Friday, March 1, 2013

Vassar College Schools Westboro Baptist Church On The Line Between Love And Anti-Gay Hate

In Poughkeepsie, New York, for some in the Vassar College community, it was a teachable moment they hope was a spark for further discussions about gay rights and acceptance. Four members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, came to the Town of Poughkeepsie on Thursday to protest Vassar College’s support of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transsexual community. They were met by hundreds of Vassar College students, faculty and other community members in support for gay rights. “We’re trying to inspire a spark in Vassar College in order to create further engagement with social justice,” said Logan Keane, Vassar sophomore and member of a student-run organization Do Something VC. “It’s inspiring to see people recognize a problem that needs to be addressed.” Students formed Do Something VC to encourage tolerance, while the college created VC Together. The organizations collaborated to organize the passionate supporters and develop the proper response to the protest, said Keane, 19. On Facebook, Vassar graduate Josh de Leeuw has asked supporters to join in a peaceful counter-protest by donating to a fundraising page on Proceeds will benefit the Trevor Project. The organization provides crisis-intervention and suicide-prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, the Trevor website says. At first, de Leeuw’s goal was to raise $4,500, or $100 for each minute the Westboro Baptist Church says it will protest Vassar’s inclusiveness. By Thursday night, $102,308 had been raised, according to the CrowdRise page. Vassar College faculty said the community cherishes the opportunity to express its views and reaffirm its role in equality. Christopher Roellke, dean of the college and a professor of education, said it’s a teachable moment for students to influence change and learn more about themselves and their community. “This is a time of pride and deep reflection to make sure we’re living up to our values,” he said. “I am deeply heartened by what we’re seeing today.” The students, faculty and community members flocked to the main gate of Vassar College before 1 p.m. Student orators and musicians addressed the crowd from a small stage as they awaited the arrival of Westboro members. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Joseph Tolton, a Vassar graduate and openly gay pastor, urged the community to remain in the forefront of the global struggle for power, equality and justice. Tolton said there is a “tsunami of justice” that is going to change the world. “I want to encourage the students and the administration to hold true to the values that have made this institution the bedrock of inclusion the past 150-plus years,” he said in an interview with the Poughkeepsie Journal. Participants drifted toward Raymond Avenue, where they continued to sing and shout in unison. At the intersection of Hooker Avenue, the group was met by Town of Poughkeepsie and state police, who acted as a barrier between the two parties. Police temporarily shut Raymond Avenue to allow the students to congregate. “It’s our constitutional commitment to maintain public order and we have to protect someone’s right to protest,” town Police Chief Thomas Mauro said, explaining the divide between the Westboro and Vassar protesters. Mauro said there were no injuries or arrests. “I was very satisfied with the end result,” he said. Westboro member Paulette Phelps said police did a great job of providing protection. Standing on the edge of Hooker Avenue, the Westboro members wore American flags, sang songs, held signs and took pictures. “We did our job because our job is to preach to as many people as we can and I think we got a good amount,” said Phelps, 52, of Topeka. “It was all in all a very fulfilling event for us.”

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