Even on American highways crowded with giant family cars, buses are still big enough to make a point. For his acid tour in 1964, Ken Kesey had his Merry Pranksters repaint a 1939 school bus in psychedelic colors with brooms. These days buses are plastic-wrapped with their messages, like giant Twinkies on a mission.
The one driving down Route 7 in Virginia yesterday was purplish on one side and orange sunset on the other. In huge letters it said “Social Justice for Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.” On the highway, fellow drivers either honked and waved or threw Coke cans. In Sioux City, Iowa, someone spray-painted the bus with “Fag, God doesn’t love you.”
Angel Collie, who always sits halfway back in the bus, keeps the route taped above his window, right over the plastic Jesus and souvenir napkin from Whataburger. (Angel prefers to be referred to as “he,” although his mother sometimes forgets and reverts to “she,” but “I’m patient,” Angel says.) The 25 “equality riders” from a group called Soulforce have roughly followed certain routes of the Freedom Riders who battled Southern segregation in the 1960s.
Instead of bus stations and restaurants, they stop at conservative evangelical colleges they say discriminate against homosexuals. Last week it was Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Yesterday it was Patrick Henry College, a seven-year-old evangelical institution in Purcellville, Va., with grand political ambitions. It was founded by Michael Farris, a leader in the home-schooling movement.
A Patrick Henry press release announcing the visit called them a “traveling group of homosexual activists” and “false teachers.” Many of the riders come from evangelical families and attended colleges like the ones they visit. At some point they decided that, despite what their church told them, they could be Christian and gay.
At the colleges they try to get this message across to the students. Sometimes they are allowed on campus and sometimes not. When they do meet up with students the conversations proceed awkwardly. One question: Were you abused as a child? Another: How exactly does gay attraction work? Angel answers a lot of questions about which bathroom he uses and what physical “parts” he has.
“Listen up, folks,” said Robin Reynolds, who organized the Patrick Henry stop and had gathered everyone for a briefing. This was the night before, and the riders were crowded into a room at the Super 8 Motel. One boy was knitting and two girls were hugging. The boys ranged from a cute, clean-cut paralegal at the Federal Trade Commission to a couple of college students with faux hawks. Gender was referred to as “perceived gender.” One girl snacked on an avocado.
“All Patrick Henry faculty and students must adhere to a worldview that says the Earth was created in six days,” Reynolds began. “The Bush administration loves them so much. As a tiny school they’ve had as many White House interns as Georgetown. Janet Ashcroft [wife of former Attorney General John Ashcroft] is on the board. That tells you so much right there.”
Next, the riders sat around and read Patrick Henry’s student handbook: “The practice of homosexual conduct or other extramarital relations is inconsistent with our faith position,” it says. It also condemns legal structures that condone “inappropriate sexual activity or lust, heterosexual or homosexual.”
Some Christian colleges list homosexuality along with rape and harassment, so the riders see this handbook as an improvement, but it’s not enough for Reynolds. “What’s scary is that these people are going straight to Capitol Hill and the White House without ever talking to people of different views,” she said.
Reynolds had the makings of a public relations problem for Patrick Henry. She is African American, and the school is highly self-conscious of its inability to recruit many African American students (this year it has one out of a student body of about 325). She is earnest and polite and always speaks earnest evangelese — “goodness gracious” and “my word” and “have a blessed day.” Before she eats or takes a trip or makes a phone call, she prays to Jesus.
After breakfast the bus rolled up to the college. The campus is tiny, like a Hollywood set of an Ivy League school. At that moment there were no students anywhere, not even looking out their dorm windows. Only police.
Police cars were parked all along the driveway and across the entrance of the school. About 45 officers made a human barrier. The riders had seen plenty of police presence, but this was “intense,” said Katie Higgins, one of the organizers.
Patrick Henry did not forbid its students to talk to the riders, but strongly encouraged them not to. In a letter to parents, the school’s president called Soulforce’s presence a “rude and offensive disruption” and accused the riders of trying to “manipulate” students.
The riders filed out of the bus and stood in a line. Some held signs: “Open Dialogue” and “All at God’s Table.” They had all taken care to dress professionally, but “professional” is a relative term. At Patrick Henry, boys wear suits to class and girls look like young interns on the Hill. Although the dress code does not mention them, one senses that the riders’ nose rings, arms full of tattoos and pink headbands on males would be frowned upon. Reynolds looked neat, but by Patrick Henry standards boy neat, in a pinstriped button-down shirt and slacks.
Reynolds made a brief statement calling herself a “child of God, a follower of Christ and a lesbian.” Jarrett Lucas and Josh Polycarpe, both 21-year-old African American activists, walked past a “Private Property, No Trespassing” sign. They were politely arrested and driven away.
Afterward, Patrick Henry senior Michael Holcomb was given permission to talk to reporters. When asked why he thought Soulforce had come, Holcomb struggled. “I think they have a certain idea of . . . a certain view of sexuality . . . a view of Christianity . . . sorry, I need to think about this.”
But when asked his own view he had no trouble. “It’s not that we hate them. It’s just that they engage in a behavior that’s against God’s word,” he said. “God instituted marriage as between one man and one woman and He wants people to experience the fullness of that. If not, things are not going to work right.”
Soulforce visits often bring gay students and alumni out of hiding, and this was no exception. Three alumni contacted Reynolds during the visit; she said one told her he was gay and that his time at Patrick Henry had been the “hardest four years of his life.”
David Hazard, a friend of college founder Farris who had edited one of his books, also told Reynolds he was gay. When Farris heard that during an interview in his office, his jaw fell open, and he stared for a long time. “Oh. I’m so sorry for David,” he said. “I think he’s deluded.” The place for someone like that, he added, “is on their knees repenting of their sin.
“But here’s a good reaction for you: I still like him.”