Equality rider returns to Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

In an upstairs classroom at the Elon University Law School, an executive chair and cheery Mylar balloon welcomed Matt Hill Comer home.

Two months earlier, on March 1, Comer boarded one of two Soulforce buses alongside 25 other young people – all of them gay, lesbian, transgender or straight supporters – for a journey that would take them to more than a dozen Christian colleges. Comer and his fellow riders, all participants in the second annual Equality Ride, intended to open up a dialogue between fundamentalist college students and gays and lesbians at places where homosexuality is considered a sin.

Some schools allowed the group on campus and others barred the doors. In all, Comer and the other riders on the east coast bus (the other headed west) visited 19 colleges in two months and faced everything from vandalism to harassment and arrest. He returned to Greensboro on May 1, where, hours after his arrival, he participated in a panel discussion at the law school where supporters waited with homemade signs.

For Comer, the Soulforce Equality Ride was another stage in the ongoing process of reconciling his sexuality with his fundamentalist upbringing. Before he came out at age 14, Comer attended an evangelical Baptist church with his family.

Soulforce, an organization that advocates for the rights of gays and lesbians, includes opposition to religious oppression in its mission statement. All of the schools the riders visited had been ranked in college guides as institutions intolerant of gay and lesbian students.

“We were trying to raise straight awareness,” Comer said, “but I know we’re also making a huge impact on the way gay students feel. For most of these students, all they’ve heard is that they’re worthless. I can imagine that we’ve saved some of their lives.”

Along the way, Comer and his fellow riders jeopardized their own freedom. At Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., Comer was arrested after he and another student tried to present a gift of a stone inlaid with a rainbow and a verse from the book of Romans to the school. He spent five and a half hours in a holding cell before his release.

“[Cornerstone President] Rex Rogers has compared us to child molesters and rapists,” Comer said. “They had a twelve-hour prayer service because we were coming.”

At Oklahoma Baptist University, a college that had cooperated with the Equality riders in 2006, Comer said the group was barred from attending chapel services. After they were turned away, Comer said he broke down in tears.

“I had never physically been stopped from entering a church building,” he said. “To me that goes against everything that is Christ-like.”

Katie Higgins, the co-director of the east bus, said she was arrested at Oklahoma Baptist University when she tried to enter the chapel. Higgins and Comer said the school never told them they would not be allowed on the property.

Marty O’Gwynn, the vice president for communications at Oklahoma Baptist, said the school had informed the riders they would not be welcome on campus.

“They did attend a chapel in 2006,” O’Gwynn said. “When they informed us they would be coming back, we told their leadership repeatedly that they would not be welcome on campus.”

O’Gwynn said the university felt last year’s event went well, and were dismayed to see Oklahoma Baptist portrayed badly by leaders of Soulforce who spoke to the press. The ride organizers accused the university of handpicking students to talk to the equality riders and said administrators hovered over their booth in the student center. The university also had to allocate extra funds and resources to insure campus security, an expense they were unwilling to pay two years in a row, O’Gwynn said.

“If a single person had tried to attend chapel,” he said, “that person would not be turned away. I told them they were welcome as individuals to attend chapel, but not as a group representing Soulforce.”

Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, which bills itself as the largest fundamentalist Christian college in the country, also refused to permit the Equality riders onto campus.

“We are a Christian university and we believe that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin just like sex outside of marriage is a sin,” said Jonathan Pait, public relations manager for the school. “It would be inconsistent with our honor code and it would be the same if it were a swingers group that tried to set up on campus.”

Before Comer, Higgins and the other riders approached the campus, they gathered at a public park to plan their course of action and prepare with a moment of silence. The Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue) infiltrated the group and refused to identify himself. Comer, who recognized the Concord, NC-based minister, called him out and introduced him to the group.

The Equality riders had planned on a peaceful vigil, Comer said, but instead they were confronted by counter-protesters waving signs, one of which read, “Three Gay Rights: AIDS, Hell and Salvation.”

“Operation Save America prayed in front of us,” Comer said. “It was one of the most spiritually violent things that has ever happened to me.”

Higgins said the experience at Bob Jones, where noisy counter-protesters outnumbered riders by two-to-one, was, in fact, a positive one.

“It was one of the first times we had people physically screaming and yelling in our faces,” she said. “For a lot of us it was out first time dealing with homophobia at that level. It was kind of revealing.”

Not all of the riders’ experiences were as combative. Seven schools allowed the Soulforce representatives onto campus to present programs. Calvin College in Massachusetts welcomed the riders onto campus with open arms, Comer said.

“A lot of students on this campus had never met an openly gay person,” Comer said. “For a lot of people we were the first people they met like that. We put a face on this idea of homosexuality.”

At Calvin and most of the other schools, students approached the Equality riders to talk about Biblical prohibitions of homosexuality. Although some of the students disagreed with Equality riders, Comer said, they understood that the riders were fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Higgins said the Equality riders were not asking for the abolition of rules against homosexual behavior at colleges and universities that derive their codes of conduct from the Bible. Most fundamentalist Christian institutions also ban drinking, gambling and sex outside of marriage.

“What we seek is parity for homosexual and heterosexual students,” she said. “Homosexual behavior – that term is so vague. There have been students kicked out of school for identifying themselves as gay on their MySpace pages.”

Oklahoma Baptist University, for its part, has moved closer to that kind of parity, O’Gwynn said. Administrators changed the student handbook several years ago to abolish a specific section on homosexual activity in favor of a broader policy on human sexuality.

“It now says that any sexual activity outside the marriage of a man and a woman would not be permitted,” O’Gwynn said.

He said a student who came out as a lesbian after last year’s Soulforce visit is still a student in good standing at Oklahoma Baptist. He added that the school has no plans to modify its policy again in the near future.

“Our code of conduct is based on the Bible,” O’Gwynn said. “If we don’t see the Bible as changing, then our rules aren’t changing either.”

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