Commentary: NC Pride attendee recounts his recent experience with anti-gay protesters
[Ed. Note — It may very well be fall, but here in the Carolinas, Pride season is still in full swing. Two weeks ago, our guest commentator Jason Yonce had the chance to visit the NC Pride Fest and Parade in Durham. His thoughts on anti-gay protesters appear below. It's a great discussion that might be just as relevant for upcoming festivals like this weekend's Winston-Salem Pride and the nearby Atlanta Pride as well as next weekend's SC Pride. Enjoy.]
This year’s Pride season started for me in Washington, D.C., and New York City, but peaked when I had the opportunity to attend NC Pride in Durham on Sept. 29 for the first time in several years. Having grown up in the far reaches of Western North Carolina, getting to observe the blossoming of several community Pride events during my absence has been an encouraging sight.
Some people were not as encouraged. Open Door Baptist Church in Easley, S.C., launched their website a few years back with the flame-spitting splash page, “The sodomites have come out of the closet and the churches and preachers have went in them.” Pastor Randy Bryson led his men (they were all male) to the curb outside Duke University’s East Campus and waited for crowds to gather.
The men brought a megaphone and their Bibles and preached about the sin of homosexuality despite pouring rain, declining temperatures and an audience of parade-goers comprised largely of university students who were either antipathetic toward them or ready to debate them on intellectual grounds.
The protest signs included phrases like, “God’s love will not save you from hell”and, “Gay pride is why Sodom was fried.” There were also rehashings of the bogus correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia and homosexuality and neglectful/abusive fathers. It was homophobia’s greatest hits collection. This type of hatred was familiar to me from my upbringing in a similar church in Western North Carolina as a teenager. In a sense, I was facing the same hatred I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I decided I wouldn’t only stand near the protestors, but right in the middle of them.
Bryson’s attendance, as far as I’m concerned, was predictable. From what I can tell this isn’t the first Pride parade he’s attended. I’m jealous because I think he’s been able to attend more Pride events than I have this year. One protester unaffiliated with Open Door Baptist Church told me he had even been to New Orleans a few weeks ago. This was presumably during Southern Decadence. My reservations to Decadence were cancelled due to Hurricane Isaac. Life is just not fair.
Reactions from parade-goers were mixed. Across the street in the parking lot of Mad Hatter bakery a group of men emceeing the parade blared loud music and taunted the protesters. “What was that? We can’t hear you!””God loves everyone? Thanks!” Others flipped off the protesters or made some other derisive gesture. Then there were the handful of queer theologians who approached them quoting scripture and challenging their interpretation of the Bible. These exchanges were perhaps the most intense. The last, but certainly not least, were the campus atheists who dismissed the protesters like itinerant sidewalk preachers.
I don’t stand in judgment of any of these approaches. Surely the protesters expected nothing less. I think this is not only what they expected but desired. Their rhetoric was intentionally inflammatory. “You do stuff my dog wouldn’t even do.” “You’ll never make a baby that way.” To put it plainly, the protesters came not to save souls or to persuade parade-goers of the error of their ways — they came looking for a fight. They drew inspiration from Bible verses painting God as a battling warrior. I am speaking, of course, of the hateful protesters. The reasonable and calm ones were certainly roses among the thorns.
So, what was my approach and why do I think it’s the best one? Immediately, I decided my tone would be non-confrontational. If they were looking for a fight, then they were likely prepared to have one. Debating either the hateful or reasonable protesters was an exercise in futility. Both groups were well-scripted and well-rehearsed. They used a shotgun method of debate that doesn’t allow for much interruption as they overload the discussion with too many points to be covered at once. Unless you forcibly interrupted them you never got a word in.
Ultimately, it was much more fruitful to show the protesters kindness and to use non-confrontational questions. In the absence of any notion of kindness any display of it toward them left them bewildered. This isn’t entirely unexpected if you’re thriving on confrontation. The only way to penetrate the scripted hatefulness is to force them to acknowledge your humanity and to turn their own sense of guilt and shame against them for using hurtful language toward someone being nice to them and “merely asking questions.”
Visiting this bigotry for the first time in 10 years, I reacted in a way that my 18-year-old self wouldn’t have recognized. Expecting them to acknowledge my humanity requires me, and I think all of us, to acknowledge theirs. I reached this conclusion kicking and screaming. It required more than just accepting their First Amendment right to be there, but to accept that many of us, at some point, have espoused beliefs that were contrary to reason and perhaps even inhumane. Seldom are we persuaded through debate to change our inhumane or illogical opinions because, for some reason, these seem to be the most stubbornly held opinions in the human brain. We have to visibly see our wrongfulness. Being confronted by an intellectual or vitriolic opponent, for whatever reason, strengthens our resolve to be right no matter what.
It’s important to point out here that in engaging with the protesters, I didn’t appear to sit on the fence or edify uninformed and bigoted opinions. There was no “agreeing to disagree.” Once I jokingly told an Anglican friend of mine that I should start a Youtube-based Westboro Baptist Church parody except it would be “Westboro MCC” or something similar and in this universe the signs would read “Homophobes in Hell” and “God Hates Bigots.” My friend told (or maybe reminded) me that you can’t fight hate with hate. As cliché and hackneyed as that sounds to us in 2012, it is still as true as it ever was. Unless you’re working from as well-rehearsed a script as they are, you will never match wits with them on a noisy and crowded street no matter how well you think on your feet. By employing civility and kindness you can avoid appearing assimilationist, avoid the appearance of “agreeing to disagree” and, perhaps most importantly, you can avoid getting baited into a blood pressure-raising shouting match you will never win. : :