When Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church announced a visit to Yale’s campus during my freshman year, there was some debate among liberal students over whether and how to respond. Just ignore them, given their lack of power, odious message and self-discrediting style? Or stage some kind of counter-protest in hopes of capitalizing on the spectacle to build support for a then-contentious local domestic partnership bill?
Most of us decided to ignore the announced WBC protest (called to excoriate Yale’s president’s supposed complicity with sodomists or some such), focusing our energies instead on a pro-domestic partnership rally later that day. (And our own excoriations of Yale’s president over a raft of other stuff.) My dorm room was near the site of the announced WBC mobilization, so at the urging of a friend, I tried to troll the haters by setting my computer to play a bunch of stereotypically gay music out the window; I seem to recall this plan falling prey to technical difficulties.
Of all the people to target for protest over gay rights, the Phelps clan must rank among the least worthy: They don’t wield the power of the ostensibly pro-gay corporation that funds anti-gay candidates, or the ostensibly liberal president who declines to exercise pro-gay executive authority, or the ostensibly tolerant manager behind a suspicious firing. And they lack the persuasive power (and perhaps even persuasive intent) of queer people’s effective enemies. As Tyler Lopez suggests, if they have any impact on equality debates at all, it may be in forcing more important anti-gay activists to cloak their agenda in friendlier rhetoric – and, unfortunately, in giving them the cover, through contrast, to do so. (None of the local legislators who defeated that modest domestic partnership bill did so while chanting “God Hates Fags.”) The Westboro Baptist Church makes an easy and essentially worthless target.
Still, I’ll admit it was satisfying, as I walked past its pathetic little get-together that day in 2003, to discover that while Yale’s activist groups had chosen to ignore them, one of its humor groups hadn’t. Our Westboro visitors (Fred himself appeared not to have made it) were tormented by a contingent of infiltrating undergrads holding up signs – all too close to theirs -- that read “God Hates Plaque” and “Dental Hygiene Is Mental Hygiene.” I think the satirical anti-plaque protesters numbered less than a dozen. But that was more than enough to outnumber the followers of Fred Phelps.