The Westboro Baptist Church, best known for picketing military funerals because God hates a country that tolerates gay people (or something like that), is picketing my alma mater next week. Vassar College, a small liberal arts school in New York's Hudson Valley, is hardly the first school that Westboro's "congregation" (which is really just one large family in Topeka, Kan., led by 83-year-old pastor Fred Phelps) has visited with signs bearing its signature motto, "God Hates Fags." But Vassar may be the first to pull the jujitsu move of using the demonstration to raise money in support of the very thing being demonstrated against.
When Westboro announced its plans to picket outside Vassar's gates for 45 minutes on the afternoon of Feb. 28, it referred to the school as an "Ivy League whorehouse" and a "filthy institution" devoted to the homosexual agenda. They have a point. Almost immediately, an alumnus organized an online fund drive for the Trevor Project, a national LGBT suicide intervention group, with the goal of raising $100 for each of those 45 minutes. Within days, 10 times that amount had been raised. Meanwhile, the blogosphere was buzzing with approval and bon mots, including tweets like, "Seems I got into an ivy through the whorehouse door. Proud of Vassar for counter fundraising!"
I'm proud of the school too (and I admit it, I was kind of pleased to see it mistaken for the Ivy League, at least until I realized that the whole reference was about its history as a dating pool for Yale men). And though I fear that the college is essentially functioning as a Westboro publicity machine, I also know that the excellent tactic of just ignoring the church would simply never hold up at a place like Vassar. A Seven Sisters college that began accepting men in 1969 and enjoyed a mostly graceful transition to a coed culture that, at least in my day, was often as cheeky as it is was inclusive (one of the biggest all-campus semi-formal dances of the year was the Homo Hop), it's one of the gay-friendliest colleges in America.
Still, how has Westboro, a minuscule outfit whose membership has been estimated to be as low as 40, come to occupy a prominent place in the political and cultural sphere? The crafty litigiousness aside (it makes a lot of money suing people it has baited into attacking it), it's not a slick operation. A 2007 BBC documentary called "The Most Hated Family in America" reveals a group of friendless paranoiacs who are convinced we're living in end times and that the vast majority of the world's population is going to hell. As family values go, they're hardly a model. Several members have defected in recent years, including two of Phelps' sons, who claim that he physically abused them and their mother when they were growing up.
To put it mildly, Westboro (which is not connected to any other Baptist denomination) is more Jerry Springer than Jerry Falwell. And as far as universal condemnation goes, not even the Octomom comes close. Everyone hates them: A petition asking the White House to label Westboro a hate group and revoke its tax-exempt status got more than 200,000 signatures in less than two weeks. Falwell had called Phelps a "first-class nut." Bill O'Reilly has called the church "vicious" and "vile idiots." The Hells Angels blocked church members from picketing. The rogue "hactivist" group Anonymous launched a cyber attack against them. Even members of the Ku Klux Klan have spoken out, deeming the church too hateful for their taste.
That kind of solidarity is all but unheard of in today's cultural climate. And perhaps that's part of the reason why Westboro, despite being the fringiest of fringe groups, stays so reliably in our line of vision, garnering press and distracting college kids from their studies. In its unmitigated vileness, it's actually playing an important role in the culture. It gives an ideologically polarized society something that everyone can agree on. We are so divided, so poised for a fight over the smallest issue, that only an enemy as patently irredeemable as Westboro can get us to come together and hate as one. Meanwhile, for better or worse, the cameras keep rolling.
And in this case, the money keeps pouring in. As of Wednesday, Vassar's counter-protest had raised nearly $84,000 for the Trevor Project. I bet this year's Homo Hop will be the best ever.
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