Living as a gay man in the South has its fair share of issues, especially when your home happens to be fifteen minutes away from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. We have to deal with coming out, adapting, rightwing zealots, a church on every corner, and of course, a persistent mentality of apathy within the local gay community that drives a belief that things will never change.
Im an activist, so I’m often asked why I don’t move. I can do so much more somewhere else that’s more affirming to GLBT people. First, I tell them, this is home. Second, why what’s the point of being an activist when things are already changing? I’m a visionary by nature. I want to be a part of that change. I’ve also been called a faggot in school hallways enough to know that if even one soul can be liberated from the crushing weight of self-loathing internal homophobia, then hope can be kindled.
As chairman of the local Pride organization, I’ve seen just that happen more than I could have ever imagined. Recently, our efforts were met with a brand new challenge. We were told that members of Fred Phelps’ notorious Westboro Baptist Church (The God Hates Fags people) from Topeka, Kansas would arrive on Wednesday, February 5. We had less than a week’s notice.
The press release said that they would be at Gate 4 in Oak Grove, Kentucky, to picket the monthly Remembrance ceremony for Fort Campbell soldiers who were killed in action during the war in Iraq. Their slogan would be, “They turned America over to the fags, now they’re coming home in body bags.” How nice. It even rhymes.
My first thought was that we’d just let them come and go in relative obscurity. Why would I want to give a bigoted, hate-filled preacher any attention? After all, that’s all he wants. Right?
This wasn’t the first time that they would have paid the Clarksville area. In fact, they’ve been here four times already. One of the more high-profile incidents was when the group picketed events that followed the tragic 1998 murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell. As it turns out, the group has held over 27,000 pickets across the country over the last several years.
I really tried. I did. My first official response was to just ignore them. They weren’t worth our attention. A reporter from The Leaf-Chronicle, our local daily newspaper, called me and asked if I was doing anything in response to the impending visit from the fine folks from Westboro Baptist Church. I told her that I didn’t think that we’d have to since their target was grieving families of soldiers.
I had no idea how wrong and right I’d be. I was content to stand by and let the group make utter fools of themselves in the comfort of my living room sofa. But then, less than half a day after I had resigned myself to staying on the outside of the events, I received a phone call and an e-mail. They were from women that represented the one group that I hadn’t taken into consideration: the Army wives.
The Army has a number of Family Readiness Groups, or FRGs, that are gatherings of families of soldiers who have been deployed. They are mostly comprised of wives (or husbands) who are otherwise home alone while the deal with family life while their spouses are overseas. They saw the sick irony of the WBC’s claim that an Army that would not even allow gays to serve would be to blame for “turning America over to the fags.”
But instead of brushing away the gay and lesbian community, they reached out to us. One of the wives had done an online search to find any gay organization they could and contacted me through the Clarksville Pride website. Another was given some information about me from The Leaf-Chronicle, and then she called me after looking up my number.
What’s more, several of the more liberal groups in town took action immediately. E-mails began circulating imploring people to take time to stand outside Gate 4 to counter-demonstrations. After a flurry of emails, I realized that we had a clear opportunity and a mandate to send a different message to the world. The Phelps picket was going to do something that no one would have thought possible: it would unite GLBT people, liberals, conservatives, Christians, Buddhists, and even soldiers and their wives. So, only would there be a counter demonstration, but I would be in the thick of it. Oh well.
As an activist, I’m always looking to build bridges and relationships with the rest of my community. The highest goal of activism is when everyone is able to interact and work together on any issue, within an environment of tolerance and understanding. I saw this as an opportunity to not only interact with unlikely allies, but to stand side-by-side with them as we honor the troops who had fallen.
Suddenly, the Westboro picket took a back seat from our focus. As I spoke with these wives, they all told similar stories. Their husbands were deployed. One woman told me a good friend of hers was killed recently. It was personal. Another said that her husband and his brother were both in Iraq.
Army wife Holly Ahrens wrote, “a small group of people would like to get together to show support in what our men and women are doing in the war against terror.” Yes, I know a lot of us are ideologically opposed to the war in its current phase. And some of my fellow liberals even objected to getting involved since all of the deaths were for a “reigning tyrant, not democracy.” Well, okay, I thought. That’s a little extreme. But it did prove the point that the rift needs to be closed.
These are my neighbors. They are my friends. They are my family. Clarksville, Fort Campbell, and Oak Grove are all parts of the same community. We’re all in this together. We had to break down the barriers. And now we had that chance.
The tone of this awkward alliance took shape immediately. “We must not give them (Westboro) any ammunition,” said Cati Montgomery, a local feminist. “I want this demonstration to remain peaceful, pro-equality, and pro-soldier.” I immediately suggested that we all get together to coordinate our efforts.
The meeting was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon at our tiny church that sits in a strip mall that overlooks the Cumberland River. I wasn’t sure who would show up. None of us were.
The room was electric with anticipation when we finally gathered. They were from all walks of life, gathered for one purpose: to show support for our soldiers and their families. Even representatives from the local branch of the NAACP took part in the meeting. “This isn’t just about gay rights,” I said. “This is about common decency. We’re here to support our neighbors and their families.”
All the while, rumors began to circulate. One report said that the Westboro permit had been revoked. There were discussions of a possible new law that could ban such protests in Kentucky. Another buzz was that they might not even show up. But we knew we had to press on.
We pledged then that we’d proceed no matter what. We left the room energized and ready to move ahead, ready to face the opposition. What we didn’t expect that we’d get the fiercest opposition from the Army.
By Monday afternoon, Fort Campbell officials had announced that Gate 4 would be closed during the picket. Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the area, Gate 4 is the primary entrance of the seven gates to the base. The last time the gates were closed was right after the events of September 11, 2001.
“Stand down,” they said to the wives. Melynda Bosch had acquired her necessary permit to stand along the strip in Oak Grove. She had literally hundreds of donated flags, banners, and $2500 in cash. The pressure was swift as it was suffocating. Army wife HollyAhrens reported that she had no less than 18 calls in one afternoon with similar demands. By Tuesday evening, Bosch had relented and announced that she would withdraw her permit. The donated money was returned. Ahrens, on the other hand, was steadfast.
I was disheartened. I’ll admit it. The idea of taking on a juggernaut like the US Army wasn’t appealing to say the least. They demanded that no one counter-demonstrate. The official request was that if anyone wanted to honor our soldiers, they could “attend the remembrance ceremony.” Local radio personalities Gretchen Cordy and Ryan Ploekelman urged their listeners to stay home. It made sense. “Don’t give this guy the time of day,” Ploekelman said. You know, he was right. Well, at least he was before this whole thing took a life of its own.
“I prayed for a sign from God for two hours straight,” Ahrens later told me. “I wanted to know I was doing the right thing. I have to do what’s right.” The divine signal she desired came from her own husband. “He called me from Iraq. He said he’d be standing with me in spirit.”
“I knew then I had to go on with it,” she said. Her strength and passion inspired me. I told her that I’d be there one way or another. She said that scores of other women initially told her that they’d “stand down.” Later, one-by-one, they started calling back. “We’re with you, Holly.”
My mind was screaming at me to stay away. My will to go on was deflated. It was Wednesday, the day that the WBC group was to arrive. I sent out a public quote to ask people to exercise restraint. Frankly, I was scared. The very army that we were trying to support had cut the heart out of our effort.
The moment of truth arrived. Just before 5:00 PM. Rush hour. I saw a few signs. They were ours. “We support our troops,” one sign read. “Remember our fallen Eagles,” said another. I stopped to say hi. They were waving and shouting. Drivers honked their car horns as they passed. “God bless you!” One driver shouted.
I left after taking a few photographs. This small group was near Gate 3, at least a mile from the “real” protest. Their passion and energy inspired me to see if there would be anyone to support us at Gate 4. I could see several police cars. Cars were backed up on the highway for at least half a mile.
There was a group lined along the sidewalk. Dozens. Perhaps a hundred or more. Again, they were friends. I drove a little further and saw that other picket. Yeah, that one. Them. I turned the car around and called Holly, who said she was with the large crowd. I told her that I’d join them.
It was then that I got a close-up view of the group that I didn’t think I’d ever see. I saw gay people, straight people, widows, families, children, liberals, and conservatives all with the same message. They were there for the soldiers; for their families. One child held a photo of his dad, a small US flag, and a sign that read, “My Daddy is my Hero.”
Even Bosch, who had said she’d comply with official demands to “stand down,” stood up in support for her husband. It was then that I realized that people like those from the Westboro Baptist Church have done far more for gay rights with their naked bigotry in one week than I could have in years. When someone sees their hate and realizes that it reflects a part of their own heart, they’re faced with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, gay people are God’s people, too.
The Westboro group came and went within ten minutes. They’ll be forgotten within weeks. But those of us who stood together in the face of such hate and bigotry will never forget the sight of so many people standing for one purpose: Love.