Washington Blade Reports on Equality Ride

Equality Ride to protest schools’ anti-gay policies

By EARTHA MELZER
May. 20, 2005

Recent non-violent protests at Liberty University and Focus on the Family headquarters are test runs for a new Soulforce project that will travel the country to demonstrate against religious and military schools that ban gay men and lesbians, organizers said.

Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va., is an organization that seeks to free gays from religious and political oppression through the practice of nonviolent resistance as modeled by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The organization was founded by Mel White, a Christian minister, author and filmmaker who ghost wrote books for Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson before coming out as gay in 1993.

In protests at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and at James Dobson’s Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., White, and Soulforce Youth Director Jake Reitan, worked with activists from across the country to test what Reitan calls a new "take it to the street" style of confronting homophobia.

Their experiment involves identifying the institutions and policies most responsible for spreading hurtful stereotypes and misinformation about gays and lesbians and confronting those organizations.

The first step is to write letters. In the case of Liberty University — where Falwell’s 12,000 students are forced to sign pledges condemning homosexuality and attend presentations by "ex-gay" activists — White and Reitan asked for the opportunity to provide a different, more affirming, perspective to students. In the case of Focus on the Family, White and Reitan asked Dobson to stop hurting families by broadcasting violent claims such as: same-sex parents are unfit, gays want to destroy marriage and homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured. In both cases, the institutions did not respond to written requests, so Soulforce escalated its tactics.

At Liberty University activists mingled with students and initiated discussions about homosexuality and attempted to donate books on gay and lesbian topics to the school library. At Focus on the Family, activists held a picnic and attempted to hand deliver letters explaining the negative impact of Dobson’s claims about homosexuality. Rather than engage in a conversation about the effects of their actions, Focus on the Family shut down their offices that day, Reitan said.

Reitan said that both actions were successful and prove that Soulforce is now ready to begin organizing a larger campaign of direct action modeled on the Freedom Rides in which students traveled through the South to challenge unconstitutional racial segregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Reitan has put together a Web site, www.equalityride.com, and a list of religious and military schools that ban gays and lesbians. He said he is recruiting young adults who are prepared to spend two months next spring travelling the country by bus and engaging schools about their anti-gay policies.

Equality Ride has the support of major gay and lesbian civil rights organizations such as HRC and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, officials said. The plan also has vocal support from some of the original Freedom Riders.

"Conservative Christian dogma and its resultant bigotry have been encoded into social customs and codified into laws to deny justice and equality to black Americans and homosexual Americans for centuries," Rodney Powell, a gay man who helped lead the original Freedom Rides, said in a written statement. "The Equality Rides are in keeping with the very best strategies and application of the power of love and nonviolence."

Reitan, a recent graduate of Northwestern University, said he became aware of the need to confront religious schools when a friend of his who was a student at Wheaton College in Illinois explained how he suffered because of that school’s policy banning homosexuality. Since he began planning for the Equality Ride, Reitan said, he has received letters from closeted students at religious schools who are looking for help.

Eartha Melzer can be reached at emelzer@washblade.com.

 

Photos from Monday, May 2, 2005


Focus on the Family covering their logo and their eyes to the witness of GLBT families

Soulforce volunteers march to Focus on the Family headquarters

Vigiling in front of Focus on the Family

The Reitan Family attempts to deliver a letter to Focus on the Family

Vigiling in front of Focus on the Family

Vigiling in front of Focus on the Family

Jacob Reitan is arrested

Catherine and Cris stand vigil

Chris and Beth stand vigil

Marching in front of Focus on the Family headquarters

Phil Reitan is arrested

Soulforce debriefing later that morning

Focus on the Family Locks Out Soulforce

Gay son and his parents arrested for trespassing as they try to deliver a letter to Dobson and Focus on the Family

******************************************
SOULFORCE PRESS RELEASE: May 2, 2005
For Immediate Release
Contact: Laura Montgomery Rutt
717-278-0592 laura@soulforce.org
******************************************

(Colorado Springs) – A family who wanted to deliver a letter to James Dobson or the "next in line" was arrested for trespassing this morning as they crossed onto the property of Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family. Originally, plans were to distribute 100s of letters written by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families who have been hurt by Dobson’s rhetoric during a public tour during normal operating hours, but Focus on the Family shut down on Monday, May 2, to keep LGBT individuals and families from entering.

Before the arrest, Randi Reitan, mother of Jacob Reitan, a young gay man and Youth Director for Soulforce, read a letter she had written to Dobson explaining how his rhetoric is hurting families like theirs. Holding a bouquet of roses, and struggling to get the words out, Randi stated, "There was never a moment we did not love or accept our dear son. But we struggled with how best to see the day Jake is loved, accepted and understood by society. As parents and Christians, we felt called to work for justice for all in the gay community." The letter is available online at www.soulforce.org.

With his arms around both parents, Jacob stated, "This family is about love, my parents love me as I am, as God created me, and James Dobson is out to destroy loving families like mine!" As the family crossed on to the Focus on the Family property, police immediately handcuffed Jacob Reitan, his mother Randi, and his father Phil, who all had tears in their eyes as they were led to the police van.

Over 125 Soulforce supporters, singing "Amazing Grace," stood by in support of the Reitan family who were released from police custody a short time later.

"We believe that the ministry of Jesus was about opening doors for the marginalized and oppressed, so it is ironic that Focus on the Family is slamming the doors on those very same people that Jesus would have welcomed with open arms, " stated Rev. Nori Rost, pastor of Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church.

On May 1, over 1000 people filled the street in front Focus on the Family to celebrate the worth, dignity, and Spirit evident in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, couples, and their families, while holding Dobson accountable for his anti-gay rhetoric. Many of the families, with their young children in tow, sang and danced as Jason and DeMarco, the Two Spirit Society, and a myriad of speakers sang and spoke to the crowd. Hundreds of letters explaining to Dobson how his rhetoric has hurt their families were collected and will be distributed to Dobson in the coming days and months.

Soulforce and supporters in Colorado plan to return to Focus on the Family next year.

As with any nonviolent direct action, Soulforce first researched the anti-gay statements made by Dobson which run counter to the psychological and psychiatric evidence regarding LGBT people. Dobson has refused to consider the evidence and has refused or ignored all letter requesting dialogue. The research conducted by Soulforce is published in a booklet entitled "Why Every Family Should be Concerned about James Dobson’s Anti-gay Rhetoric" and is available online at www.soulforce.org. Letters written requesting dialogue with Dobson are also available at the Soulforce website.

Photos from Sunday, May 1, 2005


Gathering outside Focus on the Family

Hundreds of GLBT people and allies gather outside Focus on the Family

The Lutes-Stein Family

Focus on the Family headquarters

Jason and deMarco sing "Oh Happy Day!"

Jacob Reitan speaks at the press conference

Laura Montgomery Rutt does an interview

Gay Americans

Allies stand with us

Gary Nixon helps a young man walk

Mel White speaks at the press conference

Laura Montgomery Rutt looks up

Speaking at the press conference

The Reitans

Standing for justice

Marching around Focus on the Family

Marching around Focus on the Family

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