The National Organization for Marriage’s summer-tour bus, which has been traveling throughout the country rallying against marriage equality for the past month, parked in front of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg last week, while a collection of LGBT supporters demonstrated across the street.
The NOM rally drew about 75 people, while the counter-protest brought out 53, according to the Courage Campaign Institute’s NOM Tour Tracker, which has followed and documented the national tour.
The night before the protests, statewide LGBT-advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania hosted a film screening and discussion with youth from across the state about LGBT activism, which drew between 60-80 supporters.
Prior to the NOM visit, Equality PA urged supporters not to participate in any counter-protests, so as to avoid any potentially inflammatory confrontations.
“NOM knows that they can provoke people and then play the victim, and what they’ve been doing is filming these interactions with counter-protesters, and then using them to raise money in churches and faith organizations,” explained Equality PA executive director Ted Martin. “That right there was enough for me to say, I don’t want to provide them with the air they need to do that.”
Martin said he suspects NOM is also planning to use the filmed counter-protests and confrontations to support the group’s court case in Maine, in which they’re fighting to keep the names of signatories who supported a petition to overturn the state’s marriage-equality ban private.
Kelly McEntee, a Harrisburg resident, said that while she agreed with Equality PA that LGBTs shouldn’t interact with NOM, she also didn’t want their visit to be ignored, so she began mobilizing a response with other activists via Facebook.
“While I can see the point of not feeding into what NOM was doing with their persecution complex, I also felt like there were ways we could protest without provoking them and without being in their faces,” she said.
Harrisburg resident Zack Ford recently went to the Netroots Nation conference on a scholarship from Freedom to Marry and connected with the national agency and other activists organizing on Facebook to help coordinate the response to NOM.
Like McEntee, Ford said he agreed that, while the counter-protest needed to be peaceful, it was necessary.
“I don’t think it’s wise to let our opposition decide what our messaging should be. Yes, NOM has been using this propaganda strategy for their own benefit, but I don’t think that means we should completely ignore them. We just had to be more tactical,” he said. “I don’t think the decision to not protest was wise because that doesn’t speak to the need of the community to respond, and it doesn’t speak to the visibility we need to create for ourselves. The kind of response we had is what our movement is built on, and to just concede that power to our opposition is not a good idea.”
The counter-protesters positioned themselves across the street from the NOM event and did not get into any confrontations with NOM supporters, McEntee said.
“We were on the other side of the street, and we weren’t obnoxious,” she said. “We had a barrier because they parked their bus in front of the steps, so we couldn’t see them but we could hear them. But we still stayed calm and did some singing when the speakers were through. I think what we did was an appropriate response.”
The NOM event included remarks from the agency’s executive director, Brian Brown, as well as Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Council; Bishop Benjamin Revenel from Lingo Memorial Church of God and Christ in Harrisburg; Damon Owens, founder of Joy Filled Marriage New Jersey; and Derek McCoy, president of the Association of Maryland Families.
The Rev. Jeffrey Jordan of the Metropolitan Community Church of Philadelphia, who estimated the counter-protest at closer to 70 people, said he brought two supporters from Philadelphia and, although he was tempted to engage with NOM supporters, he and the other counter-protesters gave them a wide berth.
“I think it’s very important that when anyone is giving any kind of message that both sides of the story are heard,” he said. “There was the potential of the bus tour having all of the media coverage and also being all that passersby heard, so we thought we needed to get out there and get out our message about marriage equality.”
Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, said that, like Equality PA, her organization also decided to not endorse a counter-protest when NOM visited Annapolis, but rather hosted events like a phonebank, postcard-writing and community discussions to reach out to LGBTs, allies and state legislators.
“I applaud Equality Pennsylvania for resisting the urge to do a counter-protest. At each stop where there have been counter-protests or attendance by pro-equality supporters, the National Organization for Marriage has disrespected or mocked them and attempted to provoke them into screaming or yelling. Their goal in doing this is to make our side look foolish and hostile,” Meneses-Sheets said. “We decided that while we may be upset by their rhetoric, we can’t get caught up in retaliation when we need to remain focused on what needs to get done to win.”
Martin said he did, however, witness part of the Harrisburg counter-protest and was impressed by the participants’ poise.
“I did see some of the counter-protesting, and I was very pleased that they were so respectful and that they did it in a smart way. That’s a very good thing,” he said. “I know these people are repulsive, so it was very tough to say, ‘Don’t react,’ but there were a lot of reasons for us to choose that course. What we did was something different and it didn’t provide the National Organization for Marriage with anything of much value as they move forward.”