By BRIAN DZENIS, JOSH FERNANDEZ, ANGELO FICHERA and MORGAN ZALOT
Some 716 students stormed the four corners at 13th and Montgomery streets next to the Student Center, and another roughly 400 gathered outside the Tomlinson Theater at 13th and Norris streets, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the anti-gay, anti-American Westboro Baptist Church members.
The church members, wielding their “God Hates Fags” signs and shouting their rhetoric, however, were nowhere to be found. More than 1,100 students showed their disdain for the group’s planned protest, cheering and waving signs with various messages of defiance against the church and love for all.
“You’re just angry because you don’t have a sassy gay friend,” “The Bible says it’s okay to stone your wife. Good luck, ladies,” “Fred Phelps is straight … April Fools!” and “Fred Phelps wants to ride my disco stick” were a few of dozens of student-wielded signs that appeared up and down 13th Street on campus as part of this evening’s counter-protest of the Kansas-based church. Many of the signs were directed at the notorious Fred Phelps, the church’s pastor.
“It’s appalling that they’re even coming here today,” sophomore political science major Beth Cozzolino said. “The number of people out here today is great.”
Cozzolino, donning a white T-shirt with green spray-painted font reading “socialism is gay,” was among several Temple Democratic Socialist members in attendance at the protest.
Students began gathering as early as 4:30 p.m. for the counter-protests, which were scheduled to begin at 6:45 p.m. By 7 p.m. when no members of the church showed up, protest organizers working with Purple Circle, a LGBTQ student organization that spearheaded the counter-protest, advised crowds to disperse at 7:10 p.m., encouraging them to head to the Student Center Underground for the Queer Student Union’s performance of The Laramie Project, one of the productions that sparked WBC’s planned protest. The Laramie Project is a tribute play about college student Matthew Shepard, murdered in 1998 for being gay.
WBC had also planned to protest Temple Theaters’ production of Rent, inciting the second, smaller counter-protest outside Tomlinson.
At the Tomlinson protest, Richie and Jim Madden, a married gay couple, and their son, Trevor Powell, held signs in the same font as those often carried by WBC members, with humorous messages.
“Flying spaghetti monster!” and “Nuns have boobs,” were two of their signs’ messages.
“We haven’t done a WBC protest before, but we did a lot for the Marriage Equality bill in Trenton and stuff like that,” Jim Madden said. “This demonstration brought out the best in people, it allowed them to show their creative side and it’s great that we’re all for the same cause.”
Back at the Student Center, freshman international business and Italian major Taylor Whitson assisted QSU and Purple Circle by asking counter-protesters to donate money for LGBTQ non-profit the Attic Youth Center.
At the end of the protest, Purple Circle raised $450 to donate to the center.
“I hope we raise a lot of money for the Attic,” Whiston said. “It’s a perfect way to show that Temple cares [about these issues].”
Deborah Hinchey, senior political science major and William Way Gay Community Center volunteer organizer, helped the LGBTQ organization Purple Circle maintain the crowd, ensuring every student cooperated with Campus Safety Services for a peaceful protest.
“It’s really exciting to see how many students came out about this issue and think that degrading the message of Matthew Shepard is wrong,” Hinchey said.
“It’s inspiring seeing all of these people out here supporting The Laramie Project,” the production’s director and junior religion major Zoe Goldberg said. “They believe in what we believe, and that’s really inspiring.”
Students waited more than an hour for the WBC, who scheduled their picket time on their Web site for 6:45-7:30 p.m. The WBC never arrived.
“We’re not going to disperse [the crowd],” Campus Safety Services Executive Director Carl Bittenbender, who was present alongside several Temple and Philadelphia police officers, said. “Everyone’s having fun and behaving and enjoying the nice night.”
Bittenbender said before 6 p.m. he had a hunch the protest was a hoax, because WBC generally calls police departments to notify them of protests and ensure that their First Amendment rights are protected.
“If they don’t show up, I feel like we proved a bigger point by being here and protesting,” Taylor Knight, a freshman early childhood education major, said during the counter-protest.
Tim Schmidt, who graduated from Temple in December but came back for the protest, agreed.
“I feel like we grew enough support so we don’t need them here to prove our point. The turnout speaks for itself,” he said.
Tony “Gaga” DelGuercio, decked out in a slinky black dress, black patent-leather heels and red lipstick like pop sensation Lady Gaga, traveled from Prospect Park in Delaware County to attend the protest and support his friends at Temple.
“I don’t classify myself as a drag queen, I just like dressing up, and I hate Westboro Baptist Church,” DelGuercio, a self-proclaimed gay male who plans to transfer from West Chester University to Temple, said. “I have to see them [the protestors]. Do you know where they are?”
Hinchey thanked students who showed their support by attending the counter-protest.
“You have no idea how much it means to the gay leaders on campus that so many turned out,” she said.
Stay with temple-news.com for continuing updates.
Brian Dzenis, Josh Fernandez, Angelo Fichera and Morgan Zalot can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Valerie Rubinsky contributed to this report.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan.