According to their website, the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed the “mean streets of doomed america [sic]” for 1,130 weeks and have cumulatively lost exactly 0 nanoseconds of sleep over your opinions and “feeeeellllliiiiiings [sic].” Of the WBC’s 49,883 protests, I have witnessed maybe twenty or thirty of them. I live in Kansas, in a suburb of Kansas City about an hour east of the Westboro headquarters, in what feels like the Church’s prime stomping grounds. The day before they make the trip to West Point and Vassar, they are scheduled to be in downtown Kansas City, picketing a Maroon 5 concert. About once a month, they manage to pack themselves up into vans and trundle out to my hometown in order to remind us that we are all a bunch of Jews, fag-lovers, and otherwise damned souls.
Since their decision to come to Vassar, people have given me strange looks whenever I try to describe the WBC experience. It is a difficult thing to pinpoint, but I think what it comes down to is this: they are, as a general rule, remarkably underwhelming.
The protests you see on the news, the sermons full of misdirected fire and brimstone, the melodramatically-titled website full of typos and capital letters—that is the version of the Westboro Baptist Church they want you to see. They want you get angry, to fight back. This is so they can sue you in order to pay for plane tickets so they can follow Lady Gaga while she is on tour. It sounds flippant, but I’ve seen it happen. WBC relies on its overwrought public image and melodramatic taunts to work people up into a frenzy before they even arrive. The picketers feed off crowds, anger, and counter-demonstrations. But without the prospect of a lawsuit, they tend to just stand around. I have seen them put down their signs when their arms get tired, eat snacks and chat amongst themselves.
To me, at least, their pickets always seem kind of hollow. Lethargic, even. Perhaps I have just grown used to them, but every time I see one of them carrying a “God Hates Fags” sign, I roll my eyes. It’s overkill and, at this point, it’s simply unoriginal. Sometimes I genuinely cannot tell whether or not they actually believe in their absurd interpretation of the Bible, or if they are just a group of lawyers working a long con. In light of the two recent public defections from the church (Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, the granddaughters of founder Fred Phelps, Jr.), I have started to feel genuinely sorry for their members. For the most part, the church consists of those who have grown up surrounded by hate and judgment, and it comes as no surprise that many of them never leave.
Neither Vassar nor its students are going to change any of their minds; raising $80,000 for the Trevor Project, while an incredible act of goodwill and charity, is from their perspective just another part of the fag agenda. Literally any way that we could possibly respond—holding a counter-protest, deliberately ignoring them, covering ourselves in glitter and making out in their general direction—will be lumped in with the fag agenda. That doesn’t mean that our response doesn’t matter, though; it only means that it doesn’t matter to them. It still matters to us. There is no right answer, no correct way of handling them.
Various groups of students have their own ideas about what should or should not be done on February 28, and none of them are more or less correct than any of the others (as long as nobody gets sued). There can be no swift, cohesive institutional response because Vassar is an institution made up of individuals who disagree with each other about everything just about all the time. Our response is going to be fragmented, scattered, self-contradicting, and probably a little hypocritical. I would expect nothing less.
—April Levins ‘13 is an English major.