Saturday, July 05, 2014
AMHERST — The Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay protest at the University of Massachusetts came and went quickly and without incident Wednesday, while a rally supporting the campus’ gay community drew over 1,000 people.
The two events were sparked by UMass sophomore Derrick Gordon becoming the nation’s first openly gay men’s college basketball player.
Five protesters, including one child, held slur-filled signs condemning homosexuality on behalf of the organization based in Topeka, Kan., that has gained notoriety for its anti-gay protests at military funerals and elsewhere.
The group’s announcement that members planned to protest Gordon created considerable local buzz in the region.
The protest was staged on the side of Massachusetts Avenue at the edge of the fields south of the Mullins Center. Church representatives appeared to be speaking and at times singing, but the combination of wind, traffic and construction taking place across the street made it impossible for anyone to hear them.
On the other side of street, a crowd of about 200 people gathered. Some held signs with messages of tolerance such as “God hates no one” and “No I don’t — God,” in direct response to the Kansas group’s “God Hates Fags” signs that have become its most identifiable slogan.
Others taunted the Westboro protesters, at times chanting “Go UMass” in support of Gordon. Despite the cold weather, there were 10 men wearing nothing but Speedo bathing suits, shouting toward the five protesters.
Police stood on the street between the two groups preventing anyone from engaging the anti-gay demonstrators. Media members from several area outlets were prevented from even attempting to speak to them. UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski cited “safety concerns” for denying the interaction.
At 12:49 p.m., the Westboro Baptist protesters got into two cars, waved at the crowd from inside them and drove away as the counterprotesters, many with extended middle fingers, cheered their exit.
Across campus, more than 1,000 people took part in a rally. The event, which was promoted through Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #UMassUnited, was originally created as a counterprotest in support of Gordon. But in the days leading up to the rally, it evolved into a celebration of acceptance of the campus’ entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.
Charlotte Kelly, a sophomore from Medford, was one of the event’s organizers. She was thrilled with the turnout.
“It was such an amazing event. I’m so impressed,” Kelly said. “A lot of the inspiration was us saying that we can’t let these ignorant people come to our campus and abuse our students. But then we realized this is such a bigger issue than a small minority or people that are full of hate. This is about all the amazing people on this campus who love to be here and love to support the LGBTQ community.”
Participants gathered at the UMass Fine Arts Center and marched to the steps of the Student Union building. From there several students used a bullhorn to speak to the crowd.
“Comparing the amount of people that showed up here supporting us to the people that showed up there is a clear testament to our student body and to our message,” said Alex Russell, a junior from New Jersey who was the event’s first speaker. “Seeing how many people showed up was incredible. “
Above the sea of people facing the Student Union bobbed many homemade signs with messages of love and support such as “Stand with Derrick” and “All Love is Good Love,” while others had biblical quotations. The crowd was made up of students, along with many others not affiliated with the school who wanted to participate. A sizable group of Amherst Regional students left school to be part of the event.
A handful of clergy members were among the attendees as well, including Pastor Steven Wilco of the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Amherst.
“It’s incredible to see so many people come out to support the LGBTQ community in this town,” Wilco said. “It’s important for me to be here as a representative of the faith community to let people know that a huge part of the faith communities out there are supportive communities and we don’t always get enough of a voice.”
Lilly Israel, a senior from New York City, saluted Gordon in her speech.
“Derrick Gordon is a role model,” she said. “People like him are moving the community forward. I hope people not only see his courage in coming out, but the happiness on his face. That they see him as an amazing athlete and all the things he is in addition to his sexuality.”
At one point when word spread that the Westboro Baptist Church representatives had arrived, some people quietly left the rally to counterprotest.
Gordon was at neither rally because he was with the men’s basketball team at a topping-off ceremony for the under-construction practice facility that will open in 2015.
“It was pretty cool. The support I had walking up the street when everyone was yelling my name was really cool. I really enjoyed it,” Gordon said. “As far as the Westboro thing, that’s their own thing and that’s what they believe. There were only five of them that showed up and there were tons and tons people who had my back and were supportive of me. It’s a great feeling.”
Gordon said UMass has proven to be the perfect place for him.
“When I first got here I didn’t know just how gay-friendly this state was,” he said. “What happened today and the past two weeks, I came to the perfect situation and the perfect school. I’m glad I’m here.”
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.