When I was 16, I participated in a counter-protest against the Westboro Baptist Church in New York City. On that day, I knew my life changed, but I didn’t know how. Six years later, I’m starting to figure it out.
The Westboro Baptist Church is an unaffiliated religious group that is known for extreme anti-gay and anti-American sentiment. They travel all over the country with their neon signs shouting phrases like “God hates fags” and “America is doomed”. They can often be found protesting at funerals of gay people as well as fallen military men and women.
My sister and her friend, students at Montclair State University, started a group called “Students Against WBC” and created a Facebook group to gain attention of people within and beyond their campus. In April 2008, they became aware that the WBC would be traveling all the way from Kansas to New York City. The WBC’s motivation to protest this day was in honor of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York City to bless Ground Zero and give mass at Yankee Stadium. (The WBC believes 9/11 was God’s punishment to America for supporting gay rights. They are also against the Catholic Church because it supports gay people. These rationales are questionable on so many levels.) So my sister (Sara) and her friend (Emily) started spreading the word. They created a Facebook group to announce their plans for April 20. They gave details about when and where to meet, along with suggestions about posters and signs.
At the age of 16, driven mostly by curiosity, I decided that I needed to tag along. And somehow, we convinced my mom that I could. (16 year old Michaela with a bunch of college kids against crazy bigoted protesters? What could go wrong!?) The turnout was awesome. There were about 20 of us, from 4 or 5 different states, 9 or 10 different colleges, and most of us had not even met until that day. We found our spot at the corner of Liberty & Trinity, adjacent to an area that was blocked off specifically for the WBC. We proudly displayed our signs, shouted phrases like “God Loves Everyone” and “USA”, and blasted “All You Need is Love” from portable iPod speakers. I think each one of us had something different driving us to be there. Some were fighting for their own rights to be gay and be proud. Others were supporting friends and loved ones who felt targeted by the WBC’s anti-gay words. Many of us felt the need to support the military men and women who, after fighting for our country, are welcomed home by these anti-American sentiments.
So why was I there? I said that I was curious, and that was definitely a driving factor. I wanted to see what it would be like to fight for a cause, to carry protest signs and shout things to all of New York (or at least our street corner.) But really, I felt like I had a moral responsibility. I didn’t feel personally attacked by the WBC’s words – I’m not gay and I don’t think I even had any friends at the time who were openly gay. But as an American, as a member of society, and as a human being, isn’t it my responsibility to stand up for those who are? Sure the WBC wasn’t attacking my sexual preferences, but they just as easily could have been. I have opinions, practices, beliefs, and character traits that could just as easily be attacked if someone chose to do so.
At 16 years old, I knew the protest was going to affect me. I knew that years down the line, I would look back and say “something changed that day” and I saw myself telling the story to friends or even writing a post like this and knowing how it changed me. The funny thing is that at that time, I didn’t know how it was going to change me. Six years later, I’m starting to figure it out. The WBC represents prejudice, judgment, and negativity. They fight to make people feel like their choices and lifestyles are wrong or harmful. But really, people are great. People are unique, colorful, different, and interesting. They are positive and happy and we can all grow so much if we just open up and allow ourselves to learn from each other. My decision to join my sister and 20 strangers in that protest shaped the person I am today. I don’t tolerate hatred or bigotry. I’m uncomfortable with “typical” levels of judgment that I see each day. I strive every day to accept the people I meet. I strive to spread love throughout the world, not hate.