Staff and Faculty on Westboro Baptist Church

Faculty and staff members have been talking about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) since word first got out that they would be coming to Olympia. Some faculty members believe it is important to educate students about this hate group and have sent their opinions to The Sounds to share with the student body.

Eileen Yoshina, Director of the Diversity and Equity Center: WBC is a fringe group known for their extremist views. I don’t think they pose very much of a threat to any community; however, the main issue when they arrive in town is that they target what they perceive to be vulnerable and volatile people and situations. For example, they are known for going to the funerals of soldiers where people have a very public and heightened sense of outrage at their presence, and justifiably so.

It is standard practice in addressing hate crimes or bias incidents that the community needs to respond — sometimes to the perpetrators, but absolutely to the victims. If you look at other communities where WBC has shown up, communities have been very creative and generous in their outpouring of support. For example, one of WBC’s earlier targets was the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who is well-known as the victim of a heinous hate crime more than 10 years ago. The community got wind of the fact that WBC planned to be at Matthew’s funeral. Obviously, their intention was to create more attention for themselves, but the community’s concern was that the Shepard family not endure one more ounce of pain than they already had. So the community created wide angel wings that blocked the protesters from the view of the family. Responses like these are intended to express support for the targets of bias, and not intended to convince, convert, or even to respond to WBC.

It’s also pretty well-documented that when communities choose not to respond, several things happen. First, victims feel even more isolated than they already do. They are less likely to seek support or assistance regarding other bias incidents they may be experiencing, because they believe the community does not care. You also run the risk of more hate crimes/bias incidents. Our friends at Stonewall Youth, for example, tell us that anytime WBC makes an appearance in town, it’s not uncommon for follow-up hate crimes to occur. We can hope to mitigate this effect by showing that the community at large accepts and embraces diversity (in this case, LGBTQ people), so victims know support is available and readily given.

Second, “Counter-protesters” are likely to show up either way, either on a spontaneous basis or on a loosely-planned basis. This can lead to conflict and hostile confrontation, which plays right into the hands of a group like WBC, who makes a good chunk of their money by suing people for assault or harassment. In planning a response to WBC, Olympia High School met with the Olympia Police Department and Unity in the Community, a group with experience responding to hate crimes. They also reached out to a group called “Not in Our Town” and other high schools and communities where WBC had shown up.

In planning the Oly Love rally, the students really seized an opportunity to focus attention away from the protest (many rally attendees didn’t even realize WBC was there). The focus was on the students and community members standing together in a message of acceptance and celebration of diversity. Some might say that it shouldn’t take an event like this for such a rally to take place. That may be true, but people also need to remember this rally was a very appropriate and empowering experience for many. My experience was that everyone who attended the rally, and a great many people who didn’t, thought it was a very powerful and productive moment, one that brought our community closer together.

We should absolutely have ongoing conversations about diversity, inclusion and acceptance throughout the year, but I personally feel it is important to publicly support victims when a message of hate is directed at them, even if the “haters” are fringe extremists — especially when vulnerable populations are involved. Young people struggling with their own and others’ acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identity definitely fall into this category. I would certainly support any organizational involvement by SPSCC, and I think that this event offered a great deal of teachable moments where our faculty and staff had the opportunity to model advocacy and response to bias for our students.

Patrick Chapman, anthropology professor: I think Fred Phelps and his church do more to advance gay rights than most people, so I welcome them whenever they decide to visit for one of their protests. Their public demonstrations display the irrational hatred and prejudice many people harbor for gays. At least Phelps is willing to publicly show his hatred, unlike those who prefer to secretly deny gays equal rights at the ballot box, while proclaiming they “love” their gay “friends” and relatives. When all is said and done, neither group follows the teachings of Jesus, who commanded his followers to apply the Golden Rule and welcome social outcasts with love and acceptance (Jesus placed no qualifiers on this, such as “love your neighbor as yourself, unless you don’t approve of their lifestyle”). When people see Phelps, I believe at some level they realize what is behind the attempts to deny gays equal rights: prejudice, pure and simple.

Katy Fulton, anthropology professor: “We need to know more about hate.” In an ideal world, I might be able to minimize the importance of the above quote by communications scholar Michael Hogan, but in this world, I know that he is correct.

The visit from Fred Phelps and representatives of WBC was a distinct reminder of the power of hate to stimulate anxiety, tension, and unfriendly debate, even among SPSCC faculty. When Phelps comes to town he manages to insert himself and his ideas into dinner table, Facebook, and classroom conversations simply because he and his followers are masters of hate-talk shock.

Despite feeling repelled, I admit I am curious. I looked online for information about this infamous group. My heart rate increased just scrolling through Phelps’ God Hates Fags website, which is full of animosity-triggering language such as, “typical fag-ass American soldiers,” “thank God for Katrinal” “thank you thank you thank you for not allowing me in your Sodomite cesspool of filth,” (to Britain). and on and on . I take heart in the fact that several of my students and other residents of Olympia gathered to quietly support gay and lesbian citizens of the world in the face of loud Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators. My husband is an Episcopal priest, and I am proud that the Episcopal Church in Western Washington is in the midst of creating liturgy for same-sex marriages. A same-sex marriage was recently held in a Seattle Episcopal church.

Phelps is extreme, but he makes us aware of hate talk so that we can be reflexive about less extreme and yet powerful occurrences of hate talk in our everyday lives and experiences. I think back to Hogan, who asks whether it is even possible for people to have community without hate. Hogan wrote, “For each community in existence, there is also an ‘uncommunity,’ an assembly of the befouled and besotted who have heard the Word and rejected it.” Phelps creates his church community around condemning those who respect, embrace, or tolerate people he categorizes as ‘bad’. My uncommunity is people like Phelps, and I am happy to form community with people who are less prone to hate. Is there a difference between me and Phelps? I hope so. I wish he would change, but I’m not condemning him to fire and brimstone if he doesn’t.

In regard to hate, I know that the words we use are powerful. They can influence people to speak and think inclusively and democratically, or they can influence people to use authoritarian language that focuses on us-and-them dichotomies and that makes ‘others’ into enemies rather than adversaries. We have laws that provide our citizens with the right to speak, and those rights are important as we strive to learn to create democracy. I think it’s ironic, though, that when people speak of other people as part of ‘enemy’ groups who need to be disempowered or destroyed, they are using authoritarian language and thinking as authoritarians. That’s true for Phelps and it’s becoming more and more prevalent in the political discourses that lead up to our ‘democratic’ elections. Phelps draws attention to our need to evaluate how we speak because how we speak influences how we think. And, Phelps reminds us that we need to know more about hate if we want to learn how to minimize it.

Kathleen Hawes, anthropology lab technician: When the Diversity and Equity Center (DEC) put out the information on the WBC visit, I heard discussion both ways on whether or not the college should be involved with this. The DEC was not advocating a counter-protest, nor really any protest or confrontation at all. Rather, the DEC was informing our campus community of a potentially educational event that definitely had an impact on the greater community and encouraging students, staff and faculty to be aware of it, and learn about our country’s political process in action (freedom of speech). There was also some discussion on whether state equipment (computers, e-mail) was appropriately used to share this information.

My first thought was that it was entirely appropriate, certainly fitting the mission statement of the DEC, “The Diversity & Equity Center is meant to be a safe, hate-free space for ALL students. It is a place where we can connect with our own communities while learning from other communities. It is a place dedicated to respectful learning, community building, and the appreciation of diversity.”

I think the opportunity was given and suggestions made on how to respond to WBC’s visit and protests. I think the important thing was that an awareness of the event was made, and people (faculty, staff, students) could respond in whatever manner they themselves felt was appropriate: to attend the protest; to ignore the protest by not attending; or (for faculty) to educate students on the issue.