To say that Tara Mitchell stands up for what she believes in is an understatement.
The 23-year-old Bakersfield College communication student, and self-declared “queer activist,” has been physically assaulted, kicked out of school and nearly arrested for her outspoken stance against what she believes is hate rhetoric aimed at the homosexual community.
What compels Mitchell to stand so ardently in support of her beliefs is best summed up as a sense of duty.
“I don’t want to look back 50 years from now, when the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community has more rights, and not be able to say I had a part in that,” she said.
You could say that Mitchell was baptized in the flame of civil dissent. She organized her first protest in 2009 while majoring in gender and women’s studies at Minnesota State University Mankato. It was a protest against what she felt was anti-gay hate speech wrapped in a gospel – and she took it to the pulpit of the preacher responsible for it.
According to Mitchell, the events that transpired after would lead her to discover her purpose in life.
After being allowed inside the church by security, Mitchell and her group walked to the front of the congregation in the middle of Sunday service, and held signs with the photographs of gay teens who had committed suicide because of bullying.
The group stood in silence until the service concluded, but Mitchell believes they conveyed their message loud and clear: “You don’t understand the implications of your words. We can fix this.”
According to Mitchell, the scene was difficult to bear for members of the church and protest groups alike.
“Some of us were crying because we were hearing this message of Jesus Christ, who was a savior, who loved everyone, and yet were also being bombarded by hatred from the same people,” Mitchell said.
At the end of the service Mitchell’s group exited the church, exchanged a few words with the preacher, and went home.
It wasn’t until a week later when Mitchell found herself being interviewed about the protest for national news outlets, like The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Huffington Post, that she realized the significance of her actions.
“In that moment, I realized this is for me,” she said. “This is what I want to do with my life. Not only did we change the perspectives of people in that congregation, but people who were in that protest group, too. Suddenly, we all wanted to fight for what we believed in.”
The incident would eventually lead to Mitchell being asked to leave MSU Mankato, but it was the learning experience of a lifetime, and she has few regrets.
In the two years since then, Mitchell relocated back to Bakersfield and enrolled in the communication program at BC. She is continuing her efforts to support the gay community, most recently by holding a one-woman demonstration on campus celebrating the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
“Thank God for gay soldiers” is what her bright orange sign read that day.
Mitchell has no plans to change her direct, unapologetic style of protesting. While often controversial, she says her true intention is to provoke thought and change minds, not offend people.
Mitchell, who was born and raised in Bakersfield, believes the atmosphere at BC is not as progressive as in other schools. She is calling on students to make an effort to expand their world-view and become more educated about minority issues.
“I think that once we become more educated about people who are different than us, and we stop being so xenophobic about things, we will get people to open up and realize we’re all people living in the same place,” Mitchell said.
“We all want the same thing.”