When Jake Reitan joined Soulforce — an organization that seeks to gain equal footing for gays and lesbians through nonviolent activism — in 2001, he had already been struggling with his own identity. He saw the group's mission "to make faith-based institutions more inclusive of gay and lesbian people" as the perfect way to get involved.
Last year, he approached the organization's founder, the Reverend Mel White — a former ghostwriter for Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell before revealing he was gay and becoming an advocate for gay rights — with the idea of taking this message to colleges that have policies against gay students. And with that, the Equality Ride — inspired by the anti-segregation Freedom Rides of the 1950s and '60s — was born.
"I think this ride for me, as a gay Christian, is about going across the country and talking about the Jesus that I know and that I think this country should know," Reitan explained.
In April 2005, the nondenominational Equality Ride received a trial run at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia — where Soulforce's message was met with a chilly reception from Falwell, the university's founder. When the Equality Ride bus pulled into Lynchburg two weeks ago for the first of 20 stops on this year's route, the participants were greeted by more than a dozen police who warned the demonstrators that they'd be carried off in handcuffs if they stepped on the campus grounds.
And they meant it — more than 20 activists, including Reitan, were charged with trespassing as they attempted to recite a speech chastising the school's enrollment policy, which bars homosexuals.
But the threat of arrest hasn't deterred Reitan's mission. This year, Soulforce has gathered even more students willing to spend their spring breaks fighting for the cause. And at each stop, the group has been joined by local activists.
Equality Ride: The Long Haul
Students devoted their spring breaks to challenging the policies of colleges that don't accept gay students.
The 2006 version of the Equality Ride, which was preceded by three days of training in Washington, D.C., will be rolling across the United States for the next five weeks until it reaches its final destination: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, on April 26.
Reitan, 24, said the rides are "about providing that opportunity for activism, and we think youth should involve themselves in this movement, should stand up for their equality and say, 'End religious-based discrimination.' "
In addition to Liberty, the ride has hit Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee; Union University in Jackson, Tennessee; and Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Equality Riders have been detained by police at all but one stop — Union University, where police were on hand for crowd control. While at Lee, the Equality Ride bus was spray-painted with a homophobic message.
The private institutions Soulforce confronts are within their rights to set admission mandates based on their beliefs and values, even though some receive federal funding. The admission standards they've set, and the codes of conduct they've established, aren't illegal. Some argue the unwelcome visits by the Equality Riders are, though.
Following 2005's visit to Liberty, Falwell wrote as much in his Falwell Confidential newsletter. He wrote: "To suggest Liberty is brimming with students who feel persecuted because they are gay" was "fraudulent" and that "because Liberty is a Christian school, we do not allow the use of alcohol or drugs, nor do we allow the practice of sexual sin — heterosexual or homosexual. It is true that students who openly break our biblically based rules of conduct get in trouble. But they know our rules when they enroll."
Statements released this week by both Liberty and Regent universities expressed concern for the way Equality Ride participants handled their time on campus — by trespassing on university property and holding rallies and protests. Liberty's statement said the university didn't feel obligated to "permit [the Riders] to espouse opinions or otherwise suggest beliefs or lifestyles that are in opposition to the morals and values that this institution promotes, either by private conversation, public oration, distribution of literature or any other communication while conducting a staged demonstration disguised as [a] visit to our campus."
The statement further suggests that Soulforce should respect "the acceptable lifestyles and moral values that this institution endorses," rather than level accusations of intolerance against the school.
Reitan says he doesn't regret his arrest at Liberty: "I got arrested because I know there are gay and lesbian students at Liberty University who need to hear that God loves them exactly as they are," he said.
The bus will be making stops at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas; California Baptist University in Riverside, California; the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Wheaton University in Wheaton, Illinois, as well as many other key universities that have anti-gay policies.
"We laid out our parameters, and they laid out theirs," said Marty O'Gywnn, a spokesperson for Oklahoma Baptist University, where the bus will stop March 23. "Comfort is not going to be a word I would use to describe how I feel. But we are seeking to be gracious and watch out for the safety of our students."
While Oklahoma Baptist University is welcoming the Equality Riders and asking that there be informal dialogue of the issue on campus, the school has informed Soulforce that any bigger demonstrations would violate its policy and must be staged off-campus. Brigham Young University, where the bus will stop April 10, has taken a similar stance. "We do not allow individuals and outside organizations to use the university as a public forum," said Carri Jenkins, a spokesperson for the school. "But they can come and engage in courteous civil dialogue."
As the Equality Riders march on during this spring break, they will take each school on, hoping to show students at conservative universities that there are different ways to see the world and the people that live in it — gay or straight.
"An institution of higher learning is supposed to be about questioning prior beliefs, challenging yourself, being exposed to diversity, allowing yourself to come to your own informed conclusions on issues," Reitan said. "That's what it was for me. And there's no reason why it shouldn't be the same for students on these campuses."