By Jocelyn Lee; With Laura Bleeke
Despite the early hour and cold temperatures, hundreds of people filled the green space of Centennial Plaza on Monday, Feb. 6. Comprising the crowd were students, parents, teachers, church members, and other community members drawn from across the St. Louis area. American flags, unicorn costumes, rainbow apparel, and Catholic school uniforms alike made their way to the front yard of CHS.
Officially beginning at 7:50 a.m., the protest by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) involved far fewer. A total of five protestors stood in a police-protected area approximately half a football field away from the larger crowd. The WBC members sang songs and held signs with messages like “Mourn For Your Sins” and “Soldiers Die 4 Fag Marriage.”
According to its website, the WBC was protesting CHS’ support for its students, especially its Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
“We go to high schools all over the country, but Clayton has been on our radar,” WBC member Fred Phelps Jr. said.
Phelps said that the group’s reason for protesting is to send the message that “sodomy” will destroy the nation.
“What this country is doing is raising, as a general rule, children who are utterly, completely ignorant of the Bible, are amoral, and have no fear of God,” Phelps said. “And of course that’s a sign of the last days.”
The Clayton community first learned of the WBC’s plans to protest when the church contacted the Clayton Police, requesting protection for the day of the protest. The CHS GSA immediately began brainstorming how they wanted to respond.
Senior Halo Howell, co-president of the GSA, said some students initially had angry responses.
“They were really riled up about it,” Howell said. “Like ‘let’s go naked,’ and ‘let’s go run around and make out with people.’ So we immediately had to deal with kind of suppressing that reaction and being like ‘no, this is going to be a really positive event where everyone is supporting our community, and we get to show that support and how awesome Clayton really is.”
The GSA created an event page on Facebook, which they used to spread the word about the planned CHS response. A few things were asked of students and community members: to remain peaceful, to get all signs approved by the school administration, and to celebrate CHS instead of “counter-protesting” the WBC.
Both Andrea Hermann and Sydney Wright, two of the GSA’s co-presidents, said that they were pleased with the way students behaved and sent only peaceful, positive messages.
The administration had also emphasized the importance for all students to report to their first period classes on time. There was some concern that this might be difficult to manage, but as 8:20 a.m. approached, students streamed into the school building. A number of outside supporters clapped for them as the students passed.
“I was really impressed by our students and the way they behaved and how when asked to go to class, they went to class,” associate principal Dan Gutchewsky said. “A couple of the news organizations and the police all commented that they couldn’t believe that everyone left and went to class when they were supposed to. They were kind of amazed.”
People came to support the response from all over the St. Louis area, including many high schools. There were students representing Ladue High School, Burroughs, MIDCS, Villa Duchesne, Visitation Academy, and others.
“We came to support everyone and protest the Westboro church, because I think it’s disgusting what they’re saying and doing,” said Lizzy Wallis, a junior at Ladue High School. “I was kind of nervous coming because I didn’t know if there were going to be riots or something breaking out. I didn’t expect to see this many people. I was surprised when I came up because I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t know how many people would actually show up.”
Meadow Faulkner, also a junior at Ladue High School, said she agrees with the peaceful manner of CHS’ response.
“I came out here to support a cause because I really believe in equality and tolerance,” Faulkner said. “And I just believe in the support of Clayton High School even with the protesters who came to hate.”
Nick Rubin, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, lives close to CHS. He said he came because he is gay and supports gay rights. He also said that he agrees with how CHS students chose to respond to the protesters; however, he wishes the students were not so fenced off.
However, students weren’t the only ones that came to the high school to show their support. Valery York-Schneider, a 59-year-old from South City, came because she wanted to set an example of how to respond to the protest for her family.
“I am a life-long lesbian,” York-Schneider said. “I had a 33-year partnership until my life partner died. So I have participated in this kind of thing my whole life. And I just love the way Clayton High School has got such an open and embracing inclusiveness with its student body. It’s like ‘My gosh! How can you not be here?’”
York-Schneider, who has been witnessing the changing attitude toward the LGBT community for many years, believes that events like this prove that society is moving toward a more open position and attitude.
“I think this is a part of a wonderful and evolving inclusiveness, in general,” York-Schneider said. “You will have pockets like the Westboro group who feel differently, but I think we are becoming a much more inclusive society.”
Like the CHS GSA and administration, many visitors hoped that the response would remain positive.
“I came out to support the students,” said 49-year-old Mark Fredericks of Richmond Heights. “Obviously I don’t like Westboro’s message but I wanted to keep it peaceful and keep it loving.”
Leon Braxton, the executive director of The LGBT Center of St. Louis, attended the event with kids from the program to show their support for the community.
“This is the response I was expecting to see,” Braxton said. “Because in St. Louis, when you attack us, we bond together as one big happy family. We come out and it’s wonderful to see that not only are there young people here but there are people well into their 80s.”
Like many supporters, Cheryl from South County had personal reasons for attending the response. But she was still surprised by the magnitude of the event.
“It’s more than I expected,” Cheryl said. “I’ve never done this before, so I really had no idea what to expect. But I had a step-daughter who was transgender, and she died five years ago, so kind of doing it for her too.”
For Occupy St. Louis member Catherine Lipinski, participating in the response was about something bigger than herself.
“[We came out today] because biogotry is not okay,” Lipinski said. “And it’s not okay to try to shove that message in front of kids and down kids’ throats. As far as I’m concerned, the children of this country really are our future, and if we want to build a world where hate isn’t acceptable, then we can’t allow for hate to be brought to the kids’ front doors.”
Love in Numbers
The GSA’s goal was to hold a peaceful response to the WBC protest, but many came to see the morning as more than just a response. Junior Jonah Lindblad said it was a great demonstration of the strength of the community and of how much support the school has for the LGBT community.
“I thought it was really beautiful,” Lindblad said. “It was great. We had a couple veterans out there who actually had American flags with them; we had moms holding up a pride flag. We had such a vast amount of people, I felt it was really empowering.”
CHS Principal Louise Losos also said she was impressed by how much support CHS received.
“It was so heartening to see the number of people that showed up to support us,” Losos said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of this school and this community. There hasn’t been a negative note at any point – it’s been fantastic.”
Wright said that the response was significant for the LGBT community, at large.
“It really brought everyone together and reminded people why we were here,” Wright said. “[It showed] more support for the LGBT community and support for equality across all borders, instead of just anti-Westboro.”
In addition to the discussion that took place at the high school, conversations regarding the protest were raised at the district’s middle school.
Mary Ann Goldberg, Wydown Middle School’s principal, said that the event has been a great “teachable moment.”
“At the middle school, we had conversations all last week, in Social Studies class and in Literacy class, about how the Westboro people get to do this, and then how we need to respond to it,” Goldberg said. “So it’s been a lesson in civics and citizenship and to why our country runs the way it does – it provides people the opportunity to be able to do this.”
Goldberg said she knew of a number of middle school students whose parents brought them to CHS the morning of the protest, because their parents felt it was important for them to experience the event and to express their support.
To some, the event was a reminder of what makes Clayton unique.
“We talk about the Clayton community being very supportive, very open-minded,” Losos said. “You know that sort of intuitively, but when you actually see it in evidence, it’s very affirming and reminds me of why I’m very appreciative of working where I work.”
GSA sponsor David Hoffman said the school’s response to the protest is important for the CHS community, specifically.
“It was touching,” Hoffman said. “It was so supportive. If you’re a kid in this school who is wondering about his own identity, what I think we saw here today says ‘you’re okay.’ And I think that’s a great message.”
Howell had a similar response about the Clayton community.
“Clayton has been surprising me since I moved here,” Howell said. “People can make whatever judgments they want to make, but these people will really stand up for you when the time is right, when you really need them. They’ll go outside of their comfort zone and really put up a good fight.”
Although the WBC protest generated a good deal of discussion about the best response, many supporters said they agreed with the peaceful response by the CHS student body.
“The GSA worked long and hard to make sure that it was a celebration of us and not a counter-protest, and I think that’s exactly what it was,” Hoffman said. “It’s like they didn’t matter today. It wasn’t about them being here, it was about us. We couldn’t have planned an event to celebrate the LGBT community better than what happened today.”