The fight will be taken to the streets on Nov. 19th and 20th, in a struggle in which neither side wishes to throw any punches. In one corner are members of Fred Phelps’s anti-gay Topeka, Kansas Westboro Baptist Church congregation. In the other corner are members and allies of the University’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The confrontation is over the contemporary play “The Laramie Project,” which is being performed by University students Nov. 19 and 20. Phelps, a controversial religious leader, and his congregation have a history of protesting the play nationwide and other events that support the LGBT community.
“I want (our representatives) to tell people that it’s not O.K. to be gay,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, who is Phelps’s daughter and the church’s attorney. Past demonstrations included messages such as “God hates America” “God hates fags” and other anti-gay messages.
The Laramie Project, which will be performed in Mendelssohn Theatre, depicts the events leading to and following the murder of Matthew Shepard, allegedly killed because he was gay.
The demonstrators are scheduled to picket outside the performances of the play and at four local churches that they say they feel preach improperly.
Phelps-Roper would not confirm if Fred Phelps himself would attend the protests, but did mention that she expects 15 to 20 people from Westboro Baptist Church to participate in the protest.
In 2001, Phelps and his followers protested outside the Aut Bar, a gay-owned Ann Arbor bar and restaurant.
Members of the University LGBT community have decided not to take the issue lying down.
Several weeks ago, various organizations in the LGBT community as well representatives from other organizations like the Michigan Student Assembly and the Department of Public Safety, met to form a coalition called Organizing For Unity, and worked out plans for a response to the anticipated demonstrations.
OFU has several action plans ranging from a fundraising effort, with money pledged for every minute that the Kansas congregation protests, to holding hands and forming a physical boundary between the protesters and the public.
But the primary goal is to sell every seat for the performance productions, said LSA sophomore and Stonewall Democrats Co-Chair Jaya Kalra.
Arrangements have also been made for a Peace Team. This group of about 30 people will receive 8 hours of formal training by the Washtenaw Faith Action Network, to mitigate any tense situations and to ensure that the day’s events will remain violence-free.
“I really come from a place where to witness injustice and do nothing is injustice served,” said Gabe Javier, a Rackham student and OFU organizer. Javier affirmed the importance of the plans and said he believes that an action of this type will help build a community atmosphere.
“There’s some disagreement as to whether we should be out there,” Kalra said. Some people in attendance at the first OFU meeting felt that no action should be taken because it would only draw attention to the protesters present.
The last time Phelps’s followers were at the University, they protested an Office of LGBT Affairs sponsored kiss-in in February 2001, but Phelps was not present.
Even though it is unclear as to whether Phelps will attend this time around, Kalra said she doesn’t believe it makes a difference in the big picture. “It’s the same people preaching the same kind of intense hatred,” she said.
“I hate that he comes at all, I hate that he has such an inflammatory message,” Javier said.
Addressing the accusations of being extremists, Phelps-Roper said, “I don’t give a rats tu-tu what they say.”
Phelps often receives criticism because of the intense nature of his demonstrations – even from members of the religious community.
Michael Ryan, Pastor of King of Kings Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, shared his insight about Phelps’s standing in the Christian community. “(Phelps) does not speak for 99.999 percent of Christians. Hopefully its even higher than that,” he said.
King of Kings is one of the four churches that Phelps’s crew will protest at, and Ryan suspects it may be because the church belongs to the Evangelical Churches of America – an organization that has views on human sexuality that conflict with Phelps’s.
Though they are still deciding, at this point the church has no plans for a direct response.
“It seems that (the protesters) really want publicity, we don’t want to feed into that,” Ryan said. Despite this stance, Ryan does hope that as many local churches as possible sign onto a public statement addressing the issue of the scheduled protests.
Javier said that members of OFU hope that their efforts will have positive effects on the community and assert that the University is not a place which will tolerate hate. “We’re organizing for equality, were organizing for unity,” he said.