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Op-ed: While the Candidates Run, We Ride 

Op-ed: While the Candidates Run, We Ride 

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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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