July 26, 2016
It was presented as a battle between love and hate, and hate was outnumbered by at least 1,000 people.
So, when the quartet of Westboro Baptist Church protestors finished their Wednesday afternoon performance outside the Mazzoni Center, they walked three blocks amid a police-bicycle detail to their BMW.
They were jeered the whole way to Jewelers Row (NSFW video).
“You’re a f------ hate group,” yelled Paul Nguyen, U.S. Marine sergeant who traveled from Haddonfield, New Jersey to support the counter-protest’s Great Wall of Love. “We go over there and fight for you, and this is the s--- you f------ pull? You use your rights that we gave you for this?”
He was not alone. Others urged the foursome – which came to rally against a center that offices services to transgender clients – to leave the city and state.
The Westboro protesters were asked why they keep coming out to face this reaction.
“Our job is to come out and preach the gospel unto all the world, like Jesus Christ said,” responded Rebecca Phelps Roper. “We’re preaching it, and it’s effective. Whether it condemns you or causes you to come to repentance, it’s not our call. It’s God’s call.
“He’s going to cause them to know they’re abominations. This is a nation that loves their abominations, and the Mazzoni Center is famous for sodomite abomination, and now transgender. What we’ve accomplished today is doing the work of God.”
That message didn’t sit too well with Shay Trask who, when the foursome tried to pull out of a Jeweler’s Row parking spot, stood in the middle of Sansom Street, middle finger raised while holding a “Trans Rights = Human Rights” sign.
“I’m here to support our brothers and sisters, and I’m so happy about the response of people who came here to show support and love for everybody." – Sheila Rose Love
“Why am I standing here? They’re against my kind because they’re a bunch of hateful bigots,” Trask told PhillyVoice while walking backwards in the street. “I oppose everything they stand for.”
After the BMW made its escape, Nguyen – a 28-year-old whose family emigrated from Vietnam – reflected on what had just happened.
“My brothers and I did not go over there to fight and die for people to do this in our country,” he said of two tours in Afghanistan. “Everybody deserves to be happy. Everybody deserves their own individual thing. That’s what America is about. ‘God hates fags? God hates troops?’ When did America forget it's America? The United States is not about hate. It’s a melting pot. We take everybody in. We fought over there so everybody could be happy.”
That pursuit was a sideshow that lasted about five minutes.
For more than an hour leading up to it, the north side of Locust Street between Eighth and Ninth was a spectacle of love in the name of protecting and supporting the transgender community.
Counter-protesters held signs that, in the style of Westboro’s, read “God Hates Warm Beer,” “God Hates Potholes,” “God Hates Broken Shoe Laces” and “God Hates the Schulykill Expressway.”
They danced to a horn section reminiscent of those on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans.
They walked on stilts and spread their arms to expose butterfly wings.
They sang – hundreds and hundreds “of all ages, of all genders, and even a puppy” strong – songs including “Stand By Me,” “Let It Be” and “Beautiful.”
There was joy and togetherness brought together when word spread that Westboro planned to protest here.
They were peaceful and, but for a few dozen counter-protestors who chanted as the Westboro members tried to spread their message and gave chase as they left, didn’t engage.
In fact, many of those who’d assembled didn’t even realize they were there during the revelry.
“I’m here to support our brothers and sisters, and I’m so happy about the response of people who came here to show support and love for everybody,” said Sheila Rose Love, a transgender protester who was stood with Beth McGuinn, a 60-year-old who said “I’ve only been Beth for four of them.”
Love continued that she wanted to drown out the sounds of hate – not at all audible down the block from the corner where Westboro stood, for what it’s worth – to reiterate that the transgender community is to be feared “because if you love us, we will love you back.”
Not far from the duo, which sported colorful dresses and held pink-and-light-blue flags, was organizer Deja Lynn Alvarez who impored participants not to engage with the Westboro crew.
“We need to show everybody that Westboro Baptist Church is filled with hate,” Alvarez said. “And we want to show the world that we’re not perverted or hateful. We’re going to show the world that the LGBTQI community is a community of love, and no one, including the Westboro Baptist Church, is going to drown that out. Just keep the love coming.”
It’s that message that inspired West Philadelphia’s Craig Simon to bring a blue and pink flag and a couple Sharpies so attendees could sign “The Great Wall of Love 2016” symbol.
“I came to the Mazzoni Center today to show how it loves people, and we love it back. As you can see, a lot of people do,” he said, unfurling a flag that already featured hundreds of signatures.