As supporters of the Washington state anti-gay marriage initiative submitted signatures to put gay marriage to the vote, members of hate group the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas protested gay marriage at the Capitol Building in Olympia, the Thurston County Auditor’s Office, and Olympia High School June 6 and 7.
Olympians learned of the plan announced on WBC’s website, godhatesfags.com, and hundreds gathered for counter-protests in support of gay marriage and LGBTQ people. But, some believed that was a bad idea.
SPSCC community members debated through email and conversations what an appropriate response might be, others said the conversation itself was inappropriate for the state school community. The student senate responded with a policy statement supporting discussion of diversity and equity issues. It said the senate would not “tolerate” those stifling the discussion with “disrespectful and demeaning language”.
SPSCC Instruction and Classroom Tech Dan Brown wrote in an email to all the staff and faculty, in response to Director of the Diversity and Equity Center Eileen Yoshina’s invitation to get involved, that he thought it was “pure BS” and a “waste of time” for the school staff and faculty to discuss the matter.
Chemistry Professor John Harold expressed concern in the email conversation about state school employees making political statements.
David Hyde, advisor of student club BRICK, responded by writing that using state resources to support a candidate was prohibited, but speaking on political issues was not.
He said on the other hand that it was a bad idea to acknowledge the WBC protesters with a counter-protest, because it would give them more press coverage.
“It makes it seem like they are the other side of a legitimate debate. It elevates them to the status of disagreeing peers with legitimate concerns,” he wrote.
Professor Patrick Chapman wrote that he would use the event as a teaching opportunity to show students how common homosexuality in the animal kingdom is. He said it is an educational institution’s job to use things like the WBC gathering as a chance to educate.
Gay-marriage opposition gathered over double the approximately 120,000 signatures required to put the referendum on the ballot. Only a small portion of signatures were rejected for possible fraud or non-registration.
Washington voters will decide this fall whether to reject Referendum 74. Rejecting the referendum would sustain the marriage equality law passed this February. The right to marry would have been protected for Washington state’s gays and lesbians June 7, according to the law passed in February, but the initiative’s successful signature submission on June 6 postponed the law’s enactment until after the November vote.
Members of the WBC’s six-person protest carried signs and sang hymns and pop music parodies promoting their message that “God hates fags.” Their signs also touched on some of their other political messages in support of the death of soldiers and against abortion. One of the protesters, Paulette Phelps, said she hoped their message would cause people to stop their “wicked ways” and get to know God.
Another protester, Rebekah Phelps-Roper, said she wanted to balance the message of God’s love that most people preach in the U.S. with a message of God’s hate.
Hundreds of counter-protesters at the Capitol and the high school carried signs, shouted and acted out with messages ranging from direct statements of love, to political statements, to irony.
Some signs said, “I love my gay sisters,” “Our troops protect your right to picket,” “Our love: greater than their hate,” “Washington says gay is okay,” “God hates nobody,” “Is this that zombie takeover,” and “What? God hates fags? Good thing I’m a lesbian.”
Only about 15 counter-protesters showed up at the auditor’s office.
As counter-protesters made their way toward the WBC members at the Capitol June 6, Anna Schlecht of local activist group Unity in the Community stood on a bench and warned everyone to be safe. She said people should not touch the protesters, or argue with them, or call them names.
“It may end up causing other people to be very badly hurt,” she said, “It won’t be any of the people that are out here that end up being targeted; it will be people in allies or alone in the street.” She said, “Let’s just be fantastic and for what we’re for.”
Olympia counter-protesters surrounded the WBC protesters at the Capitol, but Olympia High School students, staff and faculty planned a different response. They asked their supporters to wear the school’s colors, blue and white, and to turn their backs on the protesters to face a stage in front of the school. Musicians and speakers gathered on the stage leading the gatherers in support of LGBTQ people in the community.
Olympia High School senior Rachel Flener said, “I think I was like a lot of people. I was torn between either not responding or trying to find a way to respond.”
SPSCC student Sean Keeran said at the Capitol protest, “We need to drown out the evil.”
Interim Pastor at The United Churches of Olympia Tami Stampfli said, “To stand in the face of hate is at least important to do.” She said it was a valid idea to not engage or pay any attention, but people knew that some would come, so they thought it was important to come also and make sure everyone remained safe.
Pastors from 35 local churches signed a public statement saying they disagreed with WBC’s actions and message. The statement expressed the pastors’ sorrow for the hurt WBC may have caused and said that God loves everyone. Readers may view the statement at www.livingwater.com/westboro-response.