Stand with Wilson HS Against Westboro Intolerance
As Wilson High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) hosts the second annual LGBTQ Pride Day today, members of the alliance and the entire school should indeed be proud of the welcoming, accepting and supportive community they have fostered. More than 20 organizations that have programs for or support LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) youth are participating in today’s events, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray will make remarks at the school in recognition of the celebration.
As the first public high school in Washington, DC to hold an LGBTQ pride celebration and a school that actively provides resources for LGBTQ students, Wilson has set an example of tolerance and respect that schools throughout the District should strive to emulate.
Unfortunately, not everyone is standing up to applaud Wilson’s students. The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church – infamous for its daily, hate-filled protests – has targeted Wilson High School, planning to picket the school on Monday, June 9. In the protest announcement on its website, Westboro Baptist Church tells students that they “should be hanging [their] heads in shame.” It goes on to state, “You celebrate and glory in your sin. You say “You can’t hide tiger pride?” and you’re right. You are incapable of being ashamed of your sin.” A media release contains further disgusting vitriol aimed at Wilson students and the LGBTQ community generally that I will not publish here.
In response to the planned protest, members of the Wilson community and beyond have mobilized to hold a peaceful counter-protest starting at 8:15 a.m. on June 9. Organized by students and through the Westboro Meet and Greet Facebook page, the counter-protest intends to welcome Westboro protesters with “open rainbow covered arms,” and stand up in support of Wilson’s LGBTQ students. In an outpouring of support, 995 people have signed up to participate at last count. I hope that anyone who supports tolerance and acceptance and opposes hate groups will consider joining them.
Westboro Baptist Church thrives on generating media attention. Let’s thwart them by shifting the focus and overwhelming their protest with a large-scale, peaceful demonstration of support for Wilson and the LGBTQ community. Tenleytown is a wonderful, open, diverse community. Make that the story the media tells on Monday.
For recent media coverage of the protest and counterprotest, see:
- Anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church has a new target: D.C.’s Wilson High
- Westboro to Picket Wilson High School
- Anti-gay church to target D.C. Pride parade
For more information about Wilson High School’s plans for the protest, the following is the text of a letter Wilson High School principal Peter Cahall sent to the community:
Dear Wilson High School Community,
As you may have heard, Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based organization that has gained notoriety and significant media attention in recent years for its frequent, high-profile anti-gay protests, plans to picket in front of Wilson High School from 8:15-8:45 a.m. on June 9.
The protest, one in a series of 12 the church has planned from June 7-9 in the Washington, D.C., area, is aimed at Wilson High School’s Second Annual LGBTQ Pride Day celebration and our support of the Wilson’s LGBTQ community, although the protest is being held five days after our Pride celebration on June 4.
Westboro Baptist Church has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “… arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” and is known for its “harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests.” The tactics employed by the church are intended to garner media attention and spread its message, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is dedicated to tracking and exposing the activities of hate groups.
You may also have heard that the protest has generated significant interest from Wilson High School scholars and hundreds of community members who wish to hold a peaceful counter-protest at Wilson in support of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students. The counter-protest is strictly voluntary. Any Wilson scholar who does not want to participate can simply opt-out by entering the school building at the Aquatic Center entrance as soon as they arrive on campus.
I fully support a peaceful student-led counter-protest as a teachable moment and have taken steps to ensure the safety of our counter-protesters and school community on June 9. Over the past few weeks, I have met with officials from the Metropolitan Police Department and the DCPS Central Office to develop a proactive plan for protest/counter-protest logistics and support. I also have met with Wilson scholars and faculty to share these logistics and set high expectations for student behavior.
I plan to meet again with students and staff to provide further details, but wanted to share with you what has been discussed so that you can reinforce these messages at home in advance of the protest/counter-protest.
For student counter-protesters
• The primary message is: This will be a peaceful counter-protest.
• We want to provide students the opportunity for their voices to be heard, but students have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner that does not reflect negatively on them, their families or school community.
• Participants must clearly understand that all school rules, policies and procedures will be enforced and unacceptably behavior will not be tolerated.
• Students must stay on the sidewalk directly in front of the school during the counter-protest. Students are not permitted to stand in the “drop off” road directly in front of the school.
• All signs, banners, buttons or any other messaging should not be derogatory.
• Participants are not permitted to engage the protesters.
• All directives from our teachers and administrators must be adhered to; failure to do so will result in disciplinary action.
• Once students enter the school, they will not be allowed to leave.
• The counter-protest will be held 8:15-8:45 a.m. Students should report to their first-period class immediately after the counter-protest.
• If at some point after 8:45 a.m. the protesters do appear, school leadership will make an announcement and permission will be granted for students to leave their class and participate in the counter-protest.
For students who do not plan to participate
• The counter-protest is completely voluntary. Anyone who does not want to participate, does not have to.
• Any student who does not wish to participate in the counter-protest should enter the school at the Aquatic Center entrance immediately upon arrival.
Where will the protesters be?
• Protesters are not allowed to be on school property but can occupy space in the public right-of-way. In the past, WBC had planned to stage a protest from the grassy area between the “drop off” road and 40th Street. It is possible, however, that they will choose another location.
• The protest group typically is not large – about six or so adults and children – but they have been known to post church members on the fringe of the protest to film interactions among protesters and counter-protesters.
Where should other counter-protesters from the community be?
• A staging area for community counter-protesters has not been identified, but with the potential for as many as 1,000 (962 had indicated by June 2 on the Westboro Meet and Greet Facebook invitation that they plan to attend the counter-protest) a large area, such as the park off Chesapeake Street would be ideal.
• Regardless of where the community counter-protesters are located, they should stay clear of any passages/sidewalks/walkways that Wilson HS or Deal Middle School use to access their schools.
What support the school can expect from MPD and the DCPS Office of School Security?
• MPD and the Office of School Security (OSS) will provide support in ensuring that passageways to school (both Wilson HS and Deal MS) are clear of protesters/counter-protesters so that students can access their school.
• MPD and OSS will ensure that protesters, counter-protesters and press remain in their designated areas.
• MPD and OSS also will ensure the safety of counter-protesters by keeping counter-protesters out of the streets and maintaining a safe distance between the protesters and counter-protesters.
I want to thank MPD and the DCPS Central Office for their support in ensuring the safety of our students. I also would like to thank our Wilson scholars and faculty for their cooperation and coordination.
The safety of our students is paramount at all times, just as it is with you. If you have any questions or concerns about this incident, please contact me directly. Thank you for your continued support.
Peter J. Cahall