Don't worry, you didn't miss anything - my synopsis of our second school stop in Houghton, NY can be found at the official Soulforce blog.
As for lucky number 3, the Equality Ride bus arrived in Huntsville, AL on Friday night, our visit to Oakwood University not scheduled until Monday. Although we had not notified the school or the local authorities of the timetable for our arrival (except for confirming Monday’s schedule), we received a phone call within a half hour of stepping into the hotel, welcoming us to town.
Creepy. Silver lining? Goal of visibility reached!
We spent the weekend trying to spread the word about Monday’s events and getting to know the town of Huntsville, including meeting with a several Oakwood students to help us better understand the atmosphere at the school surrounding LGBTQ issues.
We learned that Oakwood, a Seventh Day Adventist school and HBCU (Historically Black College or University), has a culture of enforced silence surrounding LGBTQ issues, in which openly gay students are discriminated against and often expelled by the administration. Therefore, there are few openly LGBQ students (each of them sure they were the only one), and no openly transgender students that we met or heard of.
When asked if she would again choose to go to Oakwood if she had known beforehand the environment in which she would be placing herself, one lesbian student said “absolutely not!” So why did she stay? Her parents wouldn’t pay for any other school and her credits weren’t transferrable to any other school that would have been any better. If she wanted an education, this was it.
On Monday, we boarded the bus and made our way from the hotel to Oakwood, escorted by school police to the only spot where we would be permitted to go: a building on the corner of campus which most of the students we spoke with had never heard of. Not that it would have mattered – our agenda involved one half hour of structured dialogue with selected students and administration, followed by a short catered lunch. With a school population of about 2000 students, we were given access to talk to about 15 of them.
The administration stated that it had not received our communications (first send last October) until two weeks ago, and anything more would have been impossible to arrange. When we asked to allow for a longer period of dialogue or make the event open to more students, we were informed that either we accept the terms or not be allowed onto school at all.
So we went, and we spoke our piece about a need for safe spaces for LGBTQ students, and shared our stories as best we could. And in a funny turn of events, when the riders were ready to move on after 30 minutes, the students and some administrators pleaded that we continue with our stories. Small, subtle shifts in understanding began to ripple throughout the closed door meeting as we continued talking, a sensation of urgency replacing the skepticism and fear that had marked our arrival.
The conversations continued throughout a hurried (and deliciously vegan, rock on SDA!) lunch and then again near the entrance to the school where we set up with signs reading “We are here for you!” Student leaders tweeted and Facebooked their friends to come and meet us, and over the course of the afternoon we spoke with nearly 100 students. Some of them wanted us to know we should try harder to stop being gay, some of them were LGBQ themselves and grateful to meet us (and meet each other!), and many committed to continue this dialogue after we left. No one was sure what would happen next, but the conversation had begun at last.
Later, we continued talking with students as we staked out a corner of a local Chili’s restaurant and communed over greasy appetizers smothered in bacon (this is the South, y’all). When we were finally done, we left the restaurant with our stomachs and hearts full.
I wonder whether anything will change at Oakwood, a school deeply entrenched in the SDA tradition as well as Southern culture. LGBTQ people are welcome so long as they deny the reality of who they are. Painful , harmful silence will continue to be enforced there, most certainly.
Yet those small, subtle shifts we saw in the first closed door meeting grew perceptibly larger throughout the afternoon. I think they will continue to grow. I hope they will. The students of Oakwood deserve to know they are not alone, and that they are loved just as they are. All of them.
We all do.