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Clash at the Center [17 December, 2009]

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Things became quite intense at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N.  Halsted, when five members of God Hates Fags (GHF) “also known as Kansas’ anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (headed by the Rev. Fred Phelps) “showed up December 13 near the facility before a forum was scheduled to take place.

According to Leslie DeMonte, director of the center’s special events and volunteer services, the staff only heard about the proposed appearance of God Hates Fags at 3:30 p.m.  the day before.  The center was due to host a discussion, “LGBT Change Is Coming,” and GHF was supposed to be making an appearance in order to protest the event.

The church group was met with more than 100 counter-demonstrators who rallied to the center’s support.  GHF was scheduled to show up outside the building at 1:45 p.m., and a crowd of supporters began marching outside the building at 1:30.  Chants ranged from “Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s got to go,” to “Gay, straight, black, white, same struggle, same fight.”  At 2 p.m, five GHF members were seen standing at the corner of Halsted and Addison, outside the Lakeview police station.  They held up signs that said, “Fags doom nations” and “Mourn your sins,” among others.  Instantly, Center supporters marched up to the group and surrounded it, shouting, “Bigots!” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away.”  A few held up a giant purple banner to shield the signs from pedestrians and traffic.

The GHF contingent included two very young children, a boy and a girl.  As the counterdemonstrators chanted, the boy and his accompanying adult left, leaving only the girl with two women.  One of the supporters began screaming, “Child abuse!” and others relentlessly shouted at GHF to go away.  After about 15 minutes, the three went into the police station, escorted by police.

Many of the counterdemonstrators clearly considered the event a success.  However, there were mixed feelings about the presence of the children.  Counterprotestor T.  J Houlihan said that “It’s incredibly sad [to see children being used in this way] .  We keep seeing [religious fundamentalists] preach family values, but hate is not a family value.  They’re here under a pretense of religion and God.”

This was GHF’s second appearance in less than a week.  On December 8, five church members stood opposite the Democratic National Committee (also President-elect Barack Obama’s transition headquarters) at 233 N.  Michigan, with signs that depicted Obama as “The Beast” (antichrist).

Jon Trott, of Jesus People, the lone counterprotestor, stood on the opposite side of the street with a sign that said, “Gays Are Our Neighbors.”  He was concerned about the group’s use of religion: ‘they’re cartoon theologians.  I don’t want to return hate with hate, but I certainly hate their message.”

“Change is coming” forum

The specific object of the Westboro Baptist Church’s protest was an afternoon discussion, “LGBT Change Is Coming,” that immediately followed the demonstration.  The event was billed as an opportunity for the community to  areview the current LGBT policies of President-elect Obama and provide constructive community feedback via the format suggested by the transition team,” according to the agenda.  This meant two hours of approximately 20 community organizers, leaders of nonprofits and LGBT elected officials speaking for two minutes each on the issues of concern to them.

Nearly 70 attendees listened as James Madigan, incoming executive director of Equality Illinois (in place of Amy Bloom), spoke about adding sexual orientation and gender identity to current hate-crimes legislation.  Jean Albright of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network talked about the effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell while Lynn Johnson of the Chicago Foundation for Women addressed the need to improve clinical research on microbiocides and eliminate “abstinence only until marriage” programs.  Jack Pevenstein and Earl Battles of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders) spoke of the urgency of services and training focused on LGBT elderly, while Shannon Sullivan of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance called for policies inclusive of gender identity in Chicago public schools.

A concluding session featured LGBT elected officials like State Rep. Greg Harris and Cook County Judge Mary Colleen Roberts giving advice on enabling concrete legislative change.  Harris pointed out that the vast majority of LGBT issues were local, needing action on either the state or county level and being outside the purview of the president’s office.  Like others on the panel, he pointed out the importance of making elected officials accountable for their promises.  Deb Mell, the recently elected 40th District state representative and sister-in-law of embattled Governor Rod Blagojevich, was scheduled to appear but was instead represented by her spokesperson, Leah Pouw.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 17 December, 2009

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