They ask, and tell

He organized a 51-day bus trip to change the way homosexuals are treated by colleges and the military. He led his group to 19 institutions to ask to be heard. He didn't just ride; he's driven.

Published June 25, 2006

Jake Reitan bobbed and weaved, intent on dodging a bee that was persistent and pesky. Just like him.

"It doesn't mean that I can't serve in the military, just because I'm scared of a bee," he joked, drawing laughs from the small crowd outside West Point's Thayer Gate amid a demonstration he was leading.

Reitan, 24, is passionate and gay and has a point to make.

He orchestrated a 51-day bus journey designed to confront policies he says discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students at the nation's military academies and Christian colleges.

"I was hoping that West Point would treat me better than the Rev. Jerry Falwell did," he said on the last of 19 stops on the journey. Confident and eloquent, he paused. He paced. He gestured.

"When I walked on to Rev. Falwell's campus, I was summarily arrested. When I walked on to West Point just a few minutes ago, the same thing happened. My government, federal property, taxpayer-funded property, I was arrested for simply walking on to, because I had the audacity to say I wanted an answer to a really basic question."

The cross-country bus ride with stops from Virginia to California, Utah to New York, took its cue from the Freedom Rides of the 1960s that helped propel the fight for African-American civil rights. Participants in the 21st century effort, labeled the Soulforce Equality Ride, faced arrests for acts of civil disobedience. This spring, 21 received citations for trespassing on federal property at West Point and each must return on June 28 for an appearance in a New York court.

Reitan's goal is to launch a new, dynamic gay rights movement fueled by the idealism and energy of youth.

"We're going to take this country by storm and in five years' time, it's going to be a different country because of us," he promised at West Point.

One difference he would like to make is to force the government to allow openly gay people to enlist in the military. Late last month, he and fellow Soulforce Equality Ride co-director, Haven Herrin, tested the

military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy by attempting to fill out an application at the National Guard recruitment center in Roseville, Minn. Military officials told them their West Point trespassing citations must first be resolved. The two insist they are ready to serve, given the chance.

Reitan also plans to win gays the right to marry.

Co-director of the newly formed Minnesota-based youth arm of Soulforce, a national gay rights organization, he is preparing for what is expected to be a prolonged and contentious battle. On June 7, the Senate rejected a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"Whether we're ready to marry or not, we're going to demand that right," Reitan said, predicting a "sit-in summer" in about 100 cities next year. "We're going to bring it to rural Alabama and Gary, Indiana, and Mankato, Minnesota, to Small Town, USA. And we're going to humanize and localize this issue for the American people."

Reitan, who will enter Harvard Divinity School this fall, was 15 and a high school sophomore in Mankato, Minn., when he told his sister, Britta, that he is gay. It was a year before he told his parents.

Philip and Randi Reitan were stunned.

"He broke down and cried when he came out to us," Philip Reitan said. "We hugged him. We cried. It was not something Randi and I had even thought about and we couldn't identify a gay person we really knew. And Mankato was a very homophobic town. Every day I would think about it. In that first year or so, I felt that I was kicked in the stomach. It was because I feared for him.''

Reitan, who founded the first Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school, described coming out of the closet as "a freeing experience."

"I knew I had same-sex attraction when I was very young, going back to kindergarten," he said.

That day at West Point, Randi and Philip Reitan were there to support their son.

Stretched across a large section of the military academy's Thayer Gate were fellow Equality Riders - almost three-dozen 18- to 28-year-olds - gay and lesbian supporters who had traveled by bus from nearby New York City and about a dozen Vassar College students who had skipped classes for the event. Some demonstrators sealed their lips with black tape to symbolize the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy," under which men and women are not asked about their sexuality but can be barred from service or dismissed for homosexual conduct. For the West Point demonstration, the Equality Ride contingent donned gray T-shirts that asked, "Would you serve with me?"

Richard Schoonhaven, a philosophy teacher at West Point, watched behind barriers on a sidewalk.

"I think it would be nice if the military academy would be willing to talk to them," he said. Mel White, the founder of Soulforce, the gay rights organization that sponsored the Equality Ride, was an old family friend, he said.

Michael Sweeney, 54, who had driven four hours from his Crown Point, N.Y., home, appeared to be the only person holding a counterprotest. He carried two signs. One quoted Ezekiel 9:4. "Put a mark on the foreheads of all those who weep and sigh because of the sins they see around them," it said.

"I fully support their right to do this, but not their message. They're going to spend the rest of eternity in hell, if they don't repent," Sweeney said.

The Equality Riders, with their goal of fighting religious-based discrimination, said they took a different message to the schools they visited. Several were arrested at six of the 19 schools targeted, including Liberty University in Virginia, an institution founded by Falwell, Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and Brigham Young University in Utah.

Falwell said in a statement that though Liberty welcomes visitors, it would not give Equality Riders permission to visit "as a media demonstration."

Brigham Young University said it would not "accommodate" the activists. On their arrival, however, officials said they would be allowed on campus provided they didn't pass out literature, give any speeches or demonstrate, Reitan said. Five people were arrested for making speeches the first day and 24 for putting on a "die-in'' the following day, Herrin said.

Some institutions, including Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., were hospitable. The university, on picturesque grounds outside Philadelphia, arranged a schedule of programs and meals, but closed the event to the media.

Randi and Philip Reitan, who traveled to Brigham Young, were arrested with their son and other riders there. They were given citations at West Point. The couple's outlook has changed since learning that their youngest child is gay.

"We encouraged him not to come out in high school. He insisted. I think it was Randi and I that kept him in the closet for a year. It was a terrible place to be," said Philip Reitan, a lawyer.

"We lived in the closet as a family for a year," his wife said.

Even so, lampposts were broken in front of their home and "fag" written on their driveway. Their son's car window was smashed and their mailbox stuffed with raw eggs.

The Reitans, who have since moved to another Minnesota town, unsuccessfully confronted the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America about its policy toward gays and lesbians and eventually left the denomination. The couple, whose Lutheran roots run deep, say a pastor they consulted soon after Jake came out to them insisted that their son "could change and should change and that he'd live this dark, sad life," if he didn't.

Their son conceived the idea of the Soulforce Equality Ride after meeting a gay student from Wheaton College - a Christian liberal arts institution - at a bar in Chicago.

"I asked him what it is like to be a student at Wheaton College and his answer was that, 'You know, I really can't be out, and if I came out at Wheaton, I could be kicked out of school,' " said Reitan, a student at Northwestern University at the time.

"And I said, 'That's a horrible policy. We ought to do something about trying to change that.' And his response to me was, 'Actually, it's a good policy. I think it's a sin to be gay.' So this young gay man had been raised in a society that had convinced him that he was sick and sinful.

"And I promised that young man that night that I met him that we would do something, that we would bring a group of people to his school to bring a different message, a message of God's love, the good news, that Christ affirms and accepts him as he is without reservation."

Reitan kept his promise.

At West Point, Philip and Randi Reitan walked arm-in-arm toward military police at Thayer Gate. The couple, married 34 years, tried to engage the MP's in a discussion about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"This policy forces gays who serve in the military and want to serve their country with dignity and honor to be in the closet. And they shouldn't have to hide who they are any more than my wife and I should be forced to hide," Philip Reitan said.

"Would you serve with my son?" Randi Reitan asked quietly. "Would you serve with my openly gay son? That is what he is here to do, is to ask. Would you serve with him?"

Like 19 others that day, they were led off and cited for trespassing.

Afterward, their son urged further action.

"We've never walked into a military recruitment center and said, sign me up. This August, we're going to do it," he said.

"We're finding 40 youth, 40 youth across the country who are willing to serve their country and each of those 40 youth are going to be joined by nine of their friends, gay or straight, and they are going to walk into military recruitment centers across the country and they're going say, 'I am ready to serve.' And if their call to service is answered, they'll do it," he said.

"And if - and indeed, when - it is rejected, they're going to sit down and they're going to shut that military center down. And I mean really shut it down."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.