Last week, members of the University of Montana’s Lambda Alliance asked themselves the difficult question of how to respond to the malevolence of Fred Phelps’ upcoming picket in Missoula. If this were almost any other group, Lambda would consider a counter-protest. But when Phelps equates Missoula churches’ support for the gay lifestyle with the events of Sept. 11, Lambda worries it will be just too difficult to keep counter-protesters from hurling tomatoes, eggs or fists.
“I’m not going to lie,” says Lambda President Ernest Hergert. “It is really hard for someone who is openly gay to hear things like, ‘God hates fags’ and ‘You are going to hell.’ A person can only take so much of that.”
Last year, the Phelps clan and local protestors verbally clashed as expletives were hurled across Arthur Ave., and things almost got “out of control,” says Hergert. The two parties didn’t physically quarrel, however many were nervous that violence was just an epithet away. This year, Lambda came out of its strategy meeting with a new idea: don’t bait, don’t fight, and don’t acknowledge.
“We all just decided as group that there was really no point in arguing with them,” says Hergert.
Phelps and his Topeka, Kans.-based Westboro Baptist Church plan to protest the UM Department of Drama and Dance’s performance of The Laramie Project—a play about Laramie, Wyo.’s reaction to the murder of Matt Shepard—but they won’t be protesting on campus. This gave Lambda the idea to hold their response on campus, removed from Phelps.
Lambda will be encouraging the anti-Phelps contingent to take part in a “celebration of diversity.” Organizers hope to form a line from the law school to the PARTV building—where the The Laramie Project will be performed—made up of students and community members holding hands, wearing rainbow shirts and listening and singing as local musicians strum guitars and beat bongos.
“This will be so far away from Phelps that people won’t even see them,” says Lambda special events coordinator Kris Monson.
Hergert acknowledges that the plans don’t entirely ignore Phelps, but says there is value in holding an event that’s not directly related to the provocateur.
“The problem with ignoring them entirely is we will still have people show up [to respond to Phelps] that I don’t think truly represent the people Phelps is attacking,” he says.
Hergert worries that if no event is held there will be no chance for a public catharsis and an ad hoc protest will swell up that misrepresents Lambda’s message of tolerance and peace. Lambda’s celebration will provide a healthy outlet for people, he says.
A dozen and a half students and community members gathered in the University Center last week to hear the result of Lambda’s strategy session. At first a few seemed surprised that there wouldn’t be a direct confrontation, but after Hergert’s presentation the crowd voiced support for Lambda’s logic. As the presentation concluded, one member of the audience shouted out what he considered the most effective counter-protest: “Go see the play. Sell it out every night.”