Shifting the Ground We Walk On
Lately mainstream media outlets have been especially tuned into news about the religious freedom bills creeping through the South where I was just a little over a week ago with the Beyond Equality Ride, challenging spiritual violence and LGBTQI oppression at the source on Christian college campuses. In a matter of seventeen days, we criss-crossed five states to meet with students and administration at various schools to discuss the current climate on their campuses, gather information about needed resources, and offer support however we can. I still find myself processing a lot of the events and emotions of the Ride, but one thing I’ve been reflecting on is how to piece together the narratives and politics that surround our work in this moment. I’m realizing that I had never before been able to link so many ways in which “religious freedom,” fundamentalism, transphobia, sexual assault, and white supremacy are all interconnected; it has never been made more evident to me than under the roofs of these Christian collegiate academies. Meeting after meeting, we found similar sentiments echoing from behind podiums, across the lunch table, and in nondescript buildings tucked away in the corners of campuses and out beyond historic slave cemeteries. Some administrators, counselors, and faculty have good intentions and genuinely care about the well-being of their students, yet have nothing to offer to LGBTQI students who were suffering on their campus, because their job depends on their silence in an fundamentalist controlled system. It seemed as if nothing could begin to unravel the web of fear spun by the larger governing bodies of their denominations, conservative donors, and a legacy of deep seeded white supremacy. No amount of personal stories of harassment, academic fatigue, and mental health issues from LGBTQI youth and no amount of offers of Soulforce resources and suggestions of ways to make campuses more safe for queer and trans people seemed to be able to break through the institutionalized rhetoric of states rights and religious freedom. Behind closed doors, though, in secret meetings at undisclosed locations, certain faculty and staff gave us insight on where change is possible. For example, one frustrated administrator, who felt the spiritual weight of compromising their values by towing the university party line, confessed us, “Nothing will ever change here unless there is a shift in the ground we walk on.” A little while later in the conversation, without even mentioning our #GiveBackIX campaign and our open letter to the NCAA with Campus Pride, another administrator told us, “Everyone around here is keeping an eye on the NCAA; if they stop letting schools with Title IX exemption compete, that would be interesting.” Some else at the table responded, “That would move the ground we walk on.” Our #GiveBackIX campaign along with targeting the NCAA is one effort among many to liberate administrators, faculty, and staff from the hierarchy of power that trickles down to prevent them from prioritizing the safety of students in their care. There are currently 29 NCAA Christian schools who have a Title IX exemption already approved or currently pending, most of which are related to discrimination based on gender identity. It’s important for me to emphasize that consistently throughout the Ride, we saw most people’s panic exposed not in conversations about sexual orientation, but gender identity. The concept that male and female binaries are entirely socially constructed, reinforced by Christian fundamentalism, and absolutely deadly to trans people was the fork in the road where we almost always parted ways with Christian colleges. Deconstructing the myth of “man” and “woman” to allow for the possibility of many genders is dangerous because it threatens to destroy a long, long history of gender inequality. When we demand for the NCAA to divest from religious schools we’re not just talking about equal access for athletes or people privileged enough to participate in higher academia. We’re talking about victims of sexual assault and groups of people who are not afforded equal educational opportunities because of their gender. We’re talking about trans people and gender nonconforming people, especially those from people of color who are, and have to, be the center of our struggle for liberation. This Saturday, April 9th we are charging forward with the third month of our #GiveBackIX campaign with more conviction than ever and immense gratitude for those who paved the way ahead of us. I’ll be at the Pomona Pitzer Track and Field Invitational 30th annual meet with some incredible Pomona athletes who answered the call for solidarity with queer and trans people at religious schools. Three Christian schools with particularly nasty track records (excuse the pun) concerning LGBTQI people will be participating in Saturday’s meets. Pepperdine University is currently involved in a lawsuit concerning the harassment of two lesbian basketball players. One was driven to attempt suicide and both are currently still trying to rebuild their academic careers elsewhere. Cal Baptist University expelled a transgender student in 2011 and won in court to continue excluding transgender students from classes on campus. Fresno Pacific University received a Title IX exemption last year to discriminate on the basis of gender identity in admissions, educational programs and activities, housing, access to classes and schools, access to institutions of vocational education, counseling and use of counseling materials, financial assistance, employment assistance to students, health and insurance benefits and services, athletes, and the list goes on. We are told over and over again that things can’t change because the systems of power are too complicated and that sports leagues in particular won’t do a damn thing to stand up against LGBTQI discrimination. But that’s exactly the narrative we are fed about our churches, but our youth and student activists are still demanding change everywhere. And winning. Youth activism inspires me to do the impossible every single day.. I’m reminded that sometimes bravery is more important than strategy. And most importantly, I’m reminded that this is about more than just a few of us. Join us on the 9th in telling the NCAA that you stand with LGBTQI students at religious schools, and they should too. If you are situated in Southern California and are interested in participating in our demonstration at Pomona College this Saturday, April 9th, please contact Jordyn@soulforce.org for more information.