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The Road to Redemption

Equality Ride aims to engage Christian college students

By Kevin Osborne · March 24th, 2010 · News
Nick Miller hopes putting a face on the term “gay” will help change the perceptions of conservative college students who’ve never been exposed to gay or lesbian people before. Well, at least not knowingly exposed.

“They’ve probably known and talked to gay people before, they just didn’t know it,” he said. “Because of the environment they’re in, they probably weren’t out.”

Miller, a Cincinnati native, is touring a large swath of the United States this winter and spring on a bus as part of Equality Ride 2010. The annual event is staged by the Soulforce organization, which describes it as a “traveling forum.” The tour will stop at 16 private colleges and universities in an effort to change views about homosexuality and promote tolerance.

The colleges and universities selected are mostly fundamentalist Christian institutions and all have policies in their handbooks that discriminate against students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) — an alphabet soup-like acronym that tries to capture the wide breadth of human sexuality.

“They chose colleges and universities that have some sort of policy in their handbooks that treat (LGBTQ) students differently,” Miller recently said by phone from the tour bus. “Each of them has discipline attached to it. There is some sort of punishment or reparative therapy required.

“At some colleges (these) students are expelled because of who they are,” Miller added.

“In some denominations, gay pastors and clergymen are stripped of their titles and status if they disclose their sexual orientation. These prejudices are based on fear and although many of these places preach love, tolerance and acceptance for all, their actions do not represent that message.”

First staged in 2006, Equality Ride uses direct action to engage with campuses and their surrounding communities. During stops, riders participate in volunteer work, host informational forums, offer to link students with LGBTQ resources in their community, and — watch out, Glenn Beck — support existing social justice work.

Miller, 26, who has previously lived in the Clifton and Northside neighborhoods, is one of 25 people — all between the ages of 18 and 29 — who were selected from applicants throughout the nation to participate in the ride.

The trip lasts about nine weeks, from March 3 to April 28.

Recent stops included Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa.; Houghton College in western New York; and Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala.

The project’s name is reminiscent of the “Freedom Rides” of the early 1960s, in which civil rights activists from across the United States rode on buses into Southern states to test the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and other areas at bus terminals with interstate service. Often the riders were greeted by white Southerners who pelted them with rocks and bottles, or beat them.

So far, nothing violent has greeted Miller and his colleagues. The reception has varied by institution, he said.

“They’ve all been very different,” Miller said. “Valley Forge closed its entire campus. Students were told if they talked to us, they’d be expelled and if we came on campus, we’d be arrested.”

Instead, the Equality Riders held a vigil at a park across the street from the campus. The group received a few telephone calls from curious students. Also, they got people involved in a counter-demonstration, staged by Repent America, to put down their signs and bullhorns and engage in conversation.

“That was some sort of little step for progress,” Miller says.

Riders could see Valley Forge students standing on the campus and looking over at the park, while talking among themselves. “They were like puppies in a little cage,” he added. “You could tell they wanted to come talk to us but couldn’t.”

Valley Forge President Don Meyer defended the action to The Phoenix, a local newspaper. “Because the group’s goals are incompatible with the mission of the college, a campus visit was not considered to be beneficial to the institution,” Meyer told the paper.

Meyer had college security officers and state police surround the campus, showing their fear and creating a bunker-like mentality.

By comparison, Houghton allowed the riders access to campus and organized several tightly controlled events including a panel discussion. The Riders had escorts and ate lunch with the students and staff.

“The whole day was pretty much open for discussion,” Miller said. “They weren’t too extremist. They were pretty fair with us.”

Formed in 1988, Soulforce is the nonprofit group created by the Rev. Mel White, a former friend and ghostwriter for the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and other fundamentalist Christian evangelists.

While he was a pastor, White was troubled by his homosexual feelings and tried several methods to end his attraction to men including therapy, prayer, electroshock treatments and exorcism. When none worked, he attempted suicide before coming to terms with his orientation and getting an amicable divorce from his wife.

Inspired by the works of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, White founded Soulforce to oppose religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people through dialogue and other forms of nonviolent direct action. Based in Lynchburg, Va., the group also has focused on publicizing the experiences of exgay “survivors,” people who have undergone reparative therapy.

Despite the serious nature of the Equality Ride, cruising the highways with a group of young people also has its fun side, Miller said.

“I’ve immensely enjoyed my experience so far,” he said. “It’s been a big road trip. No day is the same. Every school has been radically different. We never know what to expect, but it’s been pretty smooth.”

A Wyoming High School graduate, Miller received a degree in American Sign Language interpreting from Goshen College in Indiana. He most recently worked as an interpreter at the Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center of Greater Cincinnati.

Miller became interested in the Equality Ride after he read an article in The Advocate. “I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was actual activism that I could do and would have an immediate impact and make a difference.”

And Miller thinks he is having an impact, however small.

At the workshops that Riders conduct at many schools, students engage Miller in conversation. More times than not, the exchanges are friendly and end with Miller exchanging Facebook information with the students to keep in touch.

“We get this reaction the most: ‘You’ve given me a lot to think about’ or ‘all you want is happiness, like we do.’ You can see the wheels turning in their heads,” he said. “I try to get these students to realize that God and the Bible aren’t weapons to be used against people.”



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