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Making the
"necessary trouble" on campus

Making the
"necessary trouble" on campus


In the first of The Advocate's series of dispatches from the Equality Ride to antigay colleges, the young co-organizer connects his activism to the civil rights leaders who inspired him--and describes what happened when the riders showed up on Jerry Falwell's doorstep

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In May 1961 a young man came to Washington, D.C., for the first time to embark on the Freedom Rides, a tour through the South that challenged the unjust laws of segregation and changed the conscience of the United States. Now a congressman from Atlanta, John Lewis traveled with other visionaries through Anniston and Birmingham, Ala., with a goal of reaching New Orleans on the anniversary of the Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision on May 17.

The Freedom Rides sought to test enforcement of the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1946 Irene Moore case, declaring that the segregation of interstate travelers was unconstitutional. Along the way John Lewis and the other Freedom Riders met with horrible violence and were eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., where they were sent to prison for 60 days.

When I first learned about the actions of congressman Lewis as a high school student, I was inspired. I was awed by the courage of his convictions and the determination of his spirit to bring an end to the suffering caused by racism in the United States.

After I came out as gay in my junior year of high school, I dreamed of one day participating in a similar journey for justice.

During my college years at Northwestern University, I was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for young adults to pursue justice for gay and lesbian people. The GLBT rights movement does a terrific job of lobbying Congress, organizing the electorate around pertinent voter initiatives, and engaging in important and meaningful judicial advocacy. But what is lacking in the movement for GLBT justice is the rudimentary aspect of activism that should be the cornerstone of every major justice movement as it was during the struggle for civil rights.

At Northwestern University I continually asked myself, Where are our sit-ins? Where are our Freedom Rides? Why aren't today's young adults pouring out into the streets and demanding equality through their words, and indeed their very presence? My frustration fostered in me a resolve to do something. Rather than just thinking about and dreaming about a sustained movement of young adults fighting for GLBT justice, I would create the opportunity I sought for others and myself. But I wasn't sure what that would be.

I asked myself, What does a sit-in for gay and lesbian rights look like? What does a Freedom Ride for gay and lesbian equality entail? Unlike the struggle for African-American equality, there are no lunch counters where we are refused service. There aren't bus stations where we can't sit with our friends. There aren't drinking fountains for straights and drinking fountains for gays. This is surely the source of the comfort we feel living with GLBT discrimination.

Ultimately, it wasn't until my sophomore year of college that my idea for a youth-driven stand for GLBT justice took form. The concept came to me in the most unlikely of places. I was in a bar in Boystown, the gay neighborhood of Chicago, and approached an attractive young man whom I discovered was a Wheaton College student. Wheaton is a conservative Christian college just west of Chicago. So I asked, "What is it like to be gay and a student at Wheaton?"

He looked at me and responded, "Well, no one knows I am gay. If I came out at Wheaton, I could get kicked out of school."

"That's a horrible policy," I said. "We should do something about this."

"Actually, I think it's a good policy," he said. "I think it's a sin to be gay."

I was shocked. Here I am talking to a gay man in a gay bar in Chicago. He was raised by fundamentalist parents in a fundamentalist community and now goes to a fundamentalist school. He has learned his whole life that being gay is sick and sinful, yet invariably on a Friday night he finds himself in a bar looking to be affirmed and loved. When he hears my affirming message, he is unable to internalize it because of a lifelong message of condemnation.

I grew angry. It was clear to me that the GLBT rights movement, in its lack of determination to do activism, had failed this young man. We hadn't gone into his family, into his community, and into his school to send him the message that God loves him without reservation just as he is. After that night I knew the goal for young adults seeking justice for GLBT people. We needed to help this young man know the truth about himself and about God.

I set to work to create the Soulforce Equality Ride, a two-month nationwide journey that will take 35 young adults to 18 colleges that have policies banning the enrollment of openly GLBT people. Over the next 51 days, 34 other riders and I will visit schools like Brigham Young University, West Point, and, most importantly, Wheaton to talk about GLBT issues and call for change.

Last Friday, March 10, we made our first stop, at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Sadly, rather than allow us to enter campus, the Reverend Falwell chose to have us arrested. Twenty-four of us were charged with trespassing, and another organizer and I were charged with an additional count of inciting others to trespass.

Thankfully, a majority of the schools we will be visiting are not reacting with same level of hostility as the Reverend Falwell's. Most of the schools have said we may come onto campus, and nearly half of the administrations have worked with us to create programming around our visit.

On the eve of our cross-country journey, the members of the Equality Ride had the honor of meeting with Congressman John Lewis to discuss our impending work. Lewis shared stories of the Freedom Rides and words of support and encouragement for our journey. We all left inspired and with resolute spirits. Congressman Lewis told us that it was our job as youth of today to get in the way, to get in trouble--"necessary trouble," he calls it--in order to move the struggle for gay and lesbian rights forward. I believe the Soulforce Equality Ride heeds that call and will do right by his spirit of conviction and commitment to justice.

Over the next weeks articles written by Equality Riders sharing the experiences of our journey will appear here in The Advocate online at I hope that you will follow our actions and support our efforts.

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Making the
"necessary trouble" on campus

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