Jacob Reitan at last week's Wheaton College stop on the Soulforce Equality Ride 51-day, 19-stop journey across the United States. Photo by Amy Wooten
By Amy Wooten
The idea behind the Equality Ride began at Wheaton College, when co-director Jacob Reitan met a young gay student who believed the school's anti-LGBT policies were a good thing.
Three years later, the Equality Ride bus made a historic stop at the college April 20-21 for panel discussions and class presentations in hopes of convincing the college to allow academic discussion around LGBT issues and to change its policies.
The Soulforce Equality Ride is a 51-day, 19-stop journey across the United States. The riders' mission is to end religious-based discrimination and create LGBT equality at the nation's institutions of higher learning. The Equality Ride bus has taken 33 young adults to institutions, such as Wheaton College, that ban the enrollment of LGBT students. Wheaton College has its students sign a community covenant that condemns homosexuality. The college not only expels students who come out as openly LGBT, but also their allies.
'I think the discussion that we generated was very good,' said rider Richard Lindsay. 'This is a school that has a really strong academic standard and a very strong academic dialogue. We feel that as an institution, if they want to portray themselves [ as ] a strong, academic institution, which they are, they need to reconsider a policy that would not even allow a student to hold a position supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
'We don't know if they will change. The student body president came up to us last night and said this is really historic,' he continued. 'This is really the first time that something like this has been done at Wheaton. I think that was an important point that was made last night.'
Lindsay told Windy City Times that the Equality Riders experienced good dialogue during their stay. About 1,500 students—nearly half the student body—attended a panel discussion between Wheaton and Soulforce on April 20. Soulforce also visited classrooms for discussions and presentations.
Although silent due to the college's strict policies, LGBT Wheaton College students were thankful the bus stopped by. In a letter written to Soulforce, a lesbian student expressed her gratitude. 'I am so grateful you are coming to Wheaton College! I only wish that me and my partner could march openly with you! We have been together for almost two years and plan to get married following my graduation. I am not out at school, as I would not be able to get my degree as a woman openly committed to another woman,' she wrote.
Reitan was an undergraduate at Northwestern University when he met a closeted Wheaton College student. 'Upon meeting him, I asked him what it was like to be a gay person at Wheaton College,' Reitan said at a press conference. 'He responded to me that he couldn't be out as openly gay, and indeed, if he came out, he was at good risk of being kicked out of the institution.'
Reitan described his meeting with the student as 'fairly serendipitous.' When he told the student the school's policy should be changed, the student disagreed because he felt that to be gay is a sin. Angered and saddened, Reitan promised the student that he would eventually come back to Wheaton College with a message of hope and healing.
'Three years later, today, that promise is kept,' Reitan said. 'That young man is a senior here at Wheaton today. As I stand here on Wheaton College property, I want to say for everyone to hear, that Christ loves and affirms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people exactly as they are without reservation.'
Rev. Jay E. Johnson, Ph.D., is an openly gay Wheaton College alumnus ( '83 ) . He flew out from Berkeley, Calif., to attend the historic Equality Ride stop at his alma mater and hometown. Johnson is the programming and development director for the Pacific School of Religion's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry.
'The kind of conversation that the Equality Riders are trying to encourage and promote on a campus such as Wheaton's is long overdue,' Johnson said. 'When I was a student here back in the early 1980s, there were certainly plenty of students like myself who were struggling with sexuality and gender identity issues. There was simply no forum, no place for those students like me to engage with those difficult questions in a way that was healthy and open and that actually was part of the rich, intellectual tradition that Wheaton clearly embodies to this day.'
Johnson was outed by his roommate during his sophomore year but, despite some difficulties, he managed to make it to graduation. He said that during his stay, there was a significant number of lesbian and gay students.
He described his visit back to Wheaton as 'surreal.' The last time he was on campus was in the late '80s when his father—a former Wheaton College faculty member—passed away.
Johnson was surprised that the college made Soulforce's visit such a public event, but is hopeful that there will be significant movement on the issue over time. He told Windy City Times that due to the school's policies, the movement will probably not start with students and faculty, who are too afraid of losing their educational opportunity and jobs.
'I'm wondering whether or not its going to come from alums,' he said. 'I think that quite frankly, … it's often going to come down to money.' Johnson added that he knows many alumni who would not step foot on Wheaton College property again because of their anger toward the institution for its anti-LGBT policies.
The Equality Ride made its final stop at West Point, N.Y., April 26. The ride, which began March 5, has stopped at schools such as Brigham Young University and the U.S. Air Force Academy. At some of the colleges, Soulforce members were arrested as soon as they stepped foot on college property. However, many schools, such as Wheaton College, have allowed vigils, press conferences, class presentations and panel discussions.
See www.equalityride.com for more info.