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April 13, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 15
 
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Equality Ride 2007 comes to Seattle
Equality Ride 2007 comes to Seattle
Participants visit Seattle Pacific University and Northwest University, city council issues Equality Ride proclamation

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

A bus load of 25 young adults arrived in Seattle on Monday to share their stories of religious and political oppression based on their sexual orientation or gender identities at two private Christian universities in the Seattle area. Fresh from George Fox University in Newberg, OR, the Seattle visits are two of 32 planned stops at colleges and universities that discriminate against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people through policy or practice.

On Wednesday, the participants of the West Coast Bust of Soulforce's Equality Ride 2007 divided into two groups to speak on panels and participate in presentations on the campuses of Seattle Pacific University (SPU) in Seattle and Northwest University in Kirkland. The visits went off without a hitch after several months of planning on both sides.

"In order to have a fully informed conversation that truly seeks solutions, then, we must have openly Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people as a part of these conversations without fear of repercussions," said Soulforce's West Coast Equality Ride Bus Co-coordinator, Haven Herrin, while standing outside a gate to the SPU campus. "We are traveling to colleges and universities to counter anti-Gay policies. We are visiting schools, such as Seattle Pacific University, to have conversations about faith, identity, sexuality and gender. All too often this is a divisive topic in society."

At SPU, a university of 3,800 students founded by Free Methodists, several events were planned for the Equality Riders from 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. However, only one campus-wide forum was open to the media.

The forum featured Herrin and Equality Ride member Brian Murphy on a panel with SPU professor Frank Spina, who provided a response to the issues raised by the Equality Riders. Some of the 700 students and faculty in attendance posed both personal and theological questions during a lengthy question and answer period.

"From the beginning, we have been fully welcomed in by Seattle Pacific University's administration. And, so, today on campus, we have had various large presentations and panel discussions and, then, small sit down discussions..." said Herrin. "The students here have been very warm and welcoming and I think they have been led by their administration in that spirit. They have asked hard questions. ... It runs the full spectrum of allies to people who do hold a prejudiced theological viewpoint toward Gay and Lesbian people. But, they are engaged."

SPU policy forbids "[c]ohabitation and related forms of premarital, extramarital, or homosexual activities" in its "Lifestyle Expectations," which are provided to students and posted on the school's website.

According to one former professor, who claims to have lost his job when his sexual orientation became known, the university also prohibits LGBT faculty as well. "It was clearly stated that the only reason that I was not being offered another contract was because of my homosexuality," said Stephen Marshall-Ward, an adjunct music professor at SPU from 1998 until 2000. "I am a person of strong personal faith. I worked very hard and diligently as a faculty member. I was praised by my fellow faculty members and my students for being an outstanding faculty member in my field. I intended to continue that relationship with SPU, but they could not do that because of their policies and adherence to the board."

Marshall-Ward said he had little recourse, because SPU is a private religious university and a city ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation had not been tested in court at the time. He hopes, however, that SPU's open-arms approach to the Equality Ride will inspire change.

"There doesn't seem to be any desire on their part to actually change, but only to try to appear hospitable, which - to their credit - they have done extremely well," he said. "The dialogue is what is so important. When the dialogue is allowed, we begin to understand each other. When understanding occurs, decisions can be made to benefit one another."

At Northwest University, a university of 1,200 students founded by the Assemblies of God, Equality Riders attended a panel discussion and spent the day talking to students, faculty and administrators.

"It was not an easy day, I think both for the Equality Riders and for the students and administration there. We all came with strong conviction about what we believe and where we are coming from," said Soulforce's other West Coast Equality Ride Bus Co-Coordinator, Alexey Bulokhov. "It was a day of respectful conversation, but it was heated conversation when we finally got to wrestle with the issue that we came there to wrestle with.

"I think it was beneficial for the campus community because they don't get to engage with issues of gender and homosexuality a lot. Certainly, after some interactions with students and staff, we saw that this was a much needed conversation there. They have acknowledged that as well."

Northwest University's "Lifestyle Standards" do "not condone practices that Scripture forbids," such as "activities including occult practices, sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexual practice, drunkenness, theft, profanity, and dishonesty."

MONDAY
Multifaith Works, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides support and housing for people living with AIDS or other life-threatening illnesses, was the first to welcome the Equality Riders to Seattle.

"I have heard about Soulforce for years; since their inception. We kind of followed them and knew that they were coming," said Arthur Padilla, Executive Director of Multifaith Works. "We actually had conversations with staff about some of the reaction in different communities around their arrival. Interestingly enough, whenever they go to a city, they look for a host. When they called us up, we said 'Absolutely. Are you kidding?' So, that's the relationship. It was an organic thing."

After a pasta dinner, current and former SPU students and faculty talked about LGBT people on campus and the issues they may face in the Multifaith community room.

Brian Halcomb, an AIDS Care Team Program Associate at Multifaith, said he knew people who were LGBT at SPU and heard accounts of faculty being fired due to their sexual orientation and of one student, who had been forced to denounce their sexuality publicly.

Then, three Equality Ride members gave an informal presentation about the struggles of LGBT communities outside of the United States.

Delfin Bautista from Miami, Florida, shared his perspective on the treatment of LGBT people in Hispanic cultures and in the Dominican Republic. "To be Gay as a hispanic ... is not accepted very much," he said. "Not being able to share your whole humanity ... is very draining and, I think, very sad."

Amy Brainer-Medellin from Chicago, Illinois, grew up in China and shared her views on culture and family. She said she came out, despite her families conservative religious views, because she believed it dishonored her family by continuing to perpetuate a lie.

Bulokhov was last to speak. He talked about the influx of religious practice in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Homosexuality and the practice of religion had been outlawed under Soviet rule. "My earliest memories of sexuality and religion is that it was something that would get you in jail," he said.

During a question and answer period, several other riders shared parts of their stories. Matthew Kulisch from Spokane, Washington, said the 2006 Equality Ride saved his life when they stopped at Brigham Young University where he had attended college. "When I walked up to the campus everyday, I was afraid to be outed," he said.

"When it was first presented to me that it was okay to be a Gay man, I finally got it. ... I heard for the first time that God loves me without reservation."

TUESDAY
Equality Ride Co-directors Herrin and Bulokhov met with Seattle City Council President Nick Licata and Councilmember Sally Clark on Tuesday for a proclamation presentation at Seattle City Hall. The proclamation declared Wednesday, April 11, to be "Equality Ride 2007 Day" in the City of Seattle.

The proclamation reaffirmed the City of Seattle's commitment protect LGBT people from "discrimination, prejudice and oppression." It reads, in part: "[T]he City of Seattle recognizes the historical significance of bus tours and their ability to create conversation about difficult issues and create reflection within a community..."

"I cannot express what an honor it is for us to have received that kind of official acknowledgement of the work that we do; the organization that we are," Bulokhov later told the Seattle Gay News. "Equality Ride is a project that brings validity and legitimacy to this conversation about faith and sexuality. And, so, it is a real honor. It is something that individually, as Equality Riders, will cherish. As an organization, it means a lot to us too."

Herrin used the proclamation on Wednesday during a press conference to draw a distinction between the City of Seattle and Seattle Pacific University, which is located within its boundaries.

"We are here in a city that fully welcomes us as the openly Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people that we are," she said. "I think that simply adds to the interest of this conversation and creates a healthy tension between a school within the confines of this city that does not put forth doctrine and policy that fully welcome LGBT people, but, yet, the city does.

"I think there is an even greater conversation to be had there. This is a school that seeks to 'culturally engage' and, I think, right here, as the city proclaims it Soulforce 'Equality Ride 2007 Day,' there is ample opportunity to engage the campus on this issue."

Clark, a Lesbian, and City Councilmember Tom Rassmusen, who is Gay, both sponsored the proclamation.

Equality Ride members also joined volunteers from Equal Rights Washington on Tuesday to pass out postcards soliciting support for LGBT equality on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle's University District.

On Tuesday evening, Soulforce Board Member Judy Osbourne hosted the Equality Ride members at a private dinner at her Seattle home.

WHAT'S NEXT
The Equality Riders spent their last night in Seattle on Wednesday with half the group having dinner at SPU and the other half, who had visited Northwest, being treated to a dinner hosted by the SGN.

"The City of Seattle gave us the gift of 'Equality Ride 2007 Day' and Equality Ride wants to give you back the gift of opening this conversation with Northwest and Seattle Pacific. You guys can continue it so that it becomes a local conversation," said Bulokohov on Wednesday night. "I would hope that the Seattle LGBT community takes it upon itself to education these two places ... about what it means to be Gay, what our lives are like and what our spirituality is like so that they get to be moved by it.

"What students learn there informs their decisions off campus. It informs their voting. It informs the way that they raise their children. It informs a lot."

The West Coast Bus left Seattle Thursday morning for its final two weeks, which will include stops at colleges and universities in Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. Meanwhile, the East Coast Bus of Equality Ride will take another 25 young adults to stops in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.

For more information on Soulforce's Equality Ride or to read the participant's blog posts from the road, visit www.equalityride.org.

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