Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jake Reitan: Person of the Year

This past weekend, my cousin (first cousin once removed, to be precise) was awarded the Twin City's Human Rights Campaign “Brian Coyle Leadership Award.” I know for a fact that the award was richly deserved.

Jake has been active in pursuing justice and equal rights for sexual minorities since his courageous decision, in high school, to come out at his school and try to create a gay-straight alliance there. He experienced first-hand the backlash that can come from being open about one’s sexuality, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to pursue social justice for gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities.

In college, he took a year off to work for the Human Rights Campaign (a grassroots organization that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights) and for Soulforce (a civil rights organization that uses the nonviolent direct action methods of Gandhi and King to fight oppressive teachings and practices targeting sexual minorities, especially those coming out of churches). He created for Soulforce their “Power of Youth” video, which aims to inspire young adults to engage in social justice activism—and which, in my judgment, is the best short film that Soulforce has produced.

And then one day he met a young gay man from Wheaton College who was not only conflicted about his sexuality, but who believed all the things that the conservative Christian community had been telling him about himself: that his sexuality was intrinsically disordered, that he would be a sinner if he fell in love and acted on those feelings, that his sexual orientation was a mental illness, that policies which would expell this young man from Wheaton College were he to come out were actually a good thing.

What amazed Jake was that this young man had been so immersed in a community that taught these things that he’d never really encountered a strong statement of any alternative perspective. He’d never been inspired to reflect critically on the validity of these messages, these ideas that battered his self-image and drove him to pursue love furtively as if it were some kind of crime. The young gay man had gone straight from a conservative Christian home to a Christian college that perpetuated the same message he’d been immersed in growing up. And he still believed in the anti-gay teachings in which he was immersed, even though he experienced them as so soul-crushing that he couldn't follow them.

Jake saw in this young man something that is hardly unique among young gays and lesbians: someone mired in self-loathing, driven to hypocrisy by “principles” that do little more that suck the joy and richness out of life.

And so Jake had an idea—one inspired by the Freedom Rides of the civil rights era. His idea was to find a group of young men and women, mostly gays and lesbians, to ride a bus across the country, visiting those colleges and universities that enforced policies discriminatory against gays and lesbians, schools that perpetuated the message that gays and lesbians were sick or sinful simply for living out who they were with integrity, rather than striving to repress or change their native sexuality.

The Equality Ride was born. I have witnessed it in action here in Oklahoma. I’ve followed with interest the efforts to engage students, faculty, and administrators at these colleges and universities in open dialogue, to invite critical reflection on teachings that are so hurtful to so many. I’ve been impressed at the creative ways that they have brought their message to light when efforts at dialogue have broken down. (Once, when Oklahoma Baptist University restricted their access on campus, they labored at the outskirts of the university to create a "Tapestry of Love" stitched together from scraps of cloth marked with Bible verses and other positive messages, which they intended to give to OBU as a gift. When they attempted to deliver it to the student center, they were arrested. Amazingly, OBU students took up the task, lifting the quilt and carrying it to the student center on their behalf). A former philosophy student of mine became an Equality Rider in its second year, and I know that the experience was transformative for him. I cannot but believe that this kind of project, if pursued by people of good will and courage, has the power to change the world for the better.

Jake has also led actions challenging the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He approached James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” complex with his parents, intent on delivering a letter detailing the ways in which Dobson’s anti-gay rhetoric has damaged and continues to damage gays and lesbians and their families. He was arrested for his trouble, but that’s nothing new to Jake. Practicing civil disobedience takes courage, and sometimes it entails spending time in a jail cell.

Jake is now a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He was prominently featured in the award-winning documentary, "For the Bible Tells Me So," and will be featured in the fortcoming documentary, "Ask Not," a film about the military "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I can only imagine what he will do next…but I watch with interest and no small measure of pride that we share the same last name.


  1. Jake's influence is beginning to reach round the world too. At St Andrews on the Terrace, a Presbyterian Church in Wellington, New Zealand on 30 September 2008, a gathering of almost 200 people watched "For the Bible Tells Me So" following a day's discussion on what it means to be a Progressive Christian. Jake's example inspired others to share their personal stories, thus creating even more links in the audience. As a pebble in a pool, Jake's ability to communicate his heartfelt message and share his parents' love with others is rippling outwards.

  2. Jake's a great guy, but tell him to always hold his chin up and no weeping in public! STIFF UPPER LIP MATE!! x x