The Westboro Baptist Church is a hate group infamous for its intolerance toward gay people. The group announced a few weeks ago that this week, it would picket outside the gates of my college, Vassar, a small liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York. The Westboro Baptist Church, or WBC as it is known, has loudly and publicly denounced Vassar as an “Ivy League whorehouse” and has claimed that as an institution, Vassar is devoted to advancing the agenda of homosexuals.
Vassar is neither Ivy League nor a whorehouse, but we are a proud institution in our promotion of universal tolerance. Almost immediately following the WBC’s announcement to picket here at Vassar, there was an outpouring of responses by members of this community and its alumni network. Within hours, a Facebook group was created to let students know the details of the scheduled demonstration, and it took no time at all for almost the entire student body to say they would attend the protest in solidarity against hatred and intolerance.
Before these recent weeks, my knowledge of the WBC was limited, so I was horrified when I went on their website for the first time and saw their hateful messages spewed across the home page. As I was scrolling through their website, I came to their announcement to picket at Vassar. I was outraged by the vile and demeaning words that described the place I now call home, and I felt attacked and wronged by their bias and incendiary language. Upset, I called my mother to express my disbelief that such a spiteful organization of people could exist, and how I couldn’t fathom why they would target any people or institution, but especially such a loving community as Vassar.
Typically, when a wrong is committed, many feel that retaliation is in order, and it’s easy to let feelings of animosity take over and fuel angry feelings of revenge. However, the Vassar community hasn’t acted in this way. The WBC decided to picket our campus for reasons only known to them, but instead of letting the group provoke us into a fired-up reaction, we have answered their bigotry with something else entirely. We did not give in to what they clearly wanted — a confrontation to meet hate and intolerance with hate and intolerance. Vassar’s reaction was extreme, but it was rooted in the polar opposite sentiment. The WBC’s actions have brought our community here on campus closer together with one another and with the larger world around us.
A Vassar alumnus named Josh de Leeuw responded to the WBC’s vitriol and threats by creating a fundraising page with the goal of raising $100 for each one of the 45 minutes that WBC would picket at Vassar. Donations came pouring in, and it seemed like each and every Vassar student, faculty, and alumni member demonstrated support. So far the website has raised close to $100,000 and is still going strong. The proceeds have been earmarked for the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, transgender, and questioning youth.
In a message to the entire Vassar community, our acting president, Jonathan Chenette, reinforced a resolution passed by the faculty, stating: “Whereas outside organizations have chosen to criticize Vassar College for its support of LGBTQ students, employees, alumnae/i, the faculty of Vassar College hereby reaffirms its commitment to the principle of inclusion and pledges its support for activities that celebrate that principle.”
All week there have been numerous events scheduled around the WBC protest, activities that are designed to foster the general tone and atmosphere of acceptance despite criticism and hardship. This is easier said than done, however, and my heart still aches for my LBGTQ friends who have put on a brave face despite this personal attack from people who are judging them purely because of a label and perceived lifestyle that they cannot and will not understand. These friends have been strong through this ordeal. Even with the support of the school, my friends are still hurting from these painful, underhanded, and undeserved attacks.
Despite all of the advances against bigotry and intolerance in recent years and the prevalence anti-bullying classes within the national curriculum, something like this shows me just how much more needs to change. In a world full of bullies, I’m proud of Vassar’s response to this attack launched by people who don’t know us as individuals or as an institution. I’ve learned so much from everything my school has done in response to the WBC protesters. It’s been an invaluable lesson in tolerance that I could not have gotten in a classroom. I know that the WBC wanted Vassar students to respond to the provocation in a spirit of antagonistic retaliation and perhaps incite counter-protest that could be played across the national media.
Instead, our community is standing in solidarity and raising an impressive amount of money that supports the very cause for which we are coming under fire. In some cases protest is a good thing for the attention it brings to an issue that needs to be addressed. So I say to the Westboro Baptist Church and any other group that perpetuates misguided stereotypes and hatred: bring it on. We are ready for you.