Standing Firm Against Bigotry

Advocates of gay marriage turn out in force against Rev. Fred Phelps in New Paltz

Members of Fred Phelps’ fanatically homophobic Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) were met by hundreds of counter-protesters in upstate New Paltz this past Sunday. The counter-protesters, supporters of same-sex marriage and Mayor Jason West’s role in solemnizing 25 such unions there on February 27, expressed outrage at the presence of Phelps, and followed his entourage by foot and by car as they toured the village under extraordinary police protection.

Activists from neighboring towns, New York City, and Connecticut joined local students and community members to send a strong message in defense of gay marriage.

“This was a uniting experience for everybody,” said Dale Gibbons, a member of the New Paltz Equality Initiative (NPEI). “This had the opposite effect of what Phelps had hoped.”

WBC members showed themselves as the far right fringe of the anti-gay movement that they are. With signs that read “God Hates Fags,” Phelps’ followers, including multiple relatives, shouted anti-gay slurs and taunted community residents.

“Thank God for Sept. 11” was the placard that drew the most intense reaction. Phelps has said the World Trade Center’s destruction was divine retribution for the America’s “tolerance of the gay lifestyle.”

“Now we understand what some of the people who are so anti-gay represent,” said Gibbons. “Even if its not nationally publicized, this community now knows.”

Protesters sang songs from the Civil Rights Movement and chanted to keep their spirits up and counter the bigots’ message. People shared cars with strangers to move from place to place. Chants of “gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a civil right” gradually dampened the confidence of the WBC activists. As they left town, protected by a massive police caravan, the words “bigots go home” rang through the streets of New Paltz.

The WBC strategy was clearly to go on the offensive in a community that has become a national symbol of the battle for same-sex marriage rights. Phelps’ minions targeted churches, the SUNY New Paltz campus, and even the workplace of one of the first women to be married.

“Specific people were targeted in the propaganda that the WBC sent,” said James Fallarino a SUNY activist working with the NPEI.

Local churches planned their own responses to Phelps’ visit.

“An entire congregation was out on the steps singing,” said Rebecca Rotzler, the village’s deputy mayor. “It’s so obvious that there was community support, strongly showing how many people know it’s OK for same-sex couples to get married.”

According to local press accounts, the WBC contingent consisted of only nine people, but it looked much larger because of roughly 100 police, in uniform and undercover, standing around to protect them. This massive police presence, including a helicopter for at least part of the day, was drawn from surrounding towns and the state police.

By noon, a civil rights festival was underway on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Late in the afternoon, Mayor West, a member of the Green Party, spoke movingly of the historical importance of the fight for gay marriage, and defended his record against conservative forces in the town.

“It’s not just people wanting to get married who are behind this movement,” West said. “The fundamental issue is one of respect and equality… just like the students in the South, black and white, who demanded respect and equality for black Americans.”

West is facing misdemeanor charges filed by Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams for solemnizing same-sex marriages without licenses.

The mayor spoke of the need to support gays and lesbians more broadly.

“Every time you shut down the space for making homophobic slurs, people feel safer,” West said. “More people will feel that it’s OK to come out.”

“This is not just a flash in the pan movement, this thing is sweeping across the nation,” said Rev. Kay Greenleaf, a Unitarian minister in nearby Poughkeepsie, who along with Rev. Dawn Sangrey of Mohegan Lake, was also been indicted by Williams for solemnizing same-sex marriages. “No one is coming to rescue us—we must do this ourselves, and now is the time to do it.”

The civil rights festival served as a place for activists to network and strategize. Many rally organizers are also mobilizing to defend abortion rights. Julia Walsh, a SUNY student and Green Party member of the village board, urged people to go to Washington for the March for Women’s Lives on April 25. Activists from a new gay rights coalition at New York University spoke to local activists about having a contingent in the protest that would also take up the issue of same-sex marriage.

At the New Paltz campus, SUNY and Vassar students also had a chance to talk about how to coordinate future protests. For students at Vassar, protesting Phelps brought a larger crowd of people into gay rights activism.

“The religious right is in the midst of waging a very calculated attack on gays,” said Dan Keefe, a Vassar activist. “That can only be countered if we take it upon ourselves to fight back.”

Roughly 70 students from Vassar turned out in New Paltz, after a debate earlier in the week where a core group of students were convinced that a vocal challenge to Phelps was necessary.

When the WBC announced its plans to come, many community members were worried that protests would only invite arrest and give undue attention to Phelps. But on Sunday, activists focused their energy on both exposing the WBC’s bigotry and putting forward a positive message in support of gay marriage.

“We organized a peacekeepers group, with seasoned anti-war veterans who met with students and volunteers,” Gibbons said.

By the end of the day Sunday, most organizers were pleased with the results of both protesting and holding the festival.

“The combined approach ended up being really effective,” said Steve Greenfield, the secretary of the New Paltz Greens.

He also argued that the Green Party, as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans and their reliance on corporate interests, will play a critical role in the same-sex marriage effort.

“The Green Party platform has always gone beyond simple advocacy of equal rights,” Greenfield said. “We are for gay marriage, and with the Green Party you know what you’re getting.”

Several other activists expressed anger that Democrats in Massachusetts, including, Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, have given their support to a state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. One called the civil union position, “too little too late.”

Rebecca Rotzler spoke of years of frustration with broken promises by Democrats to defend abortion rights and advance gay issues.

“If they want progressive votes, they have to earn it, and they’re not,” she said.

As the WBC moved on so did the protests. Press reports from Rockland County reported a rally of 500 people greeted the WBC bigots when they arrived in Nyack.

The events in New Paltz demonstrated the positive effects of standing up to the far right in building the confidence of the same-sex marriage movement, while also highlighting the troubling questions that the WBC extreme homophobia raises for supposedly respectable opponents of gay marriage rights.

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