No Free Ride

Campus activists for gay rights faced bumpy road in first two stops of national tour, but hope to keep spreading the word.
March 17, 2006

About 30 activists embarked on a bus tour a week ago of 19 Christian and military campuses that have anti-gay policies. On Thursday, the Equality Ride's third stop -- at Lee University, in Tennessee -- was the charm: Nobody got arrested.

The equality riders -- all between the ages of 18-26 and identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, some of whom have been kicked out of colleges and their homes -- set out with the goal of talking to students on the targeted campuses about the pain caused by policies that restrict the ability of students to openly express their sexual identity. They hope to evoke the images of the "freedom riders" of the civil rights era, who traveled in the South to oppose racial segregation.

Chad Grandy, a student at Central Michigan University and one of the riders, was “basically put out on my own” in high school after a disagreement with his parents that stemmed from his activism. “What we’re hoping for is dialogue with students and faculty,” Grandy said. “We want to talk to them about [anti-gay policies]. Some of these students don’t know you can be gay and Christian. We just want to present ourselves as normal college students who turn in their homework late … they’re just gay.” Richard Lindsay, another of the riders, added that he wanted to reach out to the “younger generation for whom issues around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [people] are not that scary.”

The first stop, at Liberty University on March 10, ended with 24 activists getting arrested.for trespassing. Rev. Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty, issued a statement before the visit that made clear he views the Equality Ride as a publicity stunt. Liberty will not “permit them to espouse opinions or otherwise suggest beliefs or lifestyles that are in opposition to the morals and values that this institution promotes,” according to the statement.

A letter from a Liberty alumnus, Greg Turner, to the riders describes the experience of a young gay man who loved his institution, but was continually frustrated as he was advised that he should try to change himself. “I tried praying, fasting, casting out demons, having others pray for me, but nothing happened,” the letter says. Eventually, Turner’s sexuality cost him his job on campus in the human resources department. “They also told me that they loved me, but they couldn't have someone like me working there.”

Despite the arrests, riders said, they did get to talk to some students at Liberty.

On Tuesday, the ride stopped at Regent University, in Virginia, which initially said it would welcome the Equality Ride. Randall Pannell, associate vice president for academic affairs, helped organize a lunch and several discussions for the visit. But shortly before the ride came to town, Regent rescinded its invitation, and when the riders showed up, a line of campus police officers separated them from the campus.

“What was sad at Regent was to see their students prevented from talking to us,” Grandy said. Some riders held up signs with their cell phone numbers and spoke with interested students later on. The event ended in six arrests for trespassing -- all six signed summonses and were quickly released --
and disappointment for Pannell.

He said that, even after Regent extended an invitation, the university continued to get calls from reporters asking why Regent “wouldn’t dialogue with these people." The reporters were reacting to the Equality Ride Web site, which was not immediately changed to reflect the invitation from Regent. Because of that, “we really lost confidence that they wanted to dialogue with us,” Pannell said. “The possibility emerged that they were coming to use us for publicity. There wasn’t a good faith effort."

Grandy said that the Web designer simply didn’t update the site to reflect Regent’s invitation for about a week. “It was pretty petty, and it’s something we apologized for,” he said. “They still didn’t accept that.”

Grandy and Pannell spoke on the phone, and may have a chance to meet again at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conference in Dallas later this month. The Equality Ride has scheduled the conference in its plans, and CCCU officials have said that, though none of the riders have registered as yet, they would be welcome to attend if they register like any other attendee. The riders are planning both a press conference and an off-grounds reception during the conference.

The CCCU issued a statement on March 9 that called the Equality Ride “an important opportunity for our campuses to show care and compassion to the gay and lesbian young people on this ride.” But it added that “we do not want to compromise on what Scripture teaches about sexual sin.”

Thursday’s visit to Lee University went much more smoothly, with no arrests, and a lot of talk from the morning late into the evening, according to riders. “I know when we leave the policies will still be there,” Grandy said. “People will still have the same feelings, but we’ll talk to a lot of students and open up there minds. And over time things will change. We’ll let them know it’s OK to be gay and Christian at the same time. I’m most excited to be speaking to the next generation of spiritual leaders.”


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