By Mallory Sherwood, Managing Editor
After six failed attempts to publicly speak on religious campuses chosen because of their supposed enrollment ban of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, members of Soulforce Equality Ride anticipate a better reception during their visit Monday in Abilene.
Thirty-four Equality Riders left March 5 for a seven-week bus tour to 19 academic institutions and military academies in hopes of creating dialogue between administrators, faculty and students about the implications, effects and suffering caused by the ban of GLBT students.
Of the past six visits, none of the universities has allowed the riders to publicly discuss their views on campus and at three of the universities – Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., and Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. – members were arrested for stepping on to university property.
Haven Herrin, co-director of Equality Ride, said the schools made the decision to arrest members.
“Our main goal is to achieve nationwide dedication to discussion about the suffering of GLBT people in an honest and open format,” Herrin said. “We’ve had sincere conversation with students at all the universities regardless of the school’s attitude toward us.”
Herrin said the group is looking forward to the visit to ACU.
“I think we’ll have heartfelt discussion about the discrimination students feel on campus, in the churches and in society because of their lifestyle,” Herrin said. “We are going to look at Jesus’ teachings and how he loved everyone.”
Taking a stand
Herrin said the visit at ACU will be different from the visits at other universities.
“All the schools in some way have done their best to minimize our visible presence either by pushing us off campus, arresting us or restricting everything we do,” she said. “They are giving their students the message that this dialogue is not important and that they don’t want to deal with this conversation.”
On the contrary, she said ACU has given the riders a warm welcome.
“They have really rolled out the welcome mat for us,” she said. “Our visit at ACU will be an important step for America.”
The planning for the tour began more than a year ago, when Jacob Reitan, co-director of Soulforce, decided the country needed more awareness of GLBT people.
Herrin said Reitan met with a closeted student at Wheaton College, where administrators were telling him he was sick and sinful, and he needed to choose between his faith and identity.
She said Reitan knew the GLBT rights community was not proactive enough in the American community, especially youth GLBT, so he put the two together to create Soulforce’s Equality Ride.
Herrin said 220 universities in America ban the enrollment of GLBT students, and so it became a process of elimination to select the schools. She said they contacted the schools and waited for a response before deciding what their itinerary and schedule should look like.
“After working with the schools a little bit, we had a general idea of how the visits would go,” she said.
Twenty-four Equality Riders and several community members were arrested at Liberty University, which the group expected, Herrin said.
Regent University rescinded its offer for the members to speak on campus a week before they arrived because of discrepancies on Soulforces’ Web site about policies and the schedule.
In a letter sent to Reitan on March 7, Regent officials rescinded their offer because of false claims that the university has a “strident and anti-GLBT policy,” which was not true, officials said. Despite knowledge that this statement wasn’t true, members of Soulforce didn’t change the facts on their Web site, creating a “media circus” for the university, the letter stated.
Three forum opportunities had also been planned but were rescinded when riders reported that Regent refused dialogue, despite their forum opportunities. Officials informed riders they were no longer welcome on campus nor would they be granted access, which resulted in six arrests.
Herrin said members were surprised by the reaction at Lee University.
“We had expected to go on campus and have good dialogue, but instead we were met on the bus when we arrived and told, ‘You can do this, this, this, this or this,’ which basically limited everything, and they wouldn’t compromise either.”
Riders were shown to a far corner of the campus at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and not allowed to interact with students publicly.
She said members knew they weren’t welcome at Oral Roberts University, and eight members were arrested.
“Success is when at the end of the day Soulforce Equality Riders and the school has embraced academic freedom and had sincere discussion on campus about GLBT students and their policies,” Herrin said. “Obviously that hasn’t happened yet at any of the schools, but I think we will find success at ACU.”