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Invisible at Oral

Invisible at Oral


A stop at the notoriously antigay university in Tulsa, Okla., results in a few arrests and some off-campus dialogue. But Oral Roberts did such a thorough job of closing itself off, this rider fears some local folks didn't even get a chance to make up their own minds.

This is the fourth in a series of Advocate dispatches from the Equality Ride. Sponsored by Soulforce, the ride is taking 33 young LGBT activists on a nationwide tour of college campuses with policies that call for ejecting openly gay and lesbian students. Its first three stops--Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.; Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.; and Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn.--led to a lot of constructive dialogue as well as some arrests for "trespassing." This dispatch was written by Equality Rider Rachel Powell.

Weeks before our planned March 20 visit to Tulsa, Okla., I could tell that the Soulforce Equality Ride visit to Oral Roberts University would not be pleasant. Fellow rider Nathan and I exchanged phone calls back and forth each time a new letter came from ORU vice president Ralph Fagin, and we kept considering how to respond to Fagin's repeated statement that "our campus will not be available to your group." Still, we on the Equality Ride pledge to continuously attempt to dialogue until the very day we arrive on campus, so I held out hope.

We drove into Tulsa on the Sunday night before our visit to the school and realized that we were now facing two demands to turn away: the first from VP Fagin, the second from the weather. The forecast for our Monday visit: high of 44 degrees, 90% chance of rain. Knowing that discrimination against LGBT students is worse than any weather condition, we drove our bus out to Helmerich Park Monday morning to greet the 36-degree air and light mist.

Police presence greeting Equality Riders at Oral Roberts University.

We arrived at the park and met with a few Oklahoma residents who had also braved the weather to come out and stand with us at ORU. Nathan did a run-down of the nonviolent training while I met with Captain Tim Jones of the Tulsa Police Department. He offered me a short tour of the ORU campus, at least the area we would be allowed to be on.

We made light conversation as he drove the mile from the park to the campus, and when he parked across the street from campus, I studied what was becoming the usual for the ride: police tape about three feet into campus from the road, cones and barricades, and about 20 officers in uniform.

After returning to the park and getting everyone on the bus, we drove to ORU and parked temporarily while an ORU representative and a Tulsa police representative spoke a few words to us. The Tulsa cop gave us the usual warning that they must uphold trespassing laws, but the ORU representative surprised us with his curt warning, which was hardly longer than his statement: "We love you, but don't come on our campus."

The riders filed out of the bus and onto the sidewalk across the street from ORU and we began holding our silent vigil. This time we were equipped with tall posters, each bearing the face of an individual who had been beaten, killed, or driven to suicide for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Media crush as Equality Riders cross the street to the campus of ORU and waiting police.

After our vigil in the harsh cold, Jake, Nathan, and I each spoke a few words for the media about what the Equality Ride was and why we were visiting Oral Roberts University. When the cameras stopped rolling, we knew it was time to make our stand and to cross the street to bring our message to campus. One by one, seven riders and two community members approached the police line, read a positive, love-inspiring Bible verse, and crossed the line onto campus.

Each of them was arrested.

Shortly after that, the rest of the riders returned to the bus. Over the next eight hours, the nine arrestees and I waited at the jail; I am the police liaison for several stops and am thus required to wait at the jail while the riders are processed and released. Some riders had lunch and returned to the hotel to rest or do laundry, and the rest of the riders met with ORU students at coffeehouses for private dialogue.

Generally for the ride, even a day such as this one is ranked a success. The riders uphold our determination to bring our message to campus, the media and the locals watching the news see the way the administrations use the law to prevent intellectual discourse, and life-changing conversations are held with students who are willing to make the journey off campus to talk with us.

So why, even though we fulfilled our dream of talking with students and reaching out to those in need, do I feel like our visit to ORU was the most unproductive so far?

Through talking with my mentor, I see now that the feeling I have is because we--the Equality Ride--were practically invisible to Oral Roberts University and the Tulsa community at large. Vice President Ralph Fagin shut down our communication with the school before it even began. We were told by an ORU student that the Equality Ride Web site had been banned from the allowed Web sites list on the university's network. We were separated from ORU and its students by a major road of flowing traffic. The weather was hardly conducive to meet-and-greets. Though we had several news networks attend our vigil, the television clips and written articles were terribly short.

Even with disagreement, there is dialogue. There is the exchange of information and ideas. There is the possibility that one or both or all people engaged in dialogue might grow as people. There is a development of patience, speaking skills, listening skills, and clarity of thought. There is hope that we might come to understand each other, accept each other, and love each other. All of this we achieved with the Oral Roberts students with whom we spoke in coffeehouses.

Yet the blatant indifference we received from the Oral Roberts administration and the Tulsa community at large signifies--to me, at least--that what is worse than disagreement is invisibility. I only hope that one day the LGBT students and their straight allies at Oral Roberts University will no longer be invisible.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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