The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church protested outside Wilson High School in Northwest D.C. this morning, drawing hundreds of counter-protesters from the school's student body and surrounding community.
A dozen members of the Kansas-based group stood a block away from the school, holding signs condemning homosexuality and same-sex marriage. They said they wanted to bring their message directly to students, who they argued were being brainwashed.
"These children deserve to hear a little bit of truth," said Rachel Hockenbarger, wife of Fred Phelps, Jr., the son of the group's founder. "They’ve never heard a bit of truth their entire lives. Every preacher, teacher, leader and parent has taught them the lie that it’s OK to be gay and that God loves everyone so they can live any way they want to and still go to heaven."
As the Westboro protesters stood along Nebraska Avenue surrounded by a phalanx of police officers, hundreds of students and supporters gathered in front of the school, holding signs both serious and sarcastic ("God hates figs" was a play on Westboro's "God hates fags") and chanting in favor of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.
"We are here to support and celebrate diversity, take a stand against injustice and create change," said Todd Allen Gifford, a 17-year-old member of Wilson's student government. "This protest really isn't about them. They gave us the opportunity to have this large event, but other than that we're here to show our students that we have their back."
Principal Pete Cahall, who came out during a LGBTQ Pride Day event in the school last week, rallied the students while waving a rainbow flag. "Overwhelmed and heartfelt. I've got goosebumps," he said of the turnout, which included alumni and nearby residents. "Our students should be proud of themselves."
For her part, Hockenbarger called Cahall's coming-out "shameful," and criticized the school for allowing students to talk about their sexualities.
"He should keep his sexuality to himself and all the children should keep their sexuality to themselves. This is a school. They’re supposed to be teaching the children to read and write and do math and other, you know, educational things — not talk about their sexuality or celebrate their sexuality and for God's sake not have some government Pride Week fest blah-blah crap going on. That’s not what they’re paid to do," she said.
She also said that claims of LGBTQ students being bullied in schools a "fable," and said that straight students were more often targeted. "My children, I have seven children, they go to public school. They’re the ones who get bullied, not the so-called gay and lesbians," she said.
Aidan Parisi, a senior who helped organize the counter protest, said that Westboro's presence near the school allowed students to rally together for diversity.
"We're glad that they can come and be here, but we're also glad that we can come and be here and protest against them. We don't agree with their message, but we want to be here to support our message," he said.