Adventures in Faith and Sexuality
For months now, my friend Justin has been trying to get me up to the cities, and, more importantly, to meet the people on the Equality Ride. While I can't hope to express what the ride is without having been on it, the best story I can offer is that of 50-odd young adults traveling around the country on two buses, going to college campuses which make life hard for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. Some universities have policies so severe, students may be suspended or expelled for supporting their gay friends or family. The ride aims to change this by, well, talking. Talking to students about their experiences with sexual and gender identity, explaining how their faith interacts with those, and challenging arguments that these identities are fundamentally immoral.
The other half of the ride is more a public relations effort: when schools refuse the ride access to campus, riders stand vigil at the sidewalk, walk around the campus borders, or deliberately trespass. At one stop, riders carried pictures of their family. At another, they left lilies to symbolize the suicides of LGBT students, and read those stories aloud. "All we want to do is talk," the campaign seems to plead, "and yet we are handcuffed and arrested because the school doesn't want their students to have this dialogue."
While I agree wholeheartedly with the Equality Ride's efforts to talk with students, this method of civil disobedience rests uneasy with me. I think it's disrespectful to invade a private property, especially as a part of an organized group. These colleges have the right to bar people from their property, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the right to determine a code of conduct for students. Surely a college can enforce its own attendance criteria: for example, as a man, I wouldn't complain about being denied entrance to a woman's university.
Despite my concerns that the Equality Ride might be too aggressive in its push for social justice, the opportunity to spend a weekend in the cities with them sounded too good to pass up. While I wasn't able to make it to the final official stop at Mankato, I could still join the riders as they tied up loose ends from the trip. Here was a chance to get out of small-town Minnesota for a few days, make new friends, and try things I'd never experienced before. "And hey, with down time," I thought, "I might even get that paper on spectrum allocation written." I had some concerns about the trip, though. Without ties to any sort of queer community or political movement, what common ground would I and the riders have? As someone with no commitment to a specific faith, would I fit in with a primarily Christian crowd? While I resolved to keep energy forward, I didn't know at all what I was getting into.
It's Friday, nine o'clock, and I'm lugging some clothes, blankets, and gear down to Justin's van. He's tired, having missed the exit by about 30 miles, but warms up when we get to talking on the way out of town. He shares some of the ways the two months of the ride has changed him, and it's evident in how he speaks about the stops. He's become more self-sufficient, convinced in the intrinsic worth of people and the independence of their actions from character. He talks about the importance of loving the people he talked to on the ride, even when they said he would never be accepted in heaven, or that his existence is an outrage in God's eyes. I'm reminded of Ueshiba-sensei's assertion that "true budo is a work of love," and reflect that expressing compassion for those who mean us harm is a beautiful virtue. It's not enough to either strike back, or to stand there and take the damage. Blending with one's attacker, redirecting that aggression, and maybe saving both lives, feels more complete: a truer expression of love.
We arrive at a mid-size hotel, in what looks like a warehouse district. Things are a little broken down, a little edgy, but there's a current of life to the place. I sweep through a blur of faces and handshakes, and realize that people here are often... different. It's in the clothes: on some more grungy, on others more dressy, and in most cases tighter. It's also in the hair: girls have short, even shaved, hair; or flash vivid colors like (my personal favorite) coppery orange. It's in the piercings and tattoos: bars, rings, and zig-zags of metal adorn ears, lips, and noses. I feel concern as memories of flying towards the mat face-first bubble to the front of my mind, but reason that such injuries must be rare or preventable. Still others look entirely "normal": I couldn't pick them out of a crowd in any way. Gradually the unexpected differences normalize, and fade behind the faces of the people themselves: tired, outspoken, joyous, relaxed. Many are pleased to meet me. "We've heard so much about you," they say, and I find myself grinning back as I say hello.
As we join conversations in the lobby, the hotel hallway, and the street corner, the people I talk with are open, individualistic, and connected to one another in a way that doesn't exclude me. Somehow I'm at ease here, as I find myself enthusiastically contrasting Japanese and Chinese grammar with two young women, or listening to the discussions of the night's plans. Having spent the last two months under schedule, they're excited to spend the next few nights free: some look forward to drinking and clubbing, while others will spend the night indoors, seeking quiet. We go walking down Hennepin Avenue, a street lined with dozens of theaters mixed with bars and clubs. As we walk, we get glances from "family", as they're called here, and straight people alike: sometimes gawking, sometimes friendly. As someone who doesn't express many gay markers, most people don't recognize me as such, and I'm usually treated just like anybody else. Walking with this obviously queer group, though, colors me as the member of an unusual culture: shared for some, an out-group for others. In turn, it's fun to play the game of guessing who falls into which camp, and enjoying the open secret. "Oh yeah, they're definitely family," we good-naturedly comment as two 20-something men drive past. One doesn't have to look hard: the atmosphere here is one of relaxed permittivity, and guys walking hand in hand are everywhere you look. While others continue on to the clubs, I head back to the hotel for sleep.
The next morning is characterized by family in the traditional sense: Justin's parents are in town, and they kindly take us out to breakfast at a small suburban restaurant. The two of them are beaming, tanned, and enthusiastic about their son's efforts. I wonder if my dad will someday be as comfortable. We're joined by Linda, a friend of the family who expresses a youthful sense of humor and commitment to music--she's involved with at least one band, as far as I can tell, and keeps us up-to-date with the stories of recent concerts. I respond to the initial questions of what I study, where I work, and so forth. Mostly, though, I listen and try to track the conversation as they discuss plans for upcoming weddings, music drama, and family history. I don't contribute much, but enjoy following the ideas, and eating good food. Afterward, we walk back to Linda's apartment and discuss the Equality Ride, civil rights, and the Bible. I pull out my camera, and get a few good shots along the way: my favorite, of a wooden barrel, is filled with the new warmth and greenery of spring. It's a feeling that suffuses the whole morning in my memory.
The rest of the day blurs by. I snag a few hours nap, recovering from a week of late-night homework. Head down to the pool and hot tub, and enjoy swimming for the first time in months. There's a good deal of splashing and laughter, and I discover a lot of Aikido doesn't make sense when floating. Refreshed, I tag along on a visit to a local colony of Justin's fraternity, and for the first time come into contact with the Greek system.
At first, I can't get over the fact that this campus is BIG. There are perhaps 30,000 students here, which makes the university fifteen times larger than my college. There are blocks and blocks of houses with students out front, on couches and chairs, at tables, dancing. Everyone seems to have a beer in hand--bottles and cans are stacked on all surfaces. On lawns and down sidewalks, boys throw footballs or, more rarely, Frisbees, and I feel the impulse to lay out for a disc. Music rumbles out of performance speakers: a mix of bumping hip-hop and danceable party tracks. The target of today's expedition is a three-story stone house, built perhaps in the early 1900s. We intercept a small group of students returning to the house, introduce ourselves, and ask for a tour. Along the way through the house, we ask about house activities, membership, and plans. I'm surprised to hear that there are only two minority students in the colony, out of perhaps thirty. To judge by the attitudes of those we talk to, everyone here is white, Christian, straight, and has money. It's obviously not true for everyone, but I'm taken aback at the norm. Afterward, Justin explains that while the selection bias is much weaker than it used to be, the accumulated stereotype persists. Hence, many fraternities have trouble finding minority applicants.
Justin and I go walking downtown at sunset, and I grab my camera. The light is fantastic, a warm sunset throwing the blue glass, gray concrete, and steel beams into relief. While I got some good shots, they didn't capture the warmth of the evening. We sit at a table outside the Lyon's Pub on Sixth, and enjoy a hearty meal. I encounter spinach and artichoke dip for the first time, and savor the taste of warm flatbread. The waitress is amazing, too; good timing, friendly, and ready with recommendations. Seven dollars buys me a delicious turkey sandwich--I'm happy for the night.
Back at the hotel, I sometimes have trouble blending with my new-found companions. Smoking is remarkably prevalent, and while I want to keep talking, I'm sometimes forced to seek cleaner air. Other times, I'm unsure what pronouns to use--appearances can blur the line between male and female, and the opportunity to ask is not always available. At times, I find more flamboyant personas obnoxious, and have to remind myself that yes, demeanor varies, and it shouldn't get on my nerves. As I get to know people better, I find the speech patterns less unusual, smoking tolerable for short periods, and questions of male or female become irrelevant. Real people start to emerge: I discover Delfin shares with me a love of photography, and learn about his plans for graduate school. Talking about the stops, too, yields a further appreciation for character. I've heard it said that my generation doesn't get up and move, doesn't write letters or protest for causes we believe in. Discovering people my age who do have a cause, and can speak eloquently and respectfully for it, is heartwarming.
A few hours later, I squeeze into the van with eight riders. They're headed to a nightclub by the name of Pi--I've halfway promised to explore the fraternity party instead. The whole van sings along to the music as we drive, and groove in their seats. The words and rhythm are unfamiliar, energetic, sexy, and hard to take seriously. It's still a good time, and as we pull up to the curb, they tumble out of the van doors in high spirits.
Returning to the fraternity house, we find that the night has brought crowds. They fill the deck and yard, talking and drinking. Guys with arms around shoulders, girls huddled over their cell phones, everyone with a drink. I try to reverse-engineer the handshake patterns, but miss a few steps. The empty living room is packed with dancing students, and downstairs 50-odd people are crowded around game tables. I catch bursts of conversation, banter, shouts. Homophobia is loudly expressed, which confuses me as I watch guys in constant contact with each other. It's okay, I surmise, as long as it's between brothers. On the dance floor, a girl tries to catch my attention, and I turn to say hello. Loud music blasts our conversation apart, however, and she signs apologetically, "I guess we won't be able to talk." Disappointed and displaced, I slip away from the house to walk for space and air.
I may not be a part of this culture, and I don't think I want to be. Still, there's something to it: being drunk, dancing, and at the same party is all they need to feel a connection and get to know each other. There's a sense of real comraderie, too, between members: it's visible in the way they greet each other, the banter, the relaxed but present power structure. People here belong. Sure, the smoke and fury was too much for me, but I'm glad I got to visit.
Sunday is filled with work: I help set up the meeting space the ride uses, then take my camera and go walking. I'm looking for a coffee shop to grab some food and download some sources for the paper, but after an hour's travel, reluctantly conclude that downtown Minneapolis is not going to be helpful in this quest. I think about how in Portland, one couldn't go two blocks without finding a coffee shop or park... and settle for a Borders cafe. With sources downloaded, I make my way back to the hotel, and sketch out arguments around the privatization of radio spectrum. The hours fly by, and I enjoy hanging out on the back patio, drinking water and socializing while we write.
At six, we leave for dinner. Haven is hosting a party at her house, and the 26 west bus riders walk a few miles across the Mississippi to the suburbs. The evening is warm, and the sun diffuses through the clouds in hues of purple and orange. I'm full of energy, and can't resist jumping onto the sidewall as we walk, admiring architecture, sharing life stories. Haven's home is a small white house in a quiet neighborhood: few fences between the yards, and aging rockery says "this place is an old home." As we hang out on the lawn, eating curry and salad, I listen to the riders' experiences at stop after stop, of being directed to a fenced-in "free speech zone" on campus, of being arrested for carrying pictures of their parents, of finding the bus paint-balled and scratched by keys. They tell me about the police chief who, required by law to take the riders to jail, still brought fried chicken to the rider's community barbecue that night. I wonder how I'm going to make a difference in the world.
Walking home, I spend a lot of time talking to a rider named Matt, a former student at Brigham Young University. He asks me, "how do you identify," and I have no idea how to answer. "As a person," I eventually respond. "I mean, sure, you can apply 'gay' as a label for convenience, but that doesn't define me any more than 'student' or 'frisbee player' does." We have a lot in common, I discover: books, social scenes, interaction styles. For a while, I'm eerily convinced we're clones, but some differences become apparent: for example, he comes from a strongly Mormon background. As he tells me about going to school at BYU, I reflect that there is one story that all of us share, but is different for every one: that of coming out. Sometimes it's quiet, other times dramatic, but I haven't heard the same one twice.
It's about 10 o'clock, and a half-dozen riders have asked if I'll be going to the clubs with them. "Sure," I say, not really sure what I'm getting into, but resolving to keep energy forward. I grab a black short-sleeve dress shirt (one of two nice shirts I own), and move to iron it. "No, you don't understand," they explain. "You don't WANT to look nice. It's a good shirt, but don't iron it! No, you shouldn't wear anything under it. Trust me, you don't want to." Bemused, I concede such decisions to the professionals, and we walk out into the night.
Our group chooses the Saloon, an establishment flagged by a tall image of four young men embracing one another. Smokers stand at tables along the side of the building, talking and watching passerby. The bouncer at the front is surprised when I cheerfully inform him I won't need a wristband; perhaps, I think to myself, he's taken aback by the honesty of someone under 21. I walk through the small l-shaped entrance, and into a large, dark room filled with people of all shapes and sizes, some dancing, some standing at the bar, others watching the crowd or the shower--a plexiglass box, elevated at one corner of the room, containing a single shower-head. Inside, a man wearing next to nothing dances, showing off his physique for the crowd. It's not really sexy, but hard not to watch.
A cursory tour of the building traverses four principle rooms, two mainly bars, one for dancing, and one for games. I seek out people I'm familiar with, dance a little, and talk as I can. The music is an unexpectedly eclectic aggregate of styles, ranging from pumping rhythm and blues tracks to upbeat sixties pop. I'm not really sure what I'm doing here, besides being present. Yeah, I can do the bump-and-grind dance, but it's not really my thing. I can lead basic waltz, and follow swing on a good day, but that's not the style of the place. There's nobody I can aiki-dance with either, and I don't think anybody here would know how to react to front strike from under.
The look comes back here: I spot guys who turn around in their seats to follow me, some who seem almost ready to ask me something but turn aside, or just keep looking over from their friends. Some are good looking, but I'm not here to meet people. One sketchy 40-something comes up to me, and in a flouncing lisp informs me, "I just wanted to tell you that you are the cutest thing in this whole place!" He leers a little. I smile broadly right back. "Osu! Thank you very much!" I reply, and bow. He tries again, but I remain enthusiastic, friendly, and utterly non-sexual. Confused, he leaves me alone. Another guy follows me down the hallway, explaining, "I'm stalking you." I'm wary as I rejoin friends, and when Justin bumps up against me, I reflexively turn to side-step-in-throw. "Sorry," I apologize, "I didn't realize it was you." He laughs, and I relax again: being sober and with good company, I'm safe here.
Eventually, I find a comfortable space. At the bar in the back corner, Mike, Cylest, Jillian, and I wind up talking about where we're from, how we got here, and where we're going. I learn that Mike grew up in a strongly Mormon community in Alaska, and had to grapple with his church's belief that his sexual orientation was irreconcilable with Christian morality; that Cylest joined the ride as a straight ally, and found herself coming out over the course of the ride; and that Jillian looks forward to rejoining her son in California, where she'll work as a national park chaplain for the summer, leading services in nature. They ask me where I'm from, what connects me to the ride, and about Carleton. As we talk, the bartender asks who we are and why everyone here is connected. We explain about the ride, and he offers a free shot to all. We go home happy, tired, and some a little intoxicated: concerned for safety, I chase down one rider and walk her back to the hotel. It's a good finish to the day, to help someone get home safely.
The following day is dedicated, as Monday of mid-term break often is, to work: reading secondary sources and mostly finishing my Electricity and Magnetism term paper, in between meals gathered from the massive table of snacks and sandwiches. I spend some time watching the thunderstorms gathering from the hotel deck, over a quixotically poignant landscape of rusted billboards, dilapidated warehouses, and high-rise apartments. The riders are busy writing: personal notes to each other in hand-labeled journals, postcards to donors, or evaluation forms for their group leaders. Matt says to me "I know you don't have a journal, but I wish you did, so I'm going to write this for you." I borrow pen and paper, and write a note back. It's an unexpected and heartwarming expression of inclusivity--even though I didn't go on the ride, I'm still a small part of this journey.
That feeling is redoubled when I'm invited to stay for the closing ceremonies. I help set up the sound and projector for slideshows, and take in the visual history of the East and West buses. Some images impress themselves deeply into my memory: two riders holding hands, in front of a sign which announces "no trespassing"; a field of lily blossoms scattered on grass, with riders being solemnly led away; brightly colored prayer quilts abandoned to the ground, their bearers gone. I see snapshots of wacky humor, depictions of poignant defeat, and photographs of joyous reconciliation. I think these images, more than anything prior, convinced me that the Equality Ride is something powerful, something beautiful. Maybe I don't agree completely with the implementation, but I think it's still important.
As I talk to Shawn, he echoes some of my concerns. "Although we always say that it's not our fault, that the schools choose to arrest us, they could just let us onto campus, that's not the whole story. We do push the issue. We're the ones who decide to go on to their property, like it or not." It reawakens a question I had at the beginning of the weekend: is this sort of disobedience worth it? Are the lives that the ride changes sufficient cause to disrespect the rights of these schools? What if one prevents a suicide? Can the potential to save a life justify the invasion of private property? It's unclear to me, but listening to each rider in the circle share their final thoughts and remembrances, one possible answer emerges: this ride has changed us, and what we have done together has mattered.