MARIE SOLIS contributed reporting
For the last two weeks, after the news broke about Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) planning to protest the College for its acceptance of homosexuality, Vassar students have been working together to figure out the best way to react. Of course, WBC has protested at both college campuses and high schools in the past, which has left a constant growing record of how other student bodies have dealt with the organization.
For Cushing House Student Advisor Natalie Hine ‘14, the events on campus are not that different from the protest WBC held across the street from Shawnee Mission East High School, her former high school in Kansas. Hine wrote in an emailed statement that WBC objected the philosophy of her high school for the same reasons that prompted them to schedule a protest against the College.
“We had a gay homecoming king and cheerleading captain the year they came, which I think triggered their visit and reflects our school’s general acceptance of homosexuality. I had many openly gay friends there who felt comfortable in our school’s socially liberal environment, which WBC obviously didn’t appreciate,” wrote Hine. While the school warned students to be cautious in their interactions with WBC, the Religion major recalled nothing prevented her classmates from getting involved.
She said, “Students were excited by the prospect of a counter protest and did not hesitate to do so. We knew that we wanted to share a message of peace and love, to contrast the group’s negative focus.”
Hine added that, though this is her second time dealing with the threat of WBC, her opinions about giving the organization any publicity haven’t changed much since high school.
She said,“I didn’t like that [WBC was] seeking attention, and I felt like a counter protest was [giving] them what they wanted. I still feel that way now.”
While this is the first time that WBC is scheduled to picket on Vassar’s campus, the organization has protested at other college institutions, like Harvard, multiple times in the past. They have planned and carried out several in the Cambridge area, specifically at Harvard Law School, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the Harvard Hillel and Harvard Square. An additional protest occurred during Harvard’s 2003 commencement ceremony.
According to the Dec. 6, 2010 issue of The Crimson, Harvard came up with the plan not to take WBC seriously as an organization by naming their counter-protest “Surprise Absurdity Protest.” The event received attention from the Cambridge community, with over 200 counter-protesters defending the Hillel, a center for the university’s Jewish community.
The signs held during this event were made to reflect the “absurd” counter-protests, with nonsensical phrases written on them.
Though students used humor as a stance against the religious organization, safety precautions were still taken according to President of The Harvard Crimson Bobby Samuels. In an emailed statement Samuels commented, “In terms of how Harvard has dealt with the WBC, Harvard and Cambridge in general have provided a good number police officers when WBC has protested to keep the peace. Additionally, for the WBC’s protest of the funeral of longtime Harvard Reverend Peter Gomes, they were not allowed to protest on Harvard property.” Samuels added that, in regards to how their newspaper covered the events, the focus remained on the counter protests, and not the group itself.
While the protests at Harvard have typically seen some kind of turnout from WBC, this is not always the case.
In Dec. 2011, Syracuse University expected the organization to make an appearance during the Syracuse vs. Florida basketball game. Unlike with Vassar, WBC targeted the university because, as their website states, “Syracuse resembles all of the other the universities in doomed USA: full of proud, fornicating, brutish sinners, bowing down to college sports.” Additionally, WBC was against Bernie Fine, the men’s basketball teams’ former associate head coach, due to allegations of sexual abuse.
According to the Dec. 5 issue of The Daily Orange, in preparation for the arrival of WBC, Syracuse and members of the community walked around Carrier Dome, the sports arena, to wait for the religious group with a counter-demonstration. While the protest drew in students and members of the community, ultimately, WBC never showed.
Currently, the College is uncertain regarding whether or not WBC will make an appearance on Feb. 28. Possibly, there might only be a handful of demonstrators, as was the case for Hine. She said, “There were about 1,000 of us out on the lawn, which made their group of four seem pretty pathetic. It was kind of anticlimactic in that sense. The school would not allow them on the grounds, so they stood across the street.”
Still, Hine believes that no matter what happens on that day, the experience will be an important one for the community of Vassar.
She remembered, “The counter protest bonded and unified our school in a beautiful way. We may have been accepting before, but this event solidified our school as a ‘safe space,’ where one was free to love whoever they wanted regardless of gender. That’s one thing that’s so great about the WBC; they reveal how exceedingly hateful homophobia really is. They paint it as so utterly absurd and offensive that anyone who is even remotely homophobic would certainly not claim to be on Westboro’s side. In that sense, I think their presence can be a good thing, even at places like my high school and Vassar.”