I’ve been living and organizing in the South (mostly around LGBTQ issues) since 2008. My friends and family from various parts of the country don’t visit much. It’s difficult to entice folks to come to Mississippi or Alabama. It’s not really on the way to a major destination, so folks don’t just pop by. Interest from family and friends in my work has waxed and waned over the years. When the work was highly visible (say, a major legal case that made national news) or easy to understand (such as organizing something concrete like a conference or an event) there was interest. More long-term and difficult to describe work, like youth development and community-building that’s less concrete, doesn’t seem to garner much interest from my loved ones. That’s perfectly fine with me. I love my work, and if communities rally around and behind it down here that’s all that matters.
The Westboro Baptist Church and their circus of hate came to town on May 18. All of a sudden, folks I don’t hear from much were flooding my inbox. Did I know the group was coming? What was I planning to do about it? Did I know of a protest that would be organized? Was there a place to send money to fund the protest? Judging from the swell of interest, you’d think that something important was about to happen in my community.
My answer back was: WBC is a paper tiger, a cartoonish distraction. Please, keep up the interest and help fund the real work that needs to happen to create safer and more inclusive spaces for LGBTQ people in the Deep South.
It wasn’t just Alabama outsiders who were interested. Well-meaning people here started a petition to encourage the mayor of Tuscaloosa, the Tuscaloosa City Council, and the University of Alabama to speak out against the group.
Yes, WBC is a tribe of repugnant trolls. I 100% agree. However, if people think that WBC represents even one iota of the real hardship that LGBTQ people face in Alabama or the Deep South they need to break bread with folks in the LGBTQ community here. Their allyship needs to extend to the 364 days that WBC isn’t in town.
People like Andre Cooley lose their jobs for being “discovered” to be gay in a state with no workplace protections from discrimination. Students like Ceara Sturgis and Constance McMillen are wiped out of their yearbooks and proms for being lesbians. LGBTQ parents lose custody of their children and are told by judges that they have immoral lifestyles that render them unfit to parent. Students are bullied for either being LGBTQ or being perceived to be LGBTQ.
I recognize the catharsis one can get from joining a counter protest. It’s easy to stand against the over-the-top antics of the Westboro Baptist Church. It may feel affirming to see how many people come out to express their dismay and solidarity against them. Some may be motivated to turn out for a demonstration to show that there are enough allies in town to push back. However, where do these allies go when the circus leaves town?
I think that the student, faculty and staff LGBTQ groups have the right idea. Spectrum (the student GSA) and Capstone Alliance (for faculty, staff and graduate students) at the University of Alabama organized a day of service as an act of resistance. Called “One Community”, LGBTQ people and their allies volunteered their time for local community service efforts. The Episcopal church located near the Westboro protest opened up their fellowship hall as a safe space for peace, love and acceptance. The group was visible as an LGBTQA presence in a city and state where LGBTQ people and our allies are largely invisible and often silent.
2,075 people signed the petition to the city of Tuscaloosa. Might I suggest petitioning your local school board to pass an enumerated anti-bullying policy instead?