The Westboro Baptist Church has been consistently in the background of LGBT news since they crawled out of obscurity in Kansas in 1991. We have an ongoing fascination with this Church and its antics despite them having done nothing new or interesting in nearly a decade.
“God Hates Fags”- we get it, right? Yawn. They’ve made themselves abundantly clear. They spend $250,000 traveling around the country conducting multiple pickets a day year-round. Yes, their tactics vary slightly, and they choose inflammatory targets, but for the most part their game has been stale for quite some time. Yet we are compelled to counter protest time and time again, as if we forgot their message. Clearly we can’t let hate speech go unchecked in every community across America but I personally never found them interesting enough to protest. When they came to Washington, DC on Veterans Day I decided to see it for myself.
I had two vastly different experiences. The first event of the day was orchestrated by students at George Washington University, and was upbeat, fun, and playful. Students were wearing “I’m Gay for Today” tee-shirts, held humorous signs, and outnumbered the Westboro picketers 50 to 1. It was clear that this was a community rallying around its LGBT colleagues and inoculating itself against the hateful rhetoric of the picketers with humor.
When the Westboro Picketers headed to Arlington Cemetery, in nearby northern Virginia, the scene was very different. The counter-protest, save for five people, was focused on countering Westboro’s protesting a Military occasion. As usual during such an event, a counter demonstration by leather clad motorcyclists provided the main counterpoint to the Westboro message. I got a chance to talk to both parties individually at length, and was quite surprised at the result.
See, for all their hate-filled rhetoric, the Phelp’s clan picketers were genuinely quite nice. They were happy to take time to talk to me and carefully explain their message. They told me I would burn in hell with a smile. They were upfront and honest about their views and respectful of mine. The thing made these people unique and interesting, I discovered, was not their message, but how they interacted with the counter-protesters. They simply wanted to let me know I was damned, they could care less whether I listened, or got angry, or lashed out at them, and with a permit and the police enforcing their safety they were perfectly within their rights to do this. Frankly, I respected their demeanor.
The counter-protesters were also a complex and surprising lot. I caught more than one confederate flag patch and one man was sporting a subtle swastika. And though some came with a general anti-hate message I talked with more than one person who shared similar views about LGBT’s with the Phelps. Some familiar terms “abomination”, “unnatural”, and “Adam and Eve” were thrown about leaving me wondering what, exactly, they were protesting. It seemed, for some, when it comes to protesting fags there are proper places and a military event is not one of them.
Both counter demonstrations managed to drown out the Phelps’ message, both anti-gay and anti-military. It seems nothing can draw a consistent crowd like a good Westboro protest, and we should be thinking of ways to harness the opportunity their presence will always provide.
Coming up later this week Westboro Baptist is headed to East Lansing High School, and a massive counter demonstration is being planned. Community leaders have circulated a petition to support the students. This time around they are putting together a structured response and using it as an opportunity to list-build and fundraise for organizations targeted by WBC. We need more of this in our response to them. It’s the only response that can make sense out of these events and the only counter move that can really be effective.
Keep fighting hate with humor.