On a clear, warm day in late April, a dusty blue bus bearing the logo “Equality Ride 2006” drove toward the main gates of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Overhead, a cloudless sky arched above the red-gray limestone campus, its Gothic towers perched on stony cliffs high above the Hudson River.
Not far from the gates, the bus parked and discharged about 40 protesters in windbreakers or T-shirts. At Thayer Gate, where visitors pass a guard post to enter school grounds, the protesters lined across the road, unfurling a banner that read, “Lift the Ban!” Thirty-two of the protesters also wore T-shirts that read, “Would you serve with me?”
The rally capped a 51-day national bus tour urging religious and military schools to admit gay students. Organized in memory of the 1960s “freedom rides” that ended racial segregation in the South, the tour, called the “Soulforce Equality Ride,” took 32 young gay or lesbian activists to 19 schools across the country, where they attempted to confront students and administrators about bans on gay and lesbian students.
Nearly 50 activists attended the West Point rally—including 15 students who had traveled from Vassar College for the event—to raise their voices against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay men and women from serving in the military.
The issue of gay military enlistment is a major focus for the gay-rights movement. Since “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was instituted in 1993, nearly 10,000 service members were dismissed for their sexual orientation. The tour participants, who call themselves ‘riders,’ said that while private religious schools have a right to exclude gay people, gay exclusion from military academies amounts to government-sanctioned discrimination.
“We’re tired of being put in the closet,” Jake Reitan, the ride’s co-director, told a small crowd of reporters and spectators. “People say the policy is ‘real simple—they don’t ask, you don’t tell.’ The policy is not ‘real simple.’ Do you know how many seemingly innocuous questions you encounter every day would force you to reveal your sexual orientation?”
Reitan, 24, says he would serve in the military if permitted. He criticized West Point for forbidding its cadets to approach the protesters. A group of cadets had defied the ban, he said, e-mailing him the night before to say they had pooled $670 as a donation to Soulforce.
“There are people who are behind the walls who want to meet us, and it’s just the higher-ups who want to keep us at bay,” Reitan said. “We just want to have a conversation.”
They held up a novelty check addressed to the Department of Defense for $364 million, the cost of training the gay U.S. service members discharged since the policy’s instatement in 1993. The police, who knew of the protest in advance, set up scissor barriers to let visitors pass around the protest’s edges.
West Point professor Richard Schoonhoven stood among the spectators.
“It’s a shame that the university isn’t willing to enter into some sort of constructive dialogue with the group,” said Schoonhoven, who teaches philosophy. “I think ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a problematic policy that we have to deal with pretty soon.”
A lone vocal critic, 54-year-old Michael Sweeney, stood at the roadside bearing a sign quoting Ezekiel 9:4. Sweeney had driven for over three hours from Crownpoint, NY, to attend the event, which he learned about on the Internet. He agrees with the activists’ right to protest, he said, but he believes homosexuality is sinful.
He chose Ezekiel 9:4, he said, because it warns of God’s judgment falling on “people who only claim to be Christians.”
About 15 riders and six community supporters were arrested, including Reitan’s parents, who journeyed to the event from their home in Dallas, Texas.
Nineteen-year-old rider Rachel Powell said that unlike some fellow riders, who joined activism after enduring physical assaults or being forced from their homes, she joined the tour because of a relatively peaceful upbringing. The Louisiana native, who is a lesbian, says in her hometown she was “never so much as yelled at” for her sexual orientation.
“I knew other people have [suffered discrimination], and they needed someone to stand up for their rights and dignity,” Powell said.
Like most of the riders, Powell paired her Soulforce shirt with pressed khakis, and she wore her brown hair back in a neat ponytail.
“Freedom riders were told, ‘Dress like you’re going to church.’ We don’t want to come to the schools in tattered jeans and T-shirts,” she said.
Powell saluted her cause with a slender hemp necklace braided with rainbow beads, and a similar bracelet with lettered beads spelling EQUALITY.
The riders originally planned to tour the West Point campus, but as they drove to the protest, they received notice from the school’s administration that they would not be permitted to enter school grounds, even the visitor’s center. They quickly made plans to enter the grounds as an act of civil disobedience.
It was an action they had carried out at other schools that banned them from school grounds, including Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, the first school their tour visited.
West Point officials did not comment except to say that because West Point is government property, it has to remain politically neutral, and protests are not allowed on the property.
The protest came at the close of an eight-week enterprise that Reitan called “act one of a many-act play.”
Since March 3, the dusty blue Equality Ride bus had traveled from Lynchburg, VA to the California coast, then back eastward to finish in West Point, NY. The riders’ pastel T-shirts appeared at Lee University, Texas A&M University, and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities International Conference. They were arrested as trespassers at Liberty University, Oral Roberts University, Regent University, and all three national military academies, where school administrators forbade them to enter campus.
In Cleveland, riders woke to find an anti-gay slur spray-painted on their bus. At a rally at Brigham Young University, one person played loud music to drown out the protesters, and another drove in a circle blaring his horn, riders said.
But encouraging scenes also transpired. At Colorado Christian University, a student named Brandon changed his views to acceptance of gay people, Reitan said. When Regent University students were forbidden to approach the riders, the riders held up handwritten signs bearing phone numbers, after which several Regent students called them to arrange to meet and talk privately. And on arrival at West Point, the riders met about 15 students from Vassar College who had driven in to support the protest.
Such intimate encounters do not always attract the sound-bite sensibility of journalists, acknowledged Herrin, who helps to coordinate Soulforce’s media activities.
Reporters can also be unwilling to travel to events at large religious schools, which “tend to be away from large cities,” Herrin said. “Or you’re in LA and it starts to rain, and that’s the biggest story of the day.”
On the morning of the West Point event, Herrin feared media interest would dip because of a new al-Qaeda video released the day before.
During the tour, riders endured long days of travel on a bus without shocks, 8-10 hour campus visits crammed with meetings and presentations, and snatched hours of sleep in small hotels at four to a room.
“It’s not a nine-to-five job,” Herrin said. “You try not to focus on how tired you get.”
Powell said the hardest part of the job was keeping her temper while talking to vehement opponents of homosexuality.
“They compare you as a gay person to pedophiles and murderers,” Powell said. She told of one encounter where a 16-year-old girl said families have the right to expel misbehaving children. The girl said she was sent away as punishment for having sex with her boyfriend.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, but we got kicked out of our homes because of who we are,’” Powell said. After a long argument with the girl, she said, “I had to take myself out of the conversation because I felt myself getting angry. I felt that neither of us was listening to each other.”
“It’s hard, because I don’t want to walk away with the other person saying, ‘Ha ha, I beat you,’” she added. “But you just have to swallow it.”
Like many riders, Powell said the reward is the chance to engender social change.
Herrin said another reward is open-minded exchange with students and administrators. When that happens, Herrin said, “The conversations are so rejuvenating. You get a chance to love them and learn from them and help them understand you.”
“We have not just done social justice work. We have lived social justice,” she added.
For Reitan, such grassroots transformation should be the focus of the gay rights movement. Reitan said that most successful civil rights revolutions—the freedom rides and sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the free speech movement conducted from Berkeley, the student protests at Tiananmen Square, the French student uprisings of 1969—gained their momentum from ground-level, youth-guided action.
“In every case, young people were at the forefront,” he said.
“I see the gay rights movement lobbying Congress, engaging in judicial advocacy, and working for or against different voter initiatives, but there is not a sustained effort to take it to the streets.” Reitan said.
“We’ve finally got enough youth out of the closet that we can gain a critical mass,” he added. “We’ve got to start getting them coordinated.”