Op-ed: While the Candidates Run, We Ride 

BY Advocate Contributors

January 21 2012 5:00 AM ET

 

In the last
three months, we’ve heard Rick Santorum’s wife tell the mother of a gay young
man in South Carolina that "gay activists …vilify him, and it's so wrong.”
We’ve also endured Rick Perry’s campaign ad demonizing soldiers’ service to our
country by claiming, “Gays can serve openly in our military, but our children
can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” And don’t forget thrice-married Newt
Gingrich hypocritically evangelizing about the harm that same-sex marriage
would cause the sacred institution.

There’s no
doubt that even as the field of Republican candidates winnows, we haven’t heard
the last of these offensive and incredibly harmful views on our equality
espoused on a national public stage. That’s why this year’s Soulforce Equality Ride is needed perhaps now more than
ever.

When the
Soulforce Equality Ride began back in 2006, its mission was simple: end the sanctioned
discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals
at private colleges and universities across the country. As I listen to the “Rick
Santorums” and “Newt Gingriches” of the world politicize our lives and endanger
the personal safety and well-being of my LGBTQ siblings, I hope they know that
their vitriol toward our community has made me and my fellow Equality Riders more
resolved and determined to create positive change in the lives of those
affected most.

In 2009, I
ended the year closeted and isolated. I felt that I was the only person in the
world struggling to reconcile the seemingly conflicting identities of a person
of faith and someone in the LGBTQ spectrum. I had endured reparative therapy
provided by the Mormon Church and then been pressured to find a wife. I finally
left the church after ending an engagement to a nice young woman who I couldn’t
bring myself to marry – no matter how much pressure I got from the “Mitt
Romneys” who believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman.

I was lost,
and I had never felt so alone. It was during this time that I saw the
documentary Equality U, a film that depicts the efforts of the 2006 Soulforce Equality Ride. I
applied for the 2010 Equality Ride the day after watching and resolved to come
out of the closet if I was accepted as a rider. Now I am honored to be named a
co-director of the Ride this year.

Since its
launch in 2006, the Equality Ride has visited more than 70 of the more than 200
institutions in our country that still have discriminatory policies. As we
prepare for our fifth launch in March of this year, the focus of the program
has been adjusted to include work in the communities that house these
institutions, thus bridging the gap between students and affirming community
members.

The Ride
has helped seven schools change their anti-LGBTQ policies since it began. Each
year, Soulforce continues to build up or establish dozens of student and alumni
groups (some officially recognized, others operating underground), which act as
safe havens for LGBTQ students and faculty. The little changes are adding up to
huge shifts in the way LGBTQ individuals are received.

In addition
to the relief that we are able to provide students and faculty suffering in
silence, we have trained hundreds of the social justice leaders of tomorrow.
Equality Riders receive top-notch training across the social justice field and
are provided with the leadership tools to develop stops along the route of the
Ride. For many, the Equality Ride provides a sense of family and community.

Many would
ask why this work is so important, and frequently I have been asked why we
insist on taking our “agenda” to private institutions that are legally allowed
to discriminate. My answer is simple: these institutions train the next
generation of evangelical leaders. These leaders will fill local and national
government positions, allowing them to preach across
pulpits all over the world, and their words will have an immense impact on the
treatment of LGBTQ individuals.

There may
always be the “Rick Santorums” of the world, but the work we do provides the
most isolated of our community with safe spaces in which to exist. Furthermore,
we are exposing tens of thousands of evangelical leaders to the stories and
struggles of LGBTQ people, changing hearts and minds one person — and one bus
tour — at a time.

 

Soulforce is a national nonprofit focused on
ending the spiritual and political oppression of LGBTQ individuals through
relentless nonviolent resistance. The Equality Ride is a two-month bus tour
taking young adult participants around the country to discuss the inclusion of
LGBTQ people at mostly Christian colleges and universities. Jason Conner is the
Director of Programs for Soulforce and one of the directors of the 2012
Soulforce Equality Ride. Find out more by visiting
www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.

 


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