Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Awakening to Activism: Vassar, West Point, Baylor and Abilene

In the spring of my junior year at Vassar College, someone had put up fliers all around to recruit students to be part of conversations with cadets at nearby West Point Military Academy about Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT). Though I had never been a part of any activism before, I was intrigued, and showed up for the event. It was lead by Soulforce, an absolutely amazing national non-profit with a mission of "relentless nonviolent resistance to bring freedom to lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, and queer people from religious & political oppression." They had been negotiating with West Point administrators to allow us to talk to cadets, student-to-student and ask them personally if they believed that DADT was fair or appropriate.

But the day of the conversations, we learned that the negotiations with administrators had broken down. West Point was barring Soulforce from the campus. So now the activism became civil disobedience. The Soulforce organizers explained that we could choose to cross the campus line and risk arrest or stand in solidarity in silence, holding signs, as others crossed the line. And with that, about 10 Vassar students were off to West Point, along with Soulforce organizers and other volunteers. 

The day was one of the most powerful days of my life; I stood in solidarity at the entrance of West Point as students and Soulforce volunteers walked determinedly onto campus and were immediately arrested by the police standing guard. Twenty-two people were arrested on that day in 2006. 

It was like a switch was turned in me: How could this be happening 30 miles from my progressive, LGBT-positive campus? Why did no one care? Where were the news cameras, the local liberals, the other Vassar students? I woke up to the fact that our country not just passively condones but in many ways actively, legally and brazenly supports discrimination against LGBT people in so many sectors of life. I was LIVID.

I was reminded of this rage and passion today reading about gay activists on Christian campuses that a dear friend sent me to remind me of the work ahead. These students are amazing. I'm absolutely proud of what I and my compatriots did at Vassar, founding the first campus LGBT activist group ACT OUT, as a result of that experience at West Point. We organized panels, did on-campus education and off-campus activism. But no Vassar student was going to be expelled for that work. Not so at Baylor University, Abilene Christian University, and others profiled in the New York Times article linked to above (not to mention the hundreds not profiled).

Abilene's vice president for student life, Jean-Noel Thompson, explained, “We want to engage these complex issues, and to give help and guidance to students who are struggling with same-sex attraction. But we are not going to embrace any advocacy for gay identity.”

It doesn't take much digging in that sentence to see how hard it would be to be gay at Abilene. And that's just what their administrators are saying on the record. Students are expelled or put on probation until they repent. And how do you explain to your conservative, evangelical parents why you have been put on probation, suspended or expelled?

Yet, yet, the students are not to be downtrodden! Six students at (or recently expelled from) conservative Christian colleges are quoted in the article BY NAME. They are unapologetic, brave and unstoppable. We are going to make things right.

1 comment:

  1. Photo by Laura Tillman, 2006, at the West Point Soulforce action.