baylor University, a Southern Baptist University in Waco, Texas. The Equality Ride will then travel east, stopping at such schools as Mississippi College, where students have been warned not to talk with Equality Riders and repeated attempts to communicate with administration have been rejected. Once on the East coast, the bus will turn north, visiting Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was still prohibited until 2000. The bus will continue north into Massachusetts where, despite the state’s pro-equality policies, Gordon College still has anti-gay policies on the books.

For a complete East bus itinerary, go to www.soulforce.org/article/789

Both buses return westward to reunite in Minneapolis for a final visit to Bethany Lutheran College.

"We come in pursuit of greater understanding," says Haven Herrin, Co-director of Soulforce Q, the young adult division of the national LGBT social justice group Soulforce. "Our goal is to foster a conversation about LGBT people and faith. While such conversations are often marked by politics and divisiveness, we bring open minds and hearts to academic settings, where we hope for a genuine exchange of ideas."

Herrin sees the diversity of this year’s cohort as another indicator of the project’s growth. "We come from a variety of experiences, a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. There are 5 straight allies on this year’s ride. There are 4 riders who identify as transgender. There are Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Christians. We’re all here to have a conversation with America’s next conservative religious generation about our personal lives and our personal relationships to the scriptures that the schools use to condemn us."

Eight of the 2007 riders are current or former students from schools on the 2006 ride, including Vince Cervantes and Vince Pancucci, a young couple who experienced Equality Ride 2006 as students at Azusa Pacific University. This evangelical Christian school welcomed the riders and hosted a public forum; more than 1,200 Azusa students listened, cried, and prayed for healing as Equality Riders shared their experiences of anti-gay violence. Inspired by that event, Cervantes and Pancucci have come out to the campus and become activists in their communities.

More than 200 U.S. colleges and universities have explicit policies that discriminate against LGBT students. In 2006, the inaugural Equality Ride traveled to 19 of those schools and held vigils, Bible studies, class discussions, and community forums. This year the Ride’s reach has nearly doubled.

Soulforce Q is the young adult division of Soulforce, a social justice organization that works to end political and religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For more information go to www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.