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
To put it mildly, Westboro (which is not connected to any other Baptist denomination) is more
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.