After the mid-way point at Belhaven, our next two stops represented for me the truest tests of our resolve (as I understood it at that point, at any rate). Mississippi College in Clinton, MS and Baylor University in Waco, TX are both Southern Baptist schools the Equality Ride has visited in years past, and both places at which riders not only got arrested but received poor treatment from the police. During our first training back in January, we were told stories of cavity searches, solitary confinement, and bail posted at ten times its normal rate for riders caught chalking on campus pathways or stepping too far onto university grass. As we approached them in the itinerary, MC and Baylor gradually became the two "big bads" in my mind - the ones I knew could really hurt us, the ones of which I was really afraid.
Mississippi College was first, just a few miles from our last stop. Through extensive and careful negotiations with the school's administration, Jason (the MC stop planner) had ceded the possibility of civil disobedience (crossing onto the private campus against their wishes and getting arrested in order to raise media awareness and illustrate the injustice of the policies). In exchange, MC had promised to allow and even promote two off campus events for its students to attend: a community service project in conjunction with Belhaven and the Equality Ride, and a forum with diverse perspectives about faith and sexuality held at a nearby church.
We were excited - the ride had actually visited MC twice before and each time it had been scarring for both the riders and the school, so being allowed to engage with MC students in real dialogue and service would have been a major breakthrough. But about a week before we got there, we discovered that not only had the events not been promoted to the students in any way whatsoever (as in, the students had no idea they were happening at all), but that the church hosting the panel had been pressured by the school to go back on its commitment.
Well, this dampened our spirits considerably. So instead of the forum, we spent the afternoon standing outside the main entrance to the school with signs protesting the policy. A group of riders wrapped themselves in caution tape and duct-taped their mouths shut, the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender," and "queer" written across their shirts - representing how the school's policies silence their LGBTQ students every day. Another group of riders held rainbow balloons, then popped them one by one as the names of LGBTQ youth who had killed themselves were read, representing the violent way their lives had ended due to the silence and rejection policies like MC's represent.
Although MC had not upheld its end of the deal, we upheld ours and remained off campus grounds throughout the demonstration. Just one local TV news crew came, and newspapers reported the next day that our visit had been "quiet" and "low key." We had some good conversations with students and locals that came out to see us, most of whom said this was a good step forward. But was it? No one got arrested, sure, but the policy is no closer to changing and students are still suffering. Was it a step forward, or was it simply less messy?
Still unsure of the answer, we left Mississippi and made our way to Texas. After a gloriously rejuvenating Easter weekend in Austin involving bars, restaurants, live outdoor music, dancing, and an outdoor swimming pool at just the right temperature, we landed finally in Waco and prepared ourselves for Baylor.
Baylor was going to be different this year as well. Although the school's policy was no different and they would not work with us on creating a forum or event, they did allow us on campus to approach and talk with students. We arrived at school grounds at 9 in the morning and spread out strategically, then began trying to have conversations with students.
Many people simply ignored us (which, I'll be honest, I usually do to folks wth petitions or who want to interrupt my day with conversations I don't want to have). Some were willing to talk until they found out who we were, then walked away smirking, or perhaps suddenly in more of a hurry than before. And a few people actually did stop and talk. Like always, these conversations ran a gamut, from folks who didn't the know policy and were shocked by it (including a clause that prohibits even straight allies from advocating for LGBTQ people or issues) to folks who fully supported it and wanted to save our misguided souls.
The overriding feeling I got was that, regardless of their position on the issue, no one thought anything could be done about it. Everyone felt disempowered, voiceless. It's just the way things are, they said. The school is too powerful.
An open mic-style event afterward lifted our spirits and gave us hope that queer life in Waco was no lost cause, that fierce beauty arises amidst unimaginable resistance every day. But the questions remain: what about Baylor? What about their students? One student told me that, as a bisexual on campus, she felt like her "soul is being sucked dry" by the oppressive silence at the school.
At both schools, this year's ride seemingly made headway by receiving recognition from the schools that previous rides had been unable to get. But were we simply less messy? Had the schools simply learned that the best way to deal with us was to give an inch, and leave us with no leverage to go the remaining mile? As always, I guess my hope lies in the hearts of the folks we actually got to talk with, in what they will choose to take from our stories and love. It's up to them now.
Two weeks later, we have gone to four more schools and are gearing up for our last two. But as it turns out, MC isn't done with this issue - they are flying two riders back to Mississippi to be part of an on-campus panel on homosexuality. Please pray and send your love to these riders who will be vastly outnumbered by folks with PHDs in a very public setting, that their message of hope, truth, and love will be heard by those who need it most.