More than 1,000 counter-protestors are estimated to have assembled outside Mazzoni Center Tuesday to block hateful messages from antigay group Westboro Baptist Church.
Rainbow-clad counter-protesters lined five-deep outside the LGBT health facility’s Locust Street location, with many spilling into and across the street.
Four members of the Kansas-based group, which bills itself as a religious organization, gathered at the corner of Eighth and Locust streets, seemingly unbeknownst to many of the counter-protesters. WBC announced its intention to picket Mazzoni Center earlier this month, largely focusing on its trans-affirming programs; the picket group is known for picketing funerals and progressive events and organizations to proclaim anti-LGBT messages.
After holding signs, surrounded by heavy police presence, for just a few minutes, the WBC protesters dispersed, to chants of “Go home” from the crowd.
Organizers walked the street passing out bottles of water, accepted gratefully by many on a day when the mercury topped out in the high-90s. The crowd sang a number of peace-promoting songs, such as “Let it Be,” “Seasons of Love” and “Stand by Me.” Many held signs proclaiming humorous descriptions of things “God hates” — a riff on the protestors’ infamous “God hates fags” signs — which included well-done steaks, ketchup on hot dogs, warm beer and the Schuylkill Expressway.
“A chance to protest against the Westboro Baptist Church? That’s any gay protester’s pinnacle of protesting,” said Emily Kesselman, who was draped in a rainbow flag and wearing a rainbow hat.
Andrew Bona of Philadelphia carried a poster saying “God hates lame signs.” He said he wanted to counter the hateful message of WBC with humor.
“It’s just a silly situation so I wanted to counter-protest with sillness,” Bona, an LGBT ally, said.
Kesselman, a 31-year-old queer South Philadelphia resident, said the diversity in the crowd was impressive.
“There are so many different kinds of people here — gender-queer, gay, cisgender, allies, old, young, black, white — and that shows that Philadelphia is a welcoming community,” she said. “Not only are we welcoming, but people are feeling comfortable staying here, in particular trans people. That trans people feel comfortable in Philadelphia is heartening to see since they’re facing so much.”
Trans active Deja Lynn Alvarez was one of the organizers for the counter-protest.
“This shows the community. This represents the community in all its differnet facets,” Alvarez said about the turnout. “There’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, non-binary — a little bit of everybody is here. And it shows the community is finally coming together when it comes to trans issues.”
“We witnessed an extremely powerful demonstration of love and support for the trans and gender-variant communities,” Mazzoni Center said in a statement Tuesday. “Let us carry this positive energy forward, and continue to stand up for those within our communities who are most vulnerable to discrimination, violence and other forms of oppression or inequality.”
That the successful counter-protest happened when the national spotlight of the Democratic National Convention is on Philadelphia was not lost on many at the event. A number of counter-protesters bore DNC credentials, wore Democratic gear or shirts supporting Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
“Philly has already been sending the message that we are progressive,” Alvarez said, “and the community coming together like this proves all of that hard work. Philly has become a safe haven for the LGBTQIA community. Now we just need to spread that outside of Philadelphia to the rest of the nation.”