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Welcome to UVM, Fall 2009: A beautiful day at the counter-revolution

September 1, 2009

I had a somewhat religious experience today, stepping into the world of the Westboro Baptist Church, the church made up of the family members of the (so-called) Rev. Fred Phelps.

Fred Phelps, who has been in my tertiary life for the past 20 years or so, entered my POV in the late 1980s when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. He and his brood—most of the members of his “church” are related to him by blood, some of them by marriage, some not—came onto the KU campus to preach their particular version of hate: gay people are going to hell, as are those who support them. Same goes for non-whites. And Jews. And anyone not like Fred.

That’s what we called him at KU. Fred. Everyone knew Fred. The local devil.

Since then, Fred has gone on to bigger things: garnering national notoriety for protesting the funerals (seriously, funerals?) of the victims of AIDS and war. In Fred’s mind, the former were going to hell for their homosexual connections, the former because they fought for a country that allowed anyone to have a homosexual connection. I remember pretty vividly when Fred et al protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard: 21 years old, the victim of hate crime. tied and left for dead on a fence near a Wal-Mart. Killed because he was gay. Fred was outraged that the country would feel sympathy for this young man. Very preacherly of Fred.

I’m a journalism adviser now. In my mind, all I really need to do is warn of the comma-splices and near-libels of my students. But today, as a member of the local office of Student Life, I found myself—almost by default, as the local protector of First Amendment freedom—attending the WBC’s latest presentation.

Today is the day—a great day—that same-sex couples can, finally, legally, be married in Vermont. Though I’m not that religious myself, allow me to say: Hallelujah.

Of course, Fred’s progeny had to show up and say Boo.

I attended the protest as a journalism adviser taking some pictures for posterity and as a Student Life staffer ready to help out any students who felt threatened by bigots on campus.

Here’s what surprised me: While Fred’s ilk–the whole half-dozen available–showed up with their hate, our students showed up with love and defiance, perfectly mixed.

They sang songs, chanted their anti-hate chants and made 20 times more sound than the ever-smaller, ever-less-significant FredPhelpsian protestors.

As the Topeka crew held up their “God Hates You” signs, I couldn’t help but think: Even these ridiculous protesters don’t believe anymore what they say. After 20+ years, they simply go from town to town—occasionally suing people who assault them, in order to fund their travels—selling their wares. Spiritually bankrupt. Empty. Pushing. Pushing. Pushing.

Twenty years ago, as an undergraduate in Kansas, I felt alone. I knew that too many of my classmates believed, on some level, that Fred was right. That homosexuality was wrong. That the straight whites were the chosen people. That anyone NOT LIKE US was going to Hell. Of course, I knew this was untrue. But, as I felt out my environment, I found far too many people who, speaking out or not, agreed with Fred.

Today, I came close to tears. Certainly I had goosebumps. The counter-protesters outnumbered the protesters 20 to 1.

As I followed the protesters from their first stop to their second, Fred’s clowns seemed smaller by the footfall. (And, at the second location, a trio of students actually showed up in clown costumes, asking “Is this the circus? I knew the circus was here!” How lovely.)

Fred Phelps and his ilk scared me 20 years ago. Today, they are nothing.

Tomorrow, though they don’t know it, they will be less than nothing.

The day after that?

I feel as though America has grown up since my college days. This is a most excellent feeling.

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In the photos below, please to note: The protestors, numbering a half-dozen-ish, are on the left. The UVM counter-protestors, on the right, numbering at 20x the protesters’ number, are on the right.

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