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May 21, 2010

Personal stories are Equality Riders’ tools to end anti-gay college rules

Canton, Ohio--Malone University in Canton was the final stop on a 17-college bus tour to encourage schools with anti-gay rules to drop them.

The Equality Rides are organized by Soulforce, which works to end religious and political LGBT oppression. They were started in 2006. The one that visited Malone on April 23 began in March with 23 riders.

Malone’s interim president Wilbert Friesen met with the riders. He later expressed willingness to look at the school’s anti-LGBT policy statement that drew them there in the first place, said university  spokesperson Suzie Thomas.

The school, located in the historic Ridgewood neighborhood, began life as the Cleveland Bible College before moving to Canton. It now has about 2,500 students and retains its Christian liberal arts philosophy. Students and all employees sign a statement swearing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and their commitment to a biblical world view.

The student code of conduct is largely based on scripture. The objectionable part reads: “there are certain actions that are expressly prohibited . . . These include theft, dishonesty, gossip, profanity, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, adultery, homosexual activity, premarital sex, drunkenness, immodesty of dress, and occult practices.”

The Equality Riders are primarily interested in Malone removing “homosexual activity” from a list that includes theft and dishonesty.

The riders decided to remain neutral on the matter of premarital sex, even though same-sex couples are not permitted to marry.

Rider Sabrina Diz of Frederick, Maryland, who organized the Malone stop, said that going farther on the policy would be disrespectful of their faith.

The objective of the Equality Ride, which the riders plan themselves during a training, is not confrontation. Rather, it is to recognize that there are some parts of religious faith that the riders and the schools agree on, and to celebrate those.

At the same time, the riders gently challenge schools’ anti-LGBT policies by telling their personal stories to other students and to those in power at the schools.

At Malone, the riders met with about 150 people, according to Thomas. This included Friesen and members of the cabinet, faculty and staff, trustees and students.

These events were carefully orchestrated through a memorandum of understanding between the riders and the school through the vice president of student development, Chris Abrams. That understanding closed all events to press.

According to all, Malone was pleased that the riders came and was a generous host. They responded positively to a letter from Soulforce four years ago and discussions to organize the stop had been held since.

In addition to the afternoon meeting with those who govern the school, riders met with students and invited members of the community for a series of structured programs, including a discussion on the interpretation of scripture. Riders were paired with student senate members for the day.

This is a departure from past Equality Rides in that this was the first year no riders were arrested at any school for civil disobedience.

Jennifer Luu of Alexandria, Virginia, a ride organizer, said that the decision not to have arrests this year was a conscious one.

Luu said this year the Equality Riders expanded their views of discrimination and oppression to include where it happens in the criminal justice system, especially to transgender people.

“We decided not to feed the system by getting arrested and paying fines,” Luu said.

“We try to find common ground in love, justice and mercy,” said Diz.

“But we came because of the policies,” Luu added. “Policies inform the culture.”

“We have the students in mind,” Luu continued. “They are the ones who are silenced and suffering.”

Caitlin MacIntyre of Austin, Texas was the ride director.

Asked to define success for the Malone stop, she said, “It’s not possible to evaluate success. Every conversation is success, a victory.”

“Once I tell you my story, you can’t un-hear it. The next time you hear that homosexuality is sin, I’m there. You hear my voice and you see my face.”

“When you lay down sword and shield, you make changes, even if you can’t see them for years and years,” MacIntyre said.

“The students tend to be more open to our message than the administration,” Luu concluded.

One such student at Malone is Sam Hudson Taylor of Cleveland, who dates both men and women.

“They came for me and for others,” Taylor said after the riders departed the campus.

Taylor said he attends Malone because he wants to be a right Christian and grow spiritually. He also got a scholarship.

Taylor was initially reluctant to talk to a reporter for fear that there might be consequences. He is a campus leader.

However, he also wants to promote a queer straight alliance on campus and reach out to others.

“That would definitely be a comforting and supportive outlet,” Taylor said. “It will not end here.”

Taylor’s brother Luke, who only dates women and is also a Malone student, called his experience with the riders “encouraging and enlightening.”

“I do feel a sense of frustration with the atmosphere toward LGBT people here,” Luke Taylor said. “For me as an ally, today was a great opportunity for students to see things a different way.”

Rider Nick Miller of Cincinnati said the ride raised his awareness of the T in LGBT.

“I had a lot to learn,” Miller said, “and I was never exposed to the other areas of oppression and I didn’t know any transgender people.”

“I love the ride’s emphasis on addressing the wide variety of the ‘isms’ of oppression.

Miller, who organized the Bethel College stop in Mishawaka, Indiana on April 16, said he learned of the Equality Ride from an Advocate cover story.

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