Stop #6: Daytona Beach, FL
After our stops in North Carolina, we headed down to Daytona Beach, FL. With a school, Bethune-Cookman University, featuring a policy that discriminates against LGBT students and a community deeply immersed in conservative United Methodist traditions, we knew we had our work cut out for us. The riders who planned the stop had been relentlessly trying for months to make contacts in the community, reaching for any kind of dialogue. Yet we were met with a resounding wall of silence as the school and dozens of churches and community organizations steadfastly ignored us over months of attempted contact. Friends, friends of friends, and professional contacts who at first were excited to welcome us mysteriously stopped returning emails and phone calls. With three days to go until our arrival, we had just one event firmly scheduled, a community service project with a local organization. But two days before our arrival, we were informed without explanation that we could no longer serve.
Still we came. We tried everything we could think of to reach out to the community and engage in dialogue, from walking up to tourists to talk to attending services at other local churches to flyering outside of the college's campus to spending time in our Equality Ride gear in local restaurants, and we did have a few good conversations. But the silence surrounding LGBTQ issues and identities remained, as other disturbing questions arose.
For example: a white police officer approached a white woman in our group as she flyered on a corner near the college's campus and informed her that she appeared to be a prostitute, and that anyway we (a group comprised of about 60% white people) were in "a dangerous neighborhood" and should probably leave. The university, by the way, is an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), and the woman is transgender. How would the situation have been different if she had been a person of color, or if more of us were people of color, or if she had not been transgender, or if this were a predominantly white school and more of us were people of color?
We left Daytona, many of us disheartened and discouraged. We had done everything we could think of, and yet it didn’t seem enough. I left feeling like we had failed the school, the community, and ourselves not just in our attempts to let LGBTQ students know they are affirmed and loved, but also in our stated goal to address racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression in a meaningful way. But how? How can this possibly be done?
Stop #7: Atlanta, GA - Morehouse College
Morehouse College, another HBCU, is located in the heart of Atlanta and is often considered “the black Harvard.” An all-male school famous throughout the world for producing black leaders in many fields – including Martin Luther King, Jr. – Morehouse’s significance to the black community cannot be overstated. The fact that most white people in America are not familiar with Morehouse (or at least, its significance) is itself an indication of the racism still inherent in our social structure.
We came to Morehouse to address a new policy, implemented last fall, regarding dress code – which made it clear that “a Morehouse man” could not wear clothing associated with women in class or school-related events. Let me be clear that Morehouse is a fairly progressive school in a lot of ways – they actually do have a group for gay, bisexual, and queer men on campus (“Safe Space”) that does a lot of important things, and as a school is working to create a more inclusive community surrounding GBQ issues and identities on campus. But the dress code policy, created in response to several students who were wearing female clothing around school, clearly discriminates against gender variant folks as well, including transgender people (the “T” in LGBTQ).
We were welcomed onto campus, met with administrators, given a tour, allowed to approach students in dialogue, and invited to participate in another campus event. We largely felt welcomed and heard. Yet during some of my own conversations throughout the day, it became increasingly clear to me the limitations I faced as a white man in being able to understand and address the oppressions facing black men. The demonization of black masculinity has a long history pre-dating slavery and is clearly manifested today in a multitude of ways in this country (see: the incarceration rates for black men). As a white man, who am I to come to this place and begin a conversation about gender identity and expression?
Despite a lot of great conversations, I did not find an answer to that question that satisfies me. Perhaps there isn’t one. Certainly not an easy one.
I know there are no easy answers to the questions raised in Daytona, either. Justice is messy, complicated, and frustrating because people are messy, complicated, and frustrating. Yet we have to try anyway.
And tomorrow, I will try again.
Next up: Mississippi.