This week, Philadelphia was visited by the hate mongers of the Topeka, Kan. -based Westboro Baptist Church, in town to protest the funeral of Dr. John Pryor, a Penn trauma-unit doctor killed in Iraq.
Relatives of the church’s leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps, had announced they planned to protest the doctor’s funeral, as well as make stops at Central High School and the Israeli and Italian consulates. It looks like they only made it to the high school, where over 100 students and allies countered them.
For several years now, the Phelps clan has blamed sexual minorities for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and the deaths of soldiers in Iraq. They have protested everything from preacher Billy Graham (for not supporting their “God Hates Fags” campaign) to the funeral of Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley (again, not taking a hard-enough line on homosexuality) to Ellen DeGeneres. In recent years, several states have passed laws banning funeral protests in response to Westboro’s pickets, and the Patriot Guard motorcycle club formed to drown them out and shield families from their hateful placards.
As frequently as they protest, Westboro Baptist members threaten to protest even more often. And like this week in Philadelphia, they don’t always follow through or are thwarted.
This week’s counterprotest at Central High School drew a large number of pro-gay students, with the backing of the principal, the school’s gay-straight alliance and alumni. Though the adults were there to show their support, the students, in the words of one attendee, “had things covered.”
The visit by the Phelps clan brings to bear how best to respond to those who are incendiary and hateful in their attacks on the LGBT community. (Repent America and Anne Coulter also come to mind.)
On the one hand, the community can opt to ignore the person/group and not engage. This works in some cases. If everyone ignored Coulter, maybe she would go away. (It seems to have worked for Dr. Laura Schlessinger.)
On the other, there is a need for people to speak up and challenge homophobes and their viewpoints. And while the community might hope that mainstream media ignores them, it still needs to make sure that theirs is not the only message out there. Like the students did at Central, it’s important to demonstrate that homophobes aren’t the only ones entitled to free speech.