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At Whitman, A Protest Over Poet's Lifestyle

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 25, 2009

A group of seven congregants from Topeka, Kan., set up outside Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda yesterday to protest the sexual orientation of the poet for whom the school was named.

The police presence -- 40 officers, five horses, blocked-off streets and a football field's length of yellow tape -- seemed comically disproportionate until the counter-protest arrived.

At the 2:10 p.m. dismissal, 500 students issued forth from the campus and lined up, several students deep, along the police tape, across Whittier Boulevard from the congregants. They alternately chanted the school name and "Go home!" -- drowning out voices from across the street.

Whitman, a 19th-century poet with major influence on American literature, is generally regarded as having been gay or bisexual, but his sexual identity remains enigmatic.

The Westboro Baptist Church has gained national notoriety for its anti-homosexuality demonstrations, staged provocatively outside military funerals and at schools that are putting on the musical "Rent." Before heading to Whitman, they showed up at the funeral of the Middletown, Md., family killed in a murder-suicide last week, claiming that those deaths, like the military casualties, were God's wrath toward a godless people. Police asked them to leave.

But at Whitman, the protesters arrived to palpable excitement. Faculty had spun the event into an interdisciplinary lesson. English teachers spent the day on Whitman's verse. Social studies teachers led a unit on tolerance. Math teachers fanned through the crowd, attempting a head count.

It was the first taste of protest for many Whitman students, and perhaps the first time they had paid much mind to their namesake.

"This is my school, and this is where I live, and that makes it personal to me," said Maddie Oliver, 18, a senior. Along with others, she wore a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Whitman passage "Let your soul stand cool and composed." Principal Alan Goodwin helped choose the slogan, hoping students would see its wisdom, he said.

Indeed, no one was injured, and no property was damaged.

Rebekah Phelps-Davis, daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, said it was "the duty of the servants of God to go where the message needs to be heard."

Susan Russell, 17, a junior, said she hoped the publicity would "highlight how ridiculous they are. I mean, that sign -- 'You will eat your babies' -- that doesn't even mean anything."

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