Westboro Baptist Church comes to Clayton High School
Counterprotesters attended from a variety of schools in the St. Louis area, including Metro Academic and Classical, John Burroughs, and Ladue High School. Although the Clayton GSA told students to disband and attend class at 8:20, when Clayton’s school day begin, students from other schools, including Ladue, skipped part of the school day in order to attend. Students said that they hoped to send a pro-LGBTQ message through counterprotesting Westboro’s anti-gay message.
“I believe that this issue should already be over and I don’t believe that what they’re doing is right,” Ladue junior Emma Celeste-Riordan said. “I want to be able to at least voice my opinion and tell them that I don’t believe in what they’re doing, so they can hopefully understand that this is how the world’s going to be soon, that they at least learn how to accept it. They don’t have to like it, just accept it. I hope that they find out that the American youth has at least mostly, and in my opinion should entirely, but at least mostly has accepted [the LGBT community], and I hope to make them plainly see that.”
In addition to St. Louis area students, local organizations, including local LGBTQ support organization Growing American Youth, participated in the counterprotest. GAY organized a free silk-screening station for protesters who brought their own T-shirts, tote bags, and other apparel, decorating counterprotesters’ items with “Love Conquers Hate,” the slogan selected by the GSA.
“The biggest thing we want to accomplish is raising awareness, so that people know that in the community in general, that there’s support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students,” Trevor Sangrey, who works with Growing American Youth, said. “I think that’s really important, both for folks who come out of the closet, people who might come out of the closet, but even general people know that they have support if their sexual orientations are different.”
Individual community members also attended to show support. U.S. soldier Brendon Birge, a 2005 Clayton alumni and a member of the 1140th Engineered Battalion, stationed in Cape Gerardo, Mo., said he counterprotested because he views Westboro as “completely wrong.”
“Being in the military, it really irks me,” Birge said. “Being in the National Guard, I know what all of our soldiers go through and it’s just wrong for them to picket [soldiers’] funerals. … We’ve got upwards of 200 people here, protesting.”
GSA adviser and educational technologist David Hoffman said that according to Westboro church leader Fred Phelps, Clayton’s especially active GSA attracted Westboro’s attention some time ago. Clayton’s GSA has featured speakers on gay rights issues, including church leader Fred Phelp’s son, Nate Phelps, who left the church and now speaks out against its message, although Westboro said their protest was unrelated to Nate Phelp’s presentation at Clayton. Last year, the GSA succeeded in adding LGBTQ students to the district’s anti-discrimination policy. The club was also recently featured in Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch for its work to raise awareness about gay rights issues. Hoffman said that he believes Westboro chose now to protest partially because when Westboro attended the Super Bowl, St. Louis was on their way back to the church compound in Kansas. After Westboro announced its decision to protest at Clayton, GSA immediately began organizing a response. Preparing to counter Westboro’s protest required advanced planning and coordination with both school administration and the Clayton police department.
“We only found out two weeks ago. GSA has met almost every morning and decided to have a theme of ‘Love Conquers Hate’ and a supportive response, one that supports our students, not one against Westboro Baptist Church,” Hoffman said. “The administration has met with us several times to orchestrate this to make sure it’s peaceful.”
While Clayton’s administration wanted to ensure a peaceful protest that did not conflict with learning or prevent students from attending school, administrators expressed support for the students’ message.
“In a perfect world, the WBC would be ignored,” Clayton High School principal Dr. Louise Losos said. “The students are [sending] a fabulous message, one of love and inclusivity.”
In order to prevent any violence or conflicts between Westboro Church members and counterprotesters, the GSA distributed fliers encouraging peaceful behavior and signs expressing support for LGBTQ students instead of anti-Westboro messages.
GSA also worked with the Clayton police to minimize interaction between the groups. At the gathering, police officers patrolled the boundary, a space of about a hundred feet, between the groups, and warned that those who crossed would be tasered and arrested or detained. Clayton GSA co-president and senior Nadia Diamond said that one of GSA’s primary concerns was preventing conflict between the WBC and counterprotesters, especially because Westboro generates funds partially through suing counterprotesters who threaten or injure church members.
“Students were writing on Facebook pages about how passionate they were, which is really great, but we also didn’t want anything to get out of control,” Diamond said. “We didn’t really expect anything from the Clayton students, but we didn’t know who else would show up this morning. That’s really what we were worried about.”
The protest remained non-violent. As people gathered in front of the school’s globe with signs that displayed pro-gay rights messages like “If God hates us [gay people], why’d he make us so cute?” and “All you need is love,” counterprotesters also led a chant of “Love Conquers Hate” and participated in a minute of silence to honor LGBTQ students and community members. Some dressed in colorful costumes, including one adult protester, Mark Plattner, who donned a pony costume and dyed his beard blue, carrying a sign that declared “I am a pretty pony.”
“I am pro-gay,” Plattner, who is unaffiliated with the Clayton School District, said. “I’m here to counterprotest the Westboro Baptist Church because they’re trolls. They’re taking a position that God hates fags. God loves everybody. You can’t have a loving god who still hates fags.”
Westboro considers itself a Christian church, but pastor Mary Gene Boteler, who preaches at Second Presbyterian Church of St. Louis, said that, contrary to Westboro’s views, God’s love is universal, regardless of sexual orientation. The Second Presbyterian church, which has participated in the St. Louis gay pride parade in the past, attended as a group, displaying a large banner that displayed the church name and expressed their support.
“Our church has always affirmed inclusiveness and we wanted to come out today to support students,” Boteler said. “We stand for justice, inclusion and love. We believe everyone is beloved of God and is a child of God, so we wanted to join our witness with the witness of our community and this wonderful school community.”
The community coalesced in a way that many saw as uncommon. Although the Clayton School District has consistently supported GSA, Clayton students felt that the gathering marked an uncommon occurrence when many of the ordinary divisions between high school students disappeared.
“Clayton’s just like any other high school, where you have different groups of people, and they’re not necessarily super united, but I think when there’s a cause like this, we all sort of come together,” Clayton sophomore Megan Niermann said. “I think it’s fantastic. It’s great to see that everyone’s here, and I think it’s just a testament to how great of an area St. Louis is.”
The community’s efforts to unite in support of LGBTQ students was a point of pride for many of the protesters. While Westboro’s protest primarily targeted Clayton, the turnout included protesters from a variety of schools, as well as adults with no connection to Clayton, who exceeded the Westboro protesters in number and volume.
“It makes me feel really proud of our city, and really proud of our school,” Ladue junior Taylor Thompson said. “It’s good to see people come together to stand against what we all think is wrong.”
Protesters chant “Love Conquers Hate” at the end of the counter-protest