Westboro Baptist Church's Latest Target: Vassar College
In this series, Flyby Staff Writer Olivia M. Munk identifies, dissects, and discusses ideas, articles, and opinions found in popular media and popular culture. She's here to inform you and to make you think—about what's out there, what it means to us, and what it might mean for you.
WHAT IT IS
According to the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), Vassar College gives new meaning to the term "liberal" arts. The religious organization (frequently referred to as a hate group) has dubbed the private college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. an "Ivy League Whorehouse" and is set to protest there tomorrow (February 28). An announcement on the WBC's website, tactfully entitled "godhatesfags.com," proclaims that the group will protest the school for being "champions of whoredom" and having partaken in a "fag agenda."
WHY IT CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION
The WBC may fight their battles with nasty name-calling and picket lines, but college students have one of the most impervious weapons known to the 21st century: social media. Current students, alumni, and LGBTQ allies worldwide have taken to the internet to defend the liberal arts "whorehouse," referring to it as such themselves in an attempt to lighten the otherwise rather grim situation. Even though the protest isn't set to happen until Thursday, online media outlets took note of the commotion following its announcement earlier this month. Buzzfeed published 22 of the best tweets and statuses made in response to the WBC's announcement. My personal favorite: "Finally realizing that the Latin on my diploma reads 'Ivy League Whorehouse.'"
Enterprising Vassar alum Josh De Leeuw took the opportunity to solicit donations for The Trevor Project with a goal of $4,500—$100 for every minute the WBC plans to protest. At time of writing this article, the Crowdrise page had garnered more than $92,000. The Trevor Project, which draws its title from a 1998 short film, provides crisis intervention services for LGBTQ teens around the country.
Recent instances of intolerance at Vassar, a former women's college that is generally considered to be a very tolerant school, have inspired students to fight back against the WBC's intolerance with a vengeance. In December, incidents of overt sexism and racist graffiti shook administrators and students alike, sparking "Teach-Ins" and committees to facilitate open conversations about the incidents.
"Everyone is frankly very excited for this [WBC] event," said Vassar sophomore Claire Ashley. "I actually found out about it as soon as Facebook started going crazy with the news that the WBC had added Vassar to their protest agenda, because a friend of mine busted into my room. In light of recent racist and sexist occurrences on campus, it seems like the Vassar community is especially anxious to unite against a hate group like the WBC."
The WBC also protested Harvard Hillel in 2010, prompting a "Surprise Absurdity Protest," a counter-protest in which students made ridiculous signs to signal that they found the WBC's message and actions to be irrelevant and pointless.
In 2013, it seems that our country is slowly but surely accepting gay marriage and, with it, the basic equality of all sexual orientations. The fact that the WBC still fights with such vigor, then, is extremely disheartening to me and my peers. However, the response of the Vassar community is a beacon of hope. In some ways, the prospect of the WBC's protest has led to many good things: open conversations about hate and bigotry, an onslaught of donations for notable causes like the Trevor Project, and a renewal of a sense of community throughout social media and on campus itself. College students may be notorious for being self-absorbed and superficial, but even students at so-called "whorehouses" who subscribe to a "fag agenda" care and love each other enough to defend their school and classmates when they are attacked.
While college students 50 years ago rallied around the Civil Rights movement, one of today's most important campus causes is that of sexual orientation equality. Harvard does plenty to support the sexual identities of its students: we have Room 13 and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and HUDS even serves us rainbow cake on National Coming Out Day. However, the fight for equality in this realm isn't a constantly prevalent matter among the entire student body. In some ways, the WBC's impending protest is a positive, then: It's re-ignited the spark we all need to donate, to counter-protest, and to put ourselves out there instead of passively agreeing that everyone deserves to be who they are, live their individual lives, and maybe even get married.
Even though groups like the WBC still exist and, under the Constitution, are allowed to peacefully protest for their ideals, the United States as a whole is taking an overwhelming step towards equality. As someone who has many friends in the LGBTQ community—as do most Harvard and college students across the country—it's hard not to look at pictures of couples finally tying the knot on the first day of legalized gay marriage in Seattle and not agree that everyone, no matter their sexual orientation, deserves to have love and happiness.
As of now, the WBC still plans to protest Vassar "for following the satanic Zeitgeist by professing the soul-damning lie that it is 'OK to be gay.'" They have, however, been known to cancel protests before. After the internet group Anonymous threatened action if the WBC protested the funeral of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, the WBC ultimately chose not to. Even if they do carry out their plans tomorrow, if Vassar students and their supporters continue their trend of tolerance, we can only hope that groups like the WBC will one day cease to protest, if only because there is no one around to propagate their hateful cause.