Thursday, February 28, 2013

When Westboro Baptist Church Comes to Town

Today Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) came to picket Vassar with their now-infamous signs of hate: "God Hates Fags," "Dyke=Sin," "Soldiers Die 4 Fag Marriages" and the like.

And oh how the campus rallied.

Human chain around Main Building
WBC had given us two and a half weeks of warning, so there was a flurry of activity on campus: over 300 students went to the first student-led meeting to plan a response; I was invited to a senior officer meeting to discuss the school's position and possibilities for action; a group of administrators, faculty, staff, alums and students convened to get on the same page about the campus response; and a group of students convened to bring attention to the voices being left out of the mainstream campus response. As well as a flurry of off campus activity: I personally and many of my colleagues received a stream of emails, calls and Facebook posts from alums, Poughkeepsie community members, area schools, and parents.

When I first heard the news about WBC on a Sunday night, I felt weary in advance. Tired just picturing all that would go into trying to rally a campus response to support our LGBTQ students who are so hatefully targeted in WBC's messaging. But the deluge of support that began Sunday night and has not ceased, two and a half weeks later, is just staggering. Four lonely WBC picketers took up their police-designated spot on a far off-campus corner, and over 2,000 Vassar students, staff, alums, and community members showed up to physically show their support for LGBTQ people. That is epic.
A choice sign from a community member

The picketers were not allowed to come on campus, because it is private property. They applied for a protest permit from the Town of Poughkeepsie, and in accordance with their First Amendment rights, they were granted the permit and told where to stand. Vassar students held an hour and half rally right inside the main gate of the school, including remarks from students, openly gay Pastor Joseph Tolton, class of 1989, and of course, a capella.

The most powerful remarks came from students who are part of the Campus Climate group, who are hoping all the brouhaha can help Vassar look internally at the oppression that some students--by virtue of their race, gender, class or sexuality--experience regularly from their peers and their institution. That it's easy and it feels good to protest against external forces of oppression, but it's much harder (yet so important) to interrogate how racism, sexism and heterosexism play out on our campus every day. The group formed this fall in response to racist and misogynistic graffiti found frequently in dorms during first semester.

The rally lost steam as people got curious about what was happening outside of the gates. The organizers had been encouraging people to stay inside the Vassar walls, but they then switched course and told everyone to go outside the Main gates and form a human chain. We linked arms and started moving towards the Farm, where the WBC picketers were. About 10 minutes later before I got to the farm road, there was a loud cheer--apparently WBC was leaving.

From protest to Pride Parade on Raymond Ave.
Poughkeepsie police kindly blocked off a large chunk of Raymond Ave.--the road that Vassar's Main Gate is on--and it turned into essentially a Pride Parade. People were walking with signs, holding hands, cheering and some even sang. Back onto campus we went and we made a human chain around the massive Main Building. When the two sides of the chains finally linked hands, a huge cheer went up.

It was beautiful.

Correction: I recently learned from the Dean of the College that our group today was over 2,000-people strong!


  1. I'm so happy to hear about the Vassar community's powerful response to WBC. I don't know if you remember me, but you were one of my counselors/RAs at Excel Amherst and you were such an awesome role model. Your blog is awesome and clearly you're still involved in great things.

    1. Alicia! I remember you for sure! Thanks for your kind note, I hope you are doing well!

  2. Thanks for the recap, Judy! This brought tears to my eyes. So proud.

    1. My pleasure Miranda! And yes, it was definitely a tear-making event.