Members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church picketed the District’s Wilson High School on Monday morning, railing against the school’s gay Pride Day and its principal, who came out as gay to his school community during last week’s pride rally.
But the Kansas church’s message was largely drowned out by hundreds of students and community members who gathered in front of the school for a peaceful counterprotest. Led by student organizers urging those gathered to “fight the bigotry, fight the hate,” the crowd chanted and waved rainbow flags and homemade signs proclaiming “Love is Love” and “I Have Two Moms And Life Is Good.”
“I’ve never seen this many people come together, even at a sporting event,” said the student body president, Jennifer Li, who helped organize the rally with members of Wilson’s Gay Straight Alliance. “We’re promoting a school of love and acceptance.”
Around the corner from the school stood fewer than a dozen members of Westboro Baptist, known for protests at military funerals. The Westboro protesters held their customary signs, including “Same-sex marriage dooms nations” and others emblazoned with anti-gay slurs. They said they chose to picket Wilson because of its Pride Day event last week.
“The purpose of school is to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s not their business to deal with the moral issues of this life,” said Rebekah Phelps-Davis of Topeka, Kan., who added that Wilson was “damning the souls” of young people by teaching them to accept homosexuality.
Westboro announced in late May that it would picket Wilson to protest the school’s second annual gay pride event. That event drew national attention after 50-year-old Principal Pete Cahall came out as gay Wednesday to his students.
Cahall said he was “tired of hiding” and inspired by his students to tell the whole truth about his identity. In the days since his public announcement, he marched in the annual Capital Pride Parade for the first time and received thousands of supportive messages from around the world.
“I’m hoping that we as the Wilson community send a strong and loud message to the nation that we’re about peace, love and acceptance of all people, including people from Westboro,” Cahall said.
Margaret Babb, the mother of a Wilson sophomore who came out as gay last year, said she was “blown away” by Cahall’s willingness to take the risk of acknowledging his sexuality openly. “There are several wonderful faculty, and now Pete Cahall, who are making it much more comfortable and easier for kids to be themselves,” Babb said.
Holding a sign that read, “Another Proud Mom of a Gay Son,” Babb said she knows the statistics on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children: They are more likely to skip school out of fear of being beat up and more likely to attempt suicide. She credited Chris Obermeyer, a Wilson biology teacher who came out to his students after seeing Babb’s son bullied at school, with creating safety and support for students wrestling with their sexuality.
But Westboro protesters said they believe exactly the opposite. Charles Hockenbarger said too many educators use schools as a “bully pulpit” to teach that homosexuality is acceptable and that Cahall’s decision to come out only solidified Westboro’s position.
“What do his sexual proclivities have to do with educating children?” Hockenbarger asked. “He could have just as easily kept that to himself.”
Westboro’s presence appeared to serve as a catalyst for the broader community to show up in support of Wilson, LGBT rights and Cahall. Students from other nearby public and private schools joined Wilson students, along with parents, alumni, neighbors and members of local churches.
“I believe that education breeds tolerance and hatemongers breed ignorance,” said Carol Spiegel, a resident of Chevy Chase, Md., and a member of the Wilson Class of 1973.
D.C. Council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), both candidates for mayor, attended the rallies Monday, as did council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was scheduled to join Wilson counterprotesters Monday but canceled at the last minute. His staff told students he had a serious foot injury.
“I am so proud of the students,” said Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who carried a “We are Wilson” sign.
The prospect of the anti-gay protest had spurred debate at Wilson and across the city about whether a counterprotest would serve only to draw attention to Westboro, which a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
The Wilson Beacon student newspaper published an editorial in support of the counterprotest, arguing that Westboro members “highlight the homophobia that exists in our society. And they give us an opportunity to prove them wrong.”
The editorial urged students to fight homophobia every day, not just during a protest in front of television cameras. “All this solidarity and love can’t just be a one-time display,” students wrote.
Wilson students began planning a counterprotest within hours of learning about Westboro’s plans. Kellik Dawson, a 15-year-old sophomore, started a Facebook group to organize his classmates, and nearly 1,000 people signed up to attend.
“I thought it would be a good chance for everyone to get together,” Dawson said. “And what I was hoping, it happened.”
Graduating senior Aidan Parisi said he plans to continue his efforts of spreading tolerance and volunteer next fall in San Jose, Calif., with City Year, an organization that works in schools.
“I want to bring some pride into whatever schools I go into,” Parisi said. “This is not the end.”