West Point Is No End Point

Equality Ride, After 19 Campus Visits, Looks Forward

With the arrest of 15 of its members, along with six allies, for trespassing at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point up the Hudson River on Wednesday, 33 young people completed a bus journey begun March 10 in Lynchburg, Virginia that took them as far west as California and back east to confront and engage in conversations at other military-related institutions and at Christian colleges as well.

For all the drama of Wednesday’s confrontation with West Point officials—who had denied the gay men and lesbians, most of them in their early 20s, the right to set foot on campus—participants in the Equality Ride are as proud of their achievements in getting Christians to listen to their “voices where voices need to be heard” as in taking on the considerable risks of civil disobedience in unfriendly venues.

“We talked to well over 10,000 Christians in this country, and they listened to us and they were affected by us,” explained Jake Reitan, who brought the idea for the Ride to Mel White—a longtime Christian minister and founder of Soulforce, a group dedicated to ending what it terms “spiritual violence” from organized religion against LGBT people—a year and a half ago, shortly after graduating from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “We have to rise up in defense of our humanity and indeed in defense of our faith as gay Christians, because Christianity is being misused.”

Then echoing a perspective that has been repeated over and over again by the leaders of major LGBT rights groups in the nation, particularly in the context of the growing marriage equality movement, Reitan added, “This is a discussion we have to have with the American people and we gotta start with the religious community because religion is where the problem is.”

Reitan spoke to Gay City News Tuesday evening at a reception honoring the riders at Hasted-Hunt Art Gallery in Chelsea. A group of several hundred attended, including other Equality Ride sponsors, most notably the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, which advised and assisted the young Riders in handling media requests that resulted in more than 300 newspaper articles as well as numerous television stories covering their journey.

Reitan who had worked with Soulforce during his years at Northwestern and who plans to begin studies at Harvard’s Divinity School this fall, said he first came upon the idea for an event such as Equality Ride when he met a student from Wheaton College, a very conservative Christian school known for its academic rigors, while out one night during his undergraduate years at a Chicago gay bar. The student explained that he was closeted because to be otherwise would almost certainly result in expulsion from his school, located in Wheaton, a suburb west of Chicago.

When Reitan told the young man how terrible he thought such a policy was, the Wheaton student replied, “Actually I think it’s a good policy. I think it’s a sin to be gay.”

As Reitan recalled, “I made a promise to him that night that I would come to his school with a different message, one of hope and love.”

According to Reitan, Wheaton College, though apprehensive about Equality Ride’s visit as were the other 18 schools on the itinerary, ended up cooperating. He met with the school’s provost several times while planning the Ride and, along with two other participants, shared a 90-minute lunch with the president of Wheaton the day they visited last week, “where we really batted it around.” The college, which in its 147-year history had never welcomed an openly gay speaker, allowed the Riders to give a formal presentation to 1,200 students.

White recalled that when Reitan approached him in late 2004 with the idea for Equality Ride, he told the young man to raise $100,000 and recruit 36 participants by January of 2006. Reitan came through, though the group is still trying to complete fundraising for an event that has ended up costing closer to $250,000. White echoed Reitan’s view that the Ride has allowed young gay men and lesbians to reach out to more conservative Christian youth on campuses, in college towns generally, and through the media.

“We are pretty much talking to ourselves. Period,” he said of a good deal of the organized discussion within the LGBT community. “We really don’t have any access to government right now, to the White House, to the courts. We don’t have any access to the churches, so we need to go to the victims and these schools are the victims of their churches’ denominational support, of their theology.”

But White added that the Ride had another key benefit.

“We have always believed that the young people should be doing it now,” he said of his evolving philosophy since he founded Soulforce in 1993. “These young people have a kind of magic about them. We have to stop using them only as interns. Let’s get out of their way. They’re going to go out now and start activist efforts everywhere.”

In a brief address to the reception guests on Tuesday evening, Reitan amplified on the importance of empowering LGBT youth. After reciting a list of earlier social justice campaigns he had studied—including the Freedom Ride that began in May 1961, the anti-war movement, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the battle against apartheid, and the 1989 demonstrations at Tian’anmen Square in Beijing—Reitan said, “At all these major justice movements youth are on the forefront and I look at the LGBT rights movement and I wonder where the youth are. We see individual acts of heroism here or there… but there is not an interconnectivity. Soulforce Equality Ride was our first try at it, but it will not be our last.

At this last statement, his youthful companions during the past month and a half let out a cheer.

In the six weeks since the Ride began, the crew of 33 visited 19 campuses in 11 states—Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, California, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York. They faced arrests at six schools—in addition to West Point, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Regent University in Virginia Beach, Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. At North Central University in Minneapolis, security guards dragged the Riders from a gate they were blocking after being locked out. At Brigham Young, the youth carried flowers for each of the university’s gay students who had committed suicide in the face of official homophobia.

Despite the hostility of the Air Force Academy and West Point, White said that Texas A&M, a school that’s had a long association with the military, was welcoming. He also said he has heard from a number of cadets from the Air Force Academy since the group’s visit there, one of whom wrote him, “Thank God you came. I am gay and I am miserable here.” According to Richard Lindsay, who as a participant, handled press releases for the group, several West Point students risked their commissions by approaching the Equality Riders, amassed outside the main Thayer Gates to the campus, to thank them for coming.

Reitan for one promises that the Ride’s end at West Point is just a beginning. He said there will be another Ride next year—through the Deep South—with two buses rather than one, and sits-ins by 40 participants at military recruiting centers across the country this August.

Referring to 2007 at the end of his remarks Tuesday evening, Reitan said, “Next summer, it is sit-in summer across America. We are going to take the fight for marriage equality out of the liberal bastions of Massachusetts and San Francisco, out of the courts, and we are going to humanize it and localize it for the American people. We’re going to be doing sit-ins for marriage equality, youth-led, in cities across the country.”

Haven Herrin, a 2004 graduate of the University of Richmond and Reitan’s co-director of the Ride, described her willingness to face up to the dangers of arrest or even violence as a form of “voluntary redemptive suffering” informed by the social movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Essentially, you become truth and you become love and you become this opportunity to show what America is and if America is something that attacks me for being part of a GLBT group then I accept that suffering,” she explained, as a way to educate and in time bring about change.

Herrin is not going to be leaving Reitan’s side for the foreseeable future.

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