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Out and about in Bible Belt

Activists are braving jeers and arrests to try to deliver enlightenment to US campuses that ban homosexual relationships. Stephen Phillips boards the bus.

Thirty-five student gay-rights campaigners have amassed more than 39 arrests since the start of a protest against homophobic policies at Christian and military campuses in the US.

Equality Ride is inspired by the 1961 "freedom rides", in which civil rights activists challenged racial segregation in America's South.

Participants are staging a touring protest to confront campuses where homosexuality is outlawed and gay students face life in the closet or expulsion. Two of the activists taking part were themselves expelled from their colleges for being gay.

The seven-week 19-stop tour, which began on March 10, is cutting across America's southern Bible Belt, but also takes in campuses in Los Angeles and the Midwest. It will conclude on April 26 at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York, with a planned demonstration against the US military's "don't ask don't tell" policy, under which openly gay servicemen and women face summary dismissal.

At least five campuses have extended official welcomes, inviting the activists to talk to staff and students. A few other institutions, more grudgingly, have granted access to campuses while denying requests for an official forum. But the reception at a few has been more than frosty, says protest co-director Jacob Reitan.

At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, a fundamentalist Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority leader, students "yelled (homophobic) epithets" at activists before campus police moved in, Reitan reports. Undaunted, Reitan managed to deliver the first few lines of a speech on "fostering understanding" before he was arrested. He handed over to a fellow demonstrator to pick up where he had left off. Reitan's colleague was then arrested as well. By the time everyone had been rounded up, "we'd managed to read the speech one and a half times", he recalls.

Liberty, which declined to speak to The Times Higher , issued a statement accusing activists of "conducting a staged demonstration disguised as (a) visit to our campus", adding that they had hosted a delegation from the group last year. The statement referred to the campus's "code of conduct, which is clearly outlined in God's Word". Press accounts of the incident testify to the arrest of "two dozen gay-rights advocates".

In nearby Virginia Beach, the home of Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, televangelist and right-wing political activist, protesters were met by a Marine Patrol Dive Team vehicle and by police on foot, on horseback and on motorcycles, who formed a cordon around the institution.

Equality Riders responded by holding up placards with their mobile phone numbers for students to call to arrange to meet them off-site. Thirty-five students did so, Reitan says.

Staff at Regent declined to talk to The Times Higher , but a statement was issued saying that the university had "agreed to host the group in an effort to (open) dialogue about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues" but "rescinded the invitation following (the protesters') misrepresentation" of university policies as anti-gay. In a letter to Reitan, Regent denies discrimination, describing its policy as holding students to "biblical standards of conduct".

At Lee University, a private institution in Cleveland, Tennessee, affiliated with the Church of God, the riders' rainbow-coloured bus was defaced with the word "fags-mobile" before Lee students helped to scrub it off. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, riders were arrested next to a bronze sculpture of praying hands at the gates of Oral Roberts University, founded by the televangelist whose name it bears.

Despite their arrest record, however, the riders say they are not militants and reject violence, preferring to model themselves on the original "freedom rides" and Gandhi's defiance of the British in India. A Virginia Beach police spokeswoman confirms that the riders who were arrested at the Regent campus "were not violent in any way". Reitan says all arrests have been for trespass.

Reitan, 24, had the idea for the Equality Ride after meeting a gay student from a Christian campus while an undergraduate at Chicago's secular Northwestern University. "I asked him what it was like being gay [there], and he said: 'No one knows. If I told anyone, I'd be kicked out.' I said I thought this must be terrible, but he told me: 'It's good. I think it's a sin to be gay.'"

The exchange left Reitan "frustrated" at the gay rights movement, which he believes has not done enough to reach out to gays in conservative Christian communities.

The Equality Ride has been organised by Soulforce, an inter-faith gay rights group, co-founded in 1998 by clergyman Mel White - improbably, a former ghostwriter and confidante to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. His relationship with the fundamentalist leaders soured when he came out after years of denial.

His 1994 autobiography, Stranger at the Gates: To Be Gay and Christian in America , drew a flood of correspondence from gays in similar situations, some of whose stories the activists share on their tour. Reitan hopes the "existential story of our suffering as outcasts" can counter the biblical literalism behind Christian campuses' policies on gay students. The idea is to "put a human face on (something that may be just) an abstract issue" to many, he says.

Reitan also hopes to persuade university leaders to "learn from history" by drawing parallels with previous attempts to use the Bible to justify policies such as racial segregation. He insists that Equality riders are not seeking to force campuses to dismantle their policies. Instead, he says, they call on universities to designate an official in whom gay students can confide without fear of repercussion, and to embrace "academic freedom" by stocking their libraries with current works on sexual identity.

Soulforce estimates that nearly 200 US campuses bar openly gay students. Among the most draconian is Colorado Christian University, which bans "homosexual relationships" and "practising, defending or advocating a homosexual lifestyle".

For their part, campuses targeted by the Equality Ride insist their policies are grounded in Scripture and that they accord homosexuality the same treatment as heterosexual relations outside marriage. They add that, as private institutions, they are within their rights to set their own polices.

Paul Conn, president of Lee University, says: "If students told us they were sexually active with same-sex partners, they'd be asked to leave. That's happened only very rarely, and that's our response."

Conn says students may be readmitted if they swear to refrain from such activity. "More than one student who has been suspended, has left, made a change in his or her life and [returned]."

Conn says that he doesn't take a view on "what produces homosexual behaviour. [We] don't know whether one chooses to be attracted to a same-sex partner, but there's a choice on whether or not to act on it. That's really the only thing we can address."

Bob Andringa, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 14 of the institutions on Equality Ride's route, says some campuses refer students to "professional counselling with someone experienced in these issues".

Andringa has served as a liaison between Soulforce and many institutions, winning praise from the gay rights group. But relations have grown strained between the two sides, he says, with some university officials complaining they feel they have been cast as bigots. "An uninvited guest turning up in a fancy painted bus and asking to go into a classroom - that's a pretty unusual and bold request for anyone," Andringa says. "I may insist on my rights, but private colleges also have rights and don't have to admit people not willing to live by their rules."

Conn, who denied the riders' entreaties for an official event at Lee, although he allowed them on campus, says: "We recognise that people disagree with our position on any number of things. The peculiar thing is that they would expect us to give them a platform to express their viewpoint."

Andringa says students exercise free choice in enrolling at Christian colleges and so voluntarily submit to their rules.

But White counters that this freedom is strictly theoretical because many devout parents send their offspring to such campuses and often students lack the financial independence to go against their wishes.

Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist who has chronicled the gay rights movement, says he suspects many students from deeply religious backgrounds who are "struggling with their sexual orientation feel that immersion in this environment may cure them of their tendencies".

Andringa points out that the colleges' "behavioural expectations" are a selling point for parents and prospective students, and enrolments are not falling. This doesn't augur well for a softening of policies. But Wald says that even religiously sheltered students are part of today's larger culture and puts his faith in "generational replacement".

"Age is a powerful predictor of attitudes towards homosexuality. Most students today have at least grown up with some [exposure to positive images of gays], so there are openings," Wald adds.

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