BY ANNIE ROSENTHAL, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
VIDEO CONTENT BY SOPHIE REVEAL, HELEN MALHOTRA
In the days leading up to the Westboro Baptist Church counter-protest, many people expressed worries about interactions between Westboro picketers and Wilson supporters. Would insults be hurled back and forth? Would they come on our territory? Would we go on theirs? Would it get violent? The Beacon, the Student Government Association and Principal Cahall all published pieces warning students against lashing out towards the WBC.
But at 8 a.m. today, none of these concerns were even relevant. Wilson students were barred from entering the area behind the school where WBC members stood with their signs, and the WBC could not come on school property. This degree of separation not only prevented conflict, but it demonstrated a crucial point: in the end, Westboro was only a small part of what happened today.
In front of the school, more than 1000 people decked out in rainbow apparel stood together, chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Homophobia’s got to go!” and hoisting colorful signs with phrases like “God Hates Figs” that parodied Westboro’s vicious slogan. Cahall and members of the Gender Sexuality Aligned paraded along the driveway, waving rainbow flags and pumping up the crowd. Smiles were abundant. Positivity electrified the air. Wilson and its wider community–alumni, parents, Deal and Walls and GDS and WIS students, neighbors, supporters–had created something new and incredible and important. It would have been impossible not to feel proud of my school.
Around the corner, 10 members of the Westboro Baptist Church held up their profane signs in silence, isolated from the festivities and for the most part ignored.
The two demonstrations could not have been more different: one was happy, the other angry; one giant, the other tiny; one proud, the other disapproving. On Reno Road, the Wilson community was literally having a party, and on Chesapeake, our antagonists looked weak. Nothing about that should’ve made me sad, but it did. And that’s because a large portion of Westboro’s protesters were young people, many even children.
Rebekah Phelps Davis, descendant of recently deceased Westboro founder Fred Phelps and a vocal member of today’s WBC protest, took issue with Wilson initially because she thought school administrators were forcing their views about homosexuality on others, “cramming the homosexual lifestyle down the throats of children.” What makes that statement so ironic is that if you remove the word “homosexual” and replace it with “bigoted,” you could say the same thing about the WBC and its children.
Today, a Westboro protester who couldn’t have been more than nine years old told The Beacon that “all you guys that are f**s and not preachin’ the word of God are goin’ to hell.” Her compatriot, a young teen boy, told us that if you’re gay, “your never-dying soul will burn in the lake of fire for all of eternity.”
There is something incredibly jarring and innately wrong about hearing a child use hate speech and damn people to hell. And yet it’s not surprising when you learn that the children of the WBC are sung lullabies about burning in hell, as an ex-member of the church told CNN. When I asked Fred Phelps’ 20-year-old granddaughter why she holds the beliefs she does, she told me, “I was born into it.” She says she’s attended protests of gay pride parades, soldiers’ funerals, and the Supreme Court “nearly every day of [her] life.”
It is one thing to use your First Amendment rights to protest things you don’t believe in. It is another to force your young children to travel around the country doing the same. Hatred is not a natural outlook; it is taught. When they are taught to hate people for their inherent traits and when the majority of their days are spent picketing funerals, young people are stripped of the ability to decide for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong. Distancing oneself from the WBC is particularly difficult, as members who express disagreement with the church are voted out of the community.
The thing that struck me most when talking to the child protesters was how normal they seemed when they weren’t cursing people Exorcist-style. The kids I spoke with were friendly. They talked about going to public high school in Topeka, Kansas, and the fact that other kids treat them differently because of their background. One boy wore an anime t-shirt, and the youngest girl’s shirt read “Crazy for Sunshine.” If they hadn’t been holding signs that said, “Same-sex marriage dooms nations,” they would’ve seemed like any other kids.
The WBC is made up almost entirely of one family. They have hateful views and they stage obnoxious protests and say hurtful things, but all in all they’re not advancing their cause. Rather, they’re inadvertently raising awareness about homophobia. And in a society that is progressing as quickly as ours, they are losing relevance.
The political tide of our country is turning in a big way. Most people no longer tolerate open homophobia and its expression in politics has retreated from condemnation of all homosexuality to opposition to gay marriage. Organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church are not respected, they are denounced.
When, at 9:15 this morning, the church members had completed their scheduled protest, the older ones gathered the younger ones together with protective arms. The children put their angry signs in burlap sacks and police escorted the group across the street to their cars. The WBC were silent, their heads down, and they looked almost sad, as if they knew they were fighting a losing battle.
In front of the school, their absence was barely noted, and the celebration continued.