Guilford affirms LGBTQ community: Memories made, lessons learned

On November 18, three members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-LGBTQIA
hate group from Topeka, Kansas, picketed across from Guilford College. In response, Friends Center and Quaker Studies Director Wess Daniels worked with the College’s Department of Public Safety, Justice and Policy Studies Department, and Greensboro’s faith-based communities to create a “Barrier of Love” at the entrance of campus.

More than 200 people created this human wall, including members of the Guilford
College community, alumni, multiple faith-based and advocacy organizations and even a heavy metal band. All stood with their backs to Westboro Baptist Church protesters on the other side of West Friendly Avenue. According to Daniels, the Barrier of Love was aptly named, “The Barrier of Love was a real barrier in which you could not see them,” he remarked.

Daniels said that the morning began with a worship meeting in Dana Auditorium’s Moon Room before transitioning to the Friends Center, “The room was packed out, it was so cool.”

All participants were instructed to line up along the Guilford College sign with their backs to the picketers from Westboro Baptist Church,with the sign serving as the midpoint of a human chain from New Garden Road to West Friendly Avenue. During their half-hour response to the Westboro Baptist Church protesters, “Barrier of
Love” participants sang songs, reunited with old friends and made new ones.

Amid this community building, there was the “Parasol Patrol”, who opened rainbow umbrellas in front of the Guilford College sign, a Care Bear offering hugs and a hooded heavy metal band from Appalachian State University playing on Levi Coffin Drive.

Sophomore Harper Reese, who was part of the Barrier of Love, appreciated its role in
combating the animosity of the Westboro protesters. “It was a well-measured response toWestboro Baptist Church,” Reese said. “Their main goal is to make money by suing us and responding to their hate with our love is a good way to counteract that.”

Christian Matheis, Visiting Professor of Justice and Policy Studies, praised the event. “It matters a lot that many or most of the people who participated in the counterdemonstration came from the surrounding community,” he said.

“Oftenwhen there are people engaging in hate speech or attempting to provoke
marginalized groups, it’s those groups that have to go out and do the counterdemonstration. It’s students, or people who already feel vulnerable in some way, who have to go do it.”

Matheis described the Westboro protest as “a public display of self hypnosis. It could
not matter less to them whether anyone suddenly feels fascinated by their agenda; they appear to go through something cathartic,” he said. “They just like how they feel when they do it. They like how they feel when they do it in public. Beyond that, it had no substance.”

According to Matheis, Jermaine Thomas, Director of Public Safety, approached Justice
and Policy Studies for advice on a collective College response to the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence. “The advice we gave was that local faith and religious leaders and organizations should take the lead on a counterdemonstration, that (advice) was taken,” Matheis said.

“The other piece of advice was that this campus needs regular know your rights/informed activism trainings for students and that was not provided.”
Matheis noted that this concern was brought to him by a first-year, first-semester student and was dismayed about what that implied.

“We have career administrators and career faculty and career staff. Demonstrations, know your rights and informed activism are not new to higher education; why did it take a first-year student in their first semester to point that out?”

While acknowledging the success of the event, Matheis identified room for growth, “The advice given to organize local religious and faith leaders to do the accomplice and ally work ended up in great success, 200-ish people attended. The rest of that educational opportunity was missed.”

“We have to do better, whether it is because of an incident or an event,” he said.

Following the Barrier of Love event near the Friends Center, Guilford College’s Student Body Association held a “Love and Identity” event in Founders Hall, where multiple student organizations gathered to host activities designed to foster community among Guilford students. Guilford PRIDE offered flags and buttons representing different sexual orientations.

The Women and Nonbinary Student Association (WNBSA) gave students materials to make vision boards and Hispanos Unidos de Guilford (HUG) sponsored an activity allowing students to give and take positive affirmations that were personally delivered to whoever they wanted. Heart-shaped cookies and water also were available across from the Founders Information Desk.

Sophomore Tara Hall, President of WNBSA, said that the events were created, “just to spread positivity since we had the counterdemonstration this morning.”