By Jessica Carreras
Brandon Kneefel is no stranger to discrimination.
At age 16, the gay rights activist came out to his parents and was disowned by them. As a gay Christian, he was crushed.
But now, Kneefel, a 20-year-old Livonia native, uses his hurtful experiences to reach out to others through speech. “I internalized what they’d done to me and saw how harmful it could be,” he said. “So I started getting involved [with activism] right out of high school.”
On May 19, Kneefel will share his story with the audience of Dignity Detroit’s 33rd Anniversary Celebration as the event’s keynote speaker. As a metro Detroit-based group, Dignity Detroit provides a safe place of worship and support for LGBT Catholics and supporters. They hold mass every Sunday, as well as sponsor retreats and volunteer outings.
Their anniversary dinner, dance and mass service will be held to celebrate both their own accomplishments in the metro Detroit area and the work of others, like Soul Force. “The meaning of the word Catholic means all embracing,” said Dignity Detroit President Mike Cardinal.
The theme of his organization is Spirituality, Equality and Justice – something that Kneefel’s work, Cardinal said, embodies: “He’s speaking up for justice and addressing religion-based prejudice.”
For Kneefel, speaking out against homophobia and teaching others that it’s OK to be gay and Christian has been a major part of his life since he graduated from high school. After being involved in local activism groups, he joined Soul Force and has since raised almost $5,000 for their cause.
For the past two months, Kneefel and 49 other Christian youths from Soul Force have been on a mission to end discriminatory and homophobic religious teachings. The Soul Force Equality Ride has visited 33 Christian colleges across the U.S. Through non-violent methods, they’ve spoken to students and administration about the teachings of Martin Luther King and Ghandi, as well as held open dialogues. They’ve met equal amounts of acceptance and protest; while some schools choose to welcome the dialogue, others, Kneefel said, chose to have the members of Soul Force arrested.
The unanimous reaction, however, was encouragement by students. “On every single one of these campuses, we’ve had students reach out to us who are closeted,” Kneefel said. “We find that students reach out to us and really want this dialogue.”
While on his journey across the country, he received the call from Dignity Detroit, asking him to speak at their anniversary event. In his speech, he plans to address the religion-based discrimination still rampant in today’s society. “I want to encourage the notion that for our generation, to get anywhere, we need to try to get people aware of the dialogue that needs to happen,” he stressed.
“We’re coming into the first generations of students who are openly gay in high school,” he added. “We’re also seeing students who aren’t LGBT and who are Christian who are starting to open their minds.”
Kneefel’s message is a hopeful one for the LGBT community of a younger generation, and his beliefs, said Cardinal, are ones that Dignity Detroit shares. “You can be Christian, you can be Catholic and gay,” he said, “and you don’t have to be ashamed of any one of those pieces.”
An open mass will be held the following day at Sacred Heart Chapel at Marygrove College. Mass will begin at 6 p.m.
For more information, visit their Web site at http://dignitydetroit.org.
The Dignity Detroit Anniversary dinner and dance will be held on May 19 at Park Place in Dearborn. Tickets are $50 and are available through May 13. To purchase tickets, contact Dignity Detroit at (313) 278-4786 or through e-mail at [email protected]