BY CLAIRE PARKER, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, AND EMMA BUZBEE, NEWS EDITOR
VIDEO BY HELEN MALHOTRA, NEWS EDITOR, AND SOPHIE REVEAL, VIDEOGRAPHER
Rainbow flags, brightly colored signs, and hundreds of loud, cheering counter-protesters met at least 10 anti-gay protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church on the streets surrounding Wilson early this morning. The counter-protesters, organized by Wilson’s Student Government Association and Gender and Sexuality Aligned organization, included representatives from the Wilson community, surrounding neighborhoods, other schools in the area, the D.C. government, Wilson alumni, and local churches and organizations. Both the protest and counter-protest remained peaceful throughout.
The movements on both sides gained momentum and relevance after Principal Pete Cahall came out as gay during Wilson’s LGBTQ+ Pride Day on June 4.
The WBC announced their intention to picket Wilson on May 25, timing their protest to occur shortly after Pride Day. “[Wilson is] so determined to cram the homosexual lifestyle down the throats of the children that go to this school that they’ve stepped up the rebellion by having a gay pride fest during the hours, or during the time that they ought to be teaching the children reading, writing, and arithmetic,” WBC member Rebecca Phelps Davis told The Beacon.
In response, sophomore Kellik Dawson and freshman Brian Keyes created a Facebook group to organize a counter-protest. They were quickly joined in their efforts by the SGA and GSA, with help from science teacher and GSA co-sponsor Chris Obermeyer. Organizers said that they aimed to keep the counter-protest’s message positive and rooted in love and support. “We are just trying to show that Wilson is a safe place for everyone,” said current junior class president and upcoming senior class vice president Margaret Kellogg.
During the protest, Wilson students and teachers stood on one side of the driveway in front of the school, and counter-protesters from outside of Wilson were required to stand on the other side. SGA and GSA members in bright neon shirts ran down the center of the driveway, leading chants. Students sang “I’m so glad I go to Wilson High,” and Cahall marched down the driveway waving a rainbow flag to wide applause. Cahall said, “I want to thank the community for your love and support of our students and for me personally.”
Senior Josh Kennedy-Noce held a sign saying “I have two moms and life is good.” The counter-protest “means the world,” he said. “Fourteen years ago I was adopted by my two moms. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here, so I’m just showing my support.”
Margaret Babb introduced herself as the proud mother of Trey Babb, an openly gay sophomore. Babb said “I’m here to support my son and all of the LGBT community at Wilson High School.” She paused, explaining that she was trying not to cry, before saying she was also here “to support the great Chris Obermeyer” who started the first Pride Day last year. Babb expressed happiness at the Pride movement’s growth.
A block away, at the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Chesapeake Street, WBC members silently held signs declaring “God Hates F***” and “Same-Sex Marriage Dooms Nations.” Wilson students were not permitted to approach or engage with the WBC. Policemen monitored all entrances to the school but their presence was most visible at the corner occupied by the WBC.
Leaders of local churches stood in solidarity with the counter-protesters. Denise Walker, a representative of Augustana Lutheran Church, said “God’s love is for everybody. We don’t discriminate and neither does He. We are all beautifully and wonderfully made. It’s important if Westboro is here that others members of the church are here to say, ‘We disagree.’”
Councilmembers David Catania (I-At-large) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) supported Wilson at the counter-protest. Both are running for mayor. “I’m really proud of Cahall and all of the students here,” said Catania, who is openly gay. “I’m here as a member of the LGBT community.” He said that when he was in high school, for an openly gay person, it was “a very different time.”
Wilson’s tolerance and support for the LGBTQ+ community has changed with the times. “Wilson, as with the culture of the U.S., has been changing,” said social studies teacher and GSA co-sponsor Michael Garbus. “This is not the kind of reaction that would have occurred years ago. This [counter-protest] is a phenomenon of our time.” In 2000, when Garbus came to Wilson, he said all the students were closeted.
Change within Wilson has occurred even within the last few years. Obermeyer, who is finishing his third year at Wilson, said “My first year, I heard a lot of anti-LGBT language, but now I don’t hear it anymore.” Kellogg, who identifies as bisexual, said “I feel really blessed and fortunate to live today.”
Junior and GSA member Marla Solow said of the counter protest, “It became not really about WBC, it’s become about bringing people together as community.”