Why I chose to be arrested

The codirector of the Equality Ride writes about her decision to be handcuffed and booked at the ride’s second stop: “I chose to walk onto campus to tell gay and lesbian students at Regent University that the God of their faith does indeed claim them, even if their church does not.”

BY Haven Herrin

March 17 2006 12:00 AM ET

This is the second of The Advocate’s
dispatches from the Equality Ride. Sponsored by
Soulforce, the ride is taking 33 young LGBT
activists to college campuses across the nation that
have policies of ejecting openly gay and lesbian
students. The confrontational first stop was last
week at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in
Lynchburg, Va. On Tuesday, March 14, the riders
arrived at Regent University in Virginia Beach,
Va., an institution that promises to shape
“Christian leadership to change the
world.” Regent was not welcoming to the
activists. This dispatch was written by Haven
Herrin, codirector of the Equality Ride.
 

The policeman who
arrested me, Officer King, wanted to know why I
bothered crossing the yellow tape onto the Regent University
campus on Tuesday, March 14. As he observed, I already
had the local Fox and ABC affiliates, a delegate from
Focus on the Family, and a host of other cameras there
to witness the presence of the Soulforce Equality Ride. I
had the media in spades—thanks to Regent’s
mounted police, unmarked patrol cars, and the promise
of arrest—but what I did not have yet was the
irrefutable evidence of my convictions.

I crossed the
line because, if I had been satisfied with the spectacle
and the aesthetic of our message, I would have betrayed our
reason for traveling across the country for two months
to schools that uphold discrimination against gay and
lesbian students. If I were to have stopped short of
crossing that line, then our message would have spoken
merely of the 33 of us: how we looked on camera and how much
press coverage we achieved—rather than having
demonstrated the lack of dialogue on campus regarding
GLBT inequality.

The message of
the Soulforce Equality Ride is that the religion-based
oppression of GLBT students must end; we are loved as we are
without reservation. The absence of this notion on
campuses is the cause of so much suffering that we
cannot stop short out of fear, discouragement, or
self-preservation. So how can I take a stand that is larger
than my personhood, or my time on Tuesday, March 14,
or my intellectual arguments? How can I reach beyond
the phenomenal, to borrow a Buddhist term, and thus
grant the brutality of the assault on our community’s
humanity the appropriate weight? I fear that the comfortable
apathy of our society regarding GLBT discrimination is
couched in a lack of sense of that
brutality—and a lack of anger or indignation about
it.

I am cast into
the world of the symbolic and the abstract in order to
find the stance that speaks of just how grave this assault
is. What do I have to offer up that gets to that
larger sense of things? I am not going into certain
violence and overt hatred, as did the Freedom Riders of the
1950s and 1960s. I do not have the strife of those times to
lend credibility and import to my actions. No, this
hatred is far more veiled in civility and a false idea
of sanctified religious belief. What I can do is lay
my personal autonomy down--essentially my body and my
life--by accepting handcuffs as evidence of just how
serious this brutality is.

Walking onto a
campus and allowing a school to choose to arrest me
exposes just how far an institution will go to keep its
doors locked tight against this discussion of GLBT
discrimination, and giving up control over my life
exposes just how deeply wrong I find this injustice.
The subtext of Officer King’s question is one of
vanity, as if I submit to arrest for
self-aggrandizement. On the contrary, what is vain is to
gather around the media and then stop short of sacrificing
my autonomy in order to underscore the seriousness of
GLBT inequality.

I made the
initial decision to engage in civil disobedience after
meeting a lesbian who attends Regent. She and her
friends asked me to join in their Bible study on
Monday evening. I saw this woman praise God and sing
with all her heart. Her devotion was complete and born out
of love. That her religion would reject her regardless
of this devotion was vulgar and sad to me, a rejection
most untenable.

I chose to walk
onto campus to tell students at Regent University that
the God of their faith does indeed claim them, even if their
church does not. Such love should not be met with such
denial.

On Tuesday I
strode across the few hundred feet of grass between our
vigil line and the group of police gathered behind the
yellow tape, while cameras and other officers massed
around me, trying to keep pace with me as I spoke out,
“Those students want to speak to me, and I need to
speak to them. I have a right as any other citizen to
do so.”

A bit of
background: The day before, students had attempted to reach
our vigil line in order to speak with us, but the
police ordered them away. It was the vision of two
students waiting behind the mass of officers that
pulled me across the police line Tuesday morning.

I do not recall a
time when I walked into such a critical unknown. The
officers’ threats of several months in jail and an
unmerciful arrest made the grass between the vigil
line and the police line a gulf that led to an abyss.
The police and the administration may view my actions as
petty or vain, but I am assured that my arrest was
effective communication.

For myself, I now
know just how far I will travel for my beliefs and just
how deeply my own sense of injustice and anger runs. The
strength of my stance, measured by risk, conveys the
power of my convictions.

I was released a
couple of hours after my arrest and hosted a dinner that
evening with 20 students from Regent. I came to realize that
they understand the sincerity of my interest in their
freedom and dignity because of my arrest. They had
feared for me; they had not wanted me to be arrested.
After the fact, however, they clearly understood that the
message of the Soulforce Equality Ride is unshakable. Our
words become our actions, and that is what begets the
respect and the integrity that those like us, the
people who ring the alarm, need in order to be taken
seriously.

I am not the
same. My new friends at Regent University are not the same.
I think we all understand the import of this moment in
America. We have a group of activists with a purity of
motive who have proven that even if I am arrested,
there is no end to the number of witnesses who will take my
place.

Tags: World

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