By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
LYNCHBURG, Va. – On March 10, 24 people were arrested on behalf of LGBT rights as they attempted to step onto the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Twelve of the arrested activists were participants in the Equality Ride, a Soulforce-sponsored event to open up dialog at self-styled Christian schools and military campuses that discriminate against LGBT students.
Campus police charged all of those arrested with trespassing, and two faced additional charges of inciting trespassing. They were restrained in plastic handcuffs before being taken to a local magistrate.
All were released without bail later in the day, pending a court appearance April 3. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor charge is a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
After the 24 were arrested, the remaining Equality Riders and other demonstrators engaged in dialog with students and faculty who left the Liberty grounds to speak with them.
“I am intensely proud of the people who went onto the campus [to stand] up to their denial of access. I’m very proud of the people who went there as well as the people who did not,” said Havin Herrin, Equality Ride co-director. “It was a testament to the fact that even if they choose to arrest some of the Equality Riders there will be another member of the GLBT community who will seek this dialog and demand that it be had.”
The anti-gay Rev. Jerry Falwell, the university’s chancellor, had warned the group that it would not be permitted on campus, saying he would not allow his school to be used for a media event aimed at raising money for gay rights.
Equality Ride participant and Triangle Foundation board member Chad Grandy disagreed with Falwell’s characterization of the Equality Riders’ motives.
“I know in my heart that that’s not why we’re doing this,” Grandy said. “My intentions are pure.”
Grandy continued, “I also want to point out that I think Falwell and his own personal wealth and his university have capitalized greatly on discriminating against the GLBT community. He’s been taking advantage of misunderstandings and manipulating scripture … to defend discrimination against GLBT individuals, and he’s been making a lot of money off of that.”
Grandy said that he stood vigil as the arrests took place. “I spoke to some of the students who came out of the university and opened up dialog with them.”
While a March 10 Associated Press story quoted one Liberty senior as defending Liberty’s anti-gay policies, Grandy said that he was able to speak with a closeted gay student at the school.
Grandy said that the student told him that his family would not accept him, and that he was feeling desperate enough to try the self-styled “therapy” offered by Exodus International.
“I gave him some resources, some places he could go, and had a chance to listen to him and tell him that it’s okay to be gay and to be Christian,” said Grandy, “and that all thirty-five of us on the ride believe the same thing.”
“I think that there was some excellent dialog with the students who did show up outside of the campus,” Grandy said. “We really pointed out how sad it was that they’re [Falwell and Liberty’s administrators] not willing to open up dialog with us. The good conversations we did have outside of the campus showed the need for this dialog.”
Herrin and Grandy spoke to BTL on March 13, on the way to Pat Robertson’s Regent University, where in 1995 Soulforce President Reverend Dr. Mel White was arrested for stepping on campus grounds. After previously saying that the university would welcome the Equality Riders, Regent has reversed course and now says that any pro-LGBT rights protestors who step on campus grounds will be considered trespassers.
“We will try to go on campus today [March 13]. If they say “no” we’ll set up outside of campus. But if we’re turned away today we will not be turned away tomorrow. We want to give Regent the opportunity to see that we’re really just here to start a dialog,” Herrin said.
Support the Equality Ride
The Equality Ride is still raising funds for this historic journey. Individual riders, all of whom are young people, need help defraying the costs of both the journey and of being arrested for trespassing on the grounds of anti-gay schools.
Donors can sponsor individual riders, like Michigan’s Chad Grandy. Sponsors who give $50 or more will receive postcards from the road, and those who “adopt” a rider for a donation of $3,000 or more will “receive postcards from every stop, a copy of the Equality Ride documentary (when it is released), and a personalized photo scrapbook of the journey,” according to the Equality Ride website. For more information or to donate visit http://www.equalityride.com/riders or call Jacob Reitan, Equality Ride co-director, at 952-212-8311.
Additional reporting provided by The Associated Press.