Queer activism in Northern Virginia: Radical dialogue

Soulforce Equality Ride-Patrick Henry College: Welcome to Patrick Henry College A couple of weeks ago I traveled with one of my best friends Tommy and 13 others from the Philadelphia area to Northern Virginia to support the Soulforce Equality Ride, a group of queer and straight young adults who travel to colleges with policies that discriminate against queer students (usually by throwing them out). This stop, effectively the closest one to Philadelphia for this year's Equality Ride, was at Patrick Henry College, a conservative Christian college that trains many future political leaders in the Capitol and White House. Tommy was an Equality Rider last year, the first year of the project.

The purpose of the Equality Ride isn't to protest — it's to have a dialogue with the students. When colleges have let them, Equality Riders have had open discussions with students about LGBT and queer identities and religious perspectives in support of such identities. The Equality Riders, many of whom are themselves Christian, talk about the Biblical basis for an acceptance and celebration of who they are.

Equally important is to support students at these schools who are queer but fearful of coming out. And there are many — Brigham Young University in Utah has the highest suicide rate for queer students, and at many stops, queer alumni contact Soulforce ahead of the event. While these colleges do have discriminatory policies, students may be forced into these situations for economic, religious or familial reasons and may not necessarily support the policies.

Unfortunately, Patrick Henry College refused to allow the Equality Riders — who are grounded and extensively trained in Gandhian nonviolence — from even entering campus. They offered a tightly-constrained debate off-campus on the subject of the Federal Marriage Amendment — essentially irrelevant to why Equality Riders were there. As a result, the Equality Riders and supporters from Philadelphia, George Mason University and the Winchester area stood in silent vigil at the edge of campus.

We held signs inviting students at the college to a community dinner and to dialogue via phone. Periodically, the silence was punctuated by the reading of scriptures or the singing of hymns. Two Equality Riders were arrested in a planned act of nonviolent civil disobedience, when they stepped on to campus with invitations for student leaders to the community dinner.

The Washington Post, which covered the event, wrote about the preparations for the event by Robin Reynolds, the Equality Rider who coordinated this stop:

The riders sat around and read Patrick Henry's student handbook: "The practice of homosexual conduct or other extramarital relations is inconsistent with our faith position," it says. It also condemns legal structures that condone "inappropriate sexual activity or lust, heterosexual or homosexual."

Some Christian colleges list homosexuality along with rape and harassment, so the riders see this handbook as an improvement, but it's not enough for Reynolds. "What's scary is that these people are going straight to Capitol Hill and the White House without ever talking to people of different views," she said.

Reynolds had the makings of a public relations problem for Patrick Henry. She is African American, and the school is highly self-conscious of its inability to recruit many African American students (this year it has one out of a student body of about 325). She is earnest and polite and always speaks earnest evangelese -- "goodness gracious" and "my word" and "have a blessed day." Before she eats or takes a trip or makes a phone call, she prays to Jesus.

The Post story also has an excellent video in the sidebar. You can also view a slideshow of my photographs (click on an individual image for more information), photos from Equality Rider Adam Britt, and a video from Equality Rider Matt Hill Comer:

In the photographs and videos, you will see just how worried these colleges get when nonviolent, spiritually-based young adults come their way — more than 100 Virginia state police to meet a bunch of people holding signs and singing songs.

To me, this is one of the most important examples of radical activism I've seen in a long time. Equality Riders aren't trying to pass legislation, they're not trying to sue people in the courts, they're not running for Congress or working on a campaign — they're talking directly to those most directly affected by this oppression. Surely there are many instances in which ACT-UP–style direct action continues to be necessary. But this kind of direct action, decidedly less glamorous, will be necessary in the long run to change the societal oppression that continues to bear down on everyone.

And we now have proof that it works. Three weeks after the Equality Ride visited Brigham Young University for the second year in a row, the university revised its policy on queer students. It's still not that great, to be sure, but it is a marked improvement — and it's undoubtedly a result of the exposure generated by two Equality Ride visits and a documentary:

Additionally, one always has to remember that at the heart of this issue there are queer students, silently suffering at the hands of religious-based oppression in their schools. If Soulforce communicates to even one of these students that there is hope, if it turns back even one student from thoughts of suicide, then I'd say it's been absolutely effective.

Tomorrow, the Equality Riders arrive at their last stop, at Bethany Lutheran College in Minnesota.

More information: Soulforce Blog, Equality U Documentary, Sponsor an Equality Rider.