This post is by Equality U director Dave O’Brien. You can connect with Dave on Twitter at @dave_obrien
In March, 2006, equality hit the road and I got to be there with a camera. At over 200 colleges in the US, students face disciplinary action or even be kicked out simply for being gay. At these mostly private Christian colleges, policy states that because homosexuality goes against church teachings, any student who engages in homosexual behavior, who identifies as gay and in some cases who simply advocates a view of LGBT people that is different from what that school teaches, can be expelled from school. As director of the documentary EQUALITY U about the first ever Soulforce Equality Ride, I got to see what goes on at these schools first-hand, and what happens when a bus-load of young, mostly LGBT activists show up for a visit.
I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A huge, mid-western public school that’s all about Badger football, Madison also proved to be a relatively great place for me to come out as gay. I volunteered on Tammy Baldwin’s historic first race for Congress, helped develop a curriculum for what is now the school’s LGBT studies program and met my first boyfriend, all within three years of coming out. While coming out was then, and still is for most people a scary thing to do, I found myself embraced by a community of LGBT people and friends who helped me come to understand that it was ok to be who I am. I never dreamed that there were colleges that not only didn’t have an LGBT Campus Center, but instead required students who were questioning their sexuality to undergo “reparative therapy” in an effort to convince them they actually weren’t gay.
When I came out to my parents about a year and a half after telling my friends, my father cried because, as he said, “I always assumed I’d see you in heaven.” He and I had both grown up in Catholic households, and since the Catholic Church believes gay people are “disordered” then, it must follow that living one’s life as an openly LGBT person must distance them from God and the ability to go to heaven. As I became more and more comfortable with myself and met more LGBT people, I came to believe that there couldn’t possibly be truth in that. I saw more of the traits that demonstrated to me what it is to be a Christian among many LGBT people of all faith backgrounds than I did in the hateful words of people who preached intolerance. I also knew deep down that I was loved by God and that I had been created as I am because he wanted me to be that way.
I learned about the Soulforce Equality Ride in the summer of 2005. A group of young people were planning to get on a bus to travel to nineteen colleges across the US with policies banning homosexuality to talk with students and administrators about why they believed those policies were wrong. In speaking with then 23 year old organizers Jake Reitan and Haven Herrin, I heard a passion I thought might translate into an incredibly moving film. They planned to visit many of the big names in Christian colleges, schools like Fallwell’s Liberty University, Pat Robertson’s Regent University and Brigham Young University in Utah. At schools that welcomed them, they planned workshops and informal discussions with students and staff. If they were not welcomed, they planned to go to campus anyway and face arrest if university officials refused to allow them on campus.
Many of the riders identified as Christian themselves, and some had attended or been expelled from the very schools we were to visit. I met David Coleman who had attended North Central University in Minnesota because he wanted to become a minister, only to be expelled from that school at the end of his junior year because he confided in an administrator that he was gay. I met Pam Disel, a tough girl with a heart of gold who had been gay-bashed by two strangers. Seminarian Kayla Bonewell’s struggle to maintain a tenuous relationship with her father, even during the Ride, reflected my own experience in the period after I came out to my own family.
As we travelled all over the US, my crew and I got to know the Equality Riders as we filmed them connecting with thousands of young people. I watched as they talked with students who had been taught that gays were sick, sinful creatures who mocked God, as they were faced with caring, whole people, many of whom shared their sense of faith, and all of whom had stories to tell about acceptance and love. Schools where the mere concept that gay people might not be committing a sin by living openly had been a taboo topic suddenly became places of open dialogue about gay people, gay rights and the possibility of a place for LGBT people in God’s design for humanity. I also watched as the Riders disobeyed campus administrators at schools that refused them entry and were arrested in civil disobedience, creating in many cases, even more meaningful discussion with students who saw for the first time the lengths their leaders would go to to silence opposing voices. What was most incredible to me was watching the hearts and minds of so many students open up for the first time to the possibility that we might not be so different from them after all. That we too, are a part of God’s plan.
A few months after I got home from the Ride and we were heavily in the throes of editing the documentary, I got a call from my father. It was November 2006 and a gay marriage ban was up for a vote in my home state of Wisconsin. My dad had told me that priests in the diocese of Madison would be required to play a recording on the Sunday before the vote of a message from the Bishop asking parishioners to vote in favor of the ban. He knew the message would contain discussion of the Catholic teaching that being gay is sinful and that gay marriage was a threat to the family as we know it. My father, who less than eight years earlier had told me he was sad he wouldn’t see me in heaven, didn’t hear the entire recording that Sunday. A few minutes into the sermon he stood up and walked out of church. A small group joined him in his unplanned moment of activism. “I just couldn’t sit there and listen to them preach something that I know isn’t true,” he said.