Equality Riders Visit Anti-LGBT Christian Colleges

by Megan Barnes

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 20, 2012

Seventeen young activists hit the road from Philadelphia on March 4 for a two-month national bus tour visiting colleges that openly discriminate against LGBT students.

The Soulforce Equality Riders made their first stop in Atlanta on March 6, where they were locked out of Carver College, a Bible college that expels students in same-sex relationships. The ride will end in San Francisco on May 2.

"We really just want to target oppression where it starts, where the base is, and we believe that the root is visiting these institutions in our country," said J. Mason, 27, who co-directs the Soulforce Equality Ride.

Launched by the national LGBT social justice group Soulforce, the tour will stop at 15 colleges with anti-LGBT policies. The group has visited more than 70 institutions since the first Equality Ride six years ago, resulting in at least seven policy changes and 30 new gay-straight alliance clubs.

The expulsion of LGBT students and staff and use of "ex gay" therapy are just some of the practices Soulforce hopes to change at more than 200 private Christian colleges across the country.

"At a lot of these schools, if you are expelled, you can't even get your transcripts, so you have to start all over some place new," said Mason.

The riders put on forums, nonviolent demonstrations and connect with marginalized LGBT students on campus at each of their stops. Not all of the colleges ban the riders from entering campus, but often times, students only find out about the tour's arrival on the Internet.

"We talked to so many students who kept saying, 'Oh I have a friend that's gay,' and about the fear of their 'friends,'" said Mason in reference to speaking with students at Wheaton College in Chicago last week. "People did not feel comfortable telling us that they themselves were gay or bi or queer, so that definitely spoke volumes."

Another recurring experience is that while administrators and faculty say the riders are welcome, they become tight lipped and closed off once attempts at dialogues are made.

"It's been challenging to go to schools where the lesbian, gay, bisexual trans and queer community really is very silent," said Chelsea Fullerton, 22, of Athens, Ga. This is her first time riding on the tour.

"It's also been very encouraging to be able to go give these students a voice because in many cases they haven't been heard before," added Fullerton.

She and the 16 other young activists from across the country get emails from students thanking them for coming to campuses where homosexuality is condemned. They also hear from students opening their minds to acceptance of LGBT people.

"We see students say, 'I've never thought about this before in my life, now I really want to learn to be a better ally on my campus,'" said Fullerton. "We've seen students trying to rally together and form a queer straight alliance on their campus, when a group like that has never existed before."

While not a Christian organization itself, Soulforce focuses much of its work on ending religious discrimination against LGBTs. The organization's founder and director are both reverends.

The hope, Mason said, is that tackling homophobia in the belly of the beast will eventually impact the country as a whole.

"These are the future leaders of who will be dictating what happens in these religious bases, so we're trying to impact that climate, and these are also the leaders who will be engaging in the political sphere," he said. "We feel like the work we're doing is so beyond the schools we're visiting and we're trying to ripple it out everywhere."

Log onto Soulforce's website for more information about the Equality Ride.

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com