At Vassar College, Love Conquers All
By Matthew Ortile
Photo by Rachel Garbade
On February 12, the Westboro Baptist Church announced it would protest Vassar College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, but better known to Fred Phelps and his crazed family as an “Ivy League Whorehouse” home to “doomed American academics” who “promote the fag agenda with all their might.” Since Westboro isn’t exactly inconspicuous and announced their visit way in advance, Vassar and the surrounding community were able to mobilize in preparation for the big day.
Full disclosure: I’m currently a junior at Vassar and wear my #VCpride on my sleeve. While Westboro gave too much credit—we’re not an official Ivy nor have I ever had a Yale boyfriend—their bit about “the fag agenda” is 100 percent true.
The most headline-worthy effort last month was Vassar alumnus Josh de Leeuw’s Crowdrise.com fundraiser which promised to donate $100 to The Trevor Project for every minute Westboro would protest, a scheduled 45 minutes at 1:45pm on February 28 (after protesting a memorial service at the United States Military Academy at West Point a short drive away). The fundraiser sped past the goal of $4,500 and now clocks in at over $100,000 thanks to Vassar students, faculty, families, and supporters.
All sorts of pride, Vassar and otherwise, were seen all over the nation. Alums everywhere were sounding the horns of battle: Andy Towle of Towleroad and Alice Walton of Forbes wrote and displayed their colors proudly, and Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times said, “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.”
And certainly, the campus was doing anything but ignoring the impending Westboro protest. Student group Do Something VC took the lead in harnessing the Westboro-Vassar publicity and fundraised for local causes. Shirts saying “Love Conquers All” in grey and pink, Vassar’s school colors, were being given away with every donation to support the Hudson Valley chapter of GLSEN and the Ali Forney Center in New York City.
On the day of Westboro’s protest, Do Something VC executed a counter-protest and rally that included musical performances, a human chain around the Main Building, and several speakers who addressed cheering crowds. The keynote speaker was Vassar alum Pastor Joseph Tolton who told the college community and all those participating physically and emotionally, “Be strong in the face of adversity. You are not second-class citizens. Your sexuality and your gender identity are not burdens—they are blessings.”
As for the actual presence of the Westboro Baptist Church, they materialized as four individuals with signs saying, “USA’s doom,” “Soldiers die 4 fag marriage,” and of course, “God hates fags.” Westboro’s welcome wagon was the counter-protest comprised of at least 600 Vassar community members and supporters from all over the Hudson Valley, including neighboring colleges such as Marist College, SUNY New Paltz, and West Point. Westboro left earlier than intended, at approximately 2:20 p.m.
Alison Ehrlich, Vassar’s sophomore class president and fundraising/alumni outreach facilitator for Do Something VC, could not have been a prouder Vassar girl that day. “There was this kind of energy all around campus,” she said, “that something big was happening, something exciting.” And Vassar’s student body president Jason Rubin said, “The day was really about us and our community and we didn't let Westboro take that away from us.”
But the campus was not without its dissenters. Some students spoke critically of the direction the college and its administration took in addressing Westboro. Concern was raised in the misguided pride in the “whorehouse label” and others asked, "Why now, and why this cause?” — especially when Vassar students are championing at least 50 other causes at any given time. Dissatisfied with the purported theme of “us not them,” Vassar sophomore Genesis Hernandez said, “The minute that Westboro was present, students left to go and gander, even though students were still speaking at the counter-protest.”
As for Vassar’s new identity as the “Ivy League Whorehouse," Rubin recognized the problematic semiotics. “While I understand the desire to reappropriate the insult into something humorous or empowering,” said Rubin, “it’s important to recognize the way the term makes people on campus feel uncomfortable and oppressed. It’s an example of something our campus needs to think critically about how we define who we are.”
While morale and pride definitely stemmed from fighting Westboro and their hate-speech, Ehrlich insists support mainly grew out of a more positive commonality: love and inclusion. “Vassar itself gets very divided at times with different issues happening on campus or in the world,” she said. “But Westboro gave the Vassar and regional community the opportunity to come together to celebrate values that we all share.”
And that same night, beloved NYC drag rapper and Out100 lister Mykki Blanco performed to a packed crowd at Vassar. Serendipitously, it was a positive day for human rights on a national level as well: on February 28, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to declare that it was unconstitutional for California to pass an amendment in 2008 excluding same-sex couples from marriage.
While Westboro and their antics look like they won’t stop anytime soon, Vassar — and this proud Vassar boy included — hopes Westboro can continue to serve as a catalyst for a strong and positive counter-response benefiting others, reaffirming the truth that love really does conquer all.
Check out videos of the rally and counter-protest below.