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Vassar Responds in Force to Westboro Baptist Church Protests

by Debbie Sharnak, published
credit: Jesse Stuart

Westboro Baptist Church


On the day President Barack Obama filed a brief at the Supreme Court arguing, for the first time, that laws denying gay and lesbian couples the ability to marry are unconstitutional, another fight against discrimination took place on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, New York. Tweet it: Tweet

Westboro Baptist Church, known for protesting soldiers’ funerals and its anti-gay stance, decided to protest the college, claiming that the school was an “ivy league whorehouse” that has "wholly given over the fag agenda.”

However, instead of allowing the protests to infringe on the inclusive and open nature of the campus community, Vassar students and community members responded, in turn, with an overwhelming show of support for LGBTQ issues and a counter-protest that affirmed the community’s solidarity and tolerance.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered on the Vassar campus on Thursday, February 28. Those in attendance included students, alumni, parents, other local college students, and many members from the Poughkeepsie community. Tweet it: Tweet

With a little over two weeks to plan their response, students mobilized across campus to chart out a multi-prong approach to the Westboro church. The plan featured a day full of speeches, musical performances, a parade, and a human chain around one of the main buildings on the small Hudson Valley campus.

A keynote speech by Vassar alum and National Minister of Social Justice from the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, Joseph Tolton, reflected the mood of the community.

"Be strong in the face of adversity," Tolton encouraged the counter-protesters. "You are not second class citizens. Your sexuality and your gender identity are not burdens; they are blessings."

He argued that "the day of solidarity" needed to be seen as "a moment for us to see ourselves" and for the college to interrogate its own evolving role in the global movement for tolerance and equality.

Tolton went on to praise the students as "social justice warriors” and, indeed, the student-led movement proved impressive. Supported by faculty, the administration, and alumni, these students organized not just a one day counter-protest, but what they hope will be a sustained movement to “support and celebrate diversity.” Tweet it: Tweet

Alumni also contributed to these overwhelming efforts around the country.

One alum launched an online fundraising campaign for the Trevor Project which supports LGBTQ youth and sought to raise $4,500 by the time Westboro left the campus. Within several hours of the campaign's launch, the goal was surpassed and over $100,000 has since been raised.

In the end, only four members from WBC waved their signs half-heatedly at the front of the school’s entrance where thousands were gathered in counter-protest and left in under 20 minutes.

The Westboro protest proved fairly ineffective in forwarding their agenda, but certainly galvanized efforts on the Vassar campus to protect the college’s inclusive environment and ignited a movement.

As the co-president of ACT OUT, an LGBTQ activist group on campus, Jill Levine was ultimately heartened by the show of support and hoped “that we can harness the energy from this event and continue to work to create a more inclusive and self-aware” community.


Editor's note: The author would like to thank Alexandra Evans, Jill Levine, Mia Fermindoza, and Jesse Stuart for their help and reporting on this piece.

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