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UMass action shifts focus from protest to support for LGBT students

AMHERST — After a day rethinking their plans, University of Massachusetts students have decided to hold a demonstration in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on campus Wednesday instead of at a public intersection where they had expected representatives of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas to picket.

Westboro church leaders had sent out a message via Twitter that they planned to come to town to protest last week’s announcement by UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon that he is gay, the first such revelation by a Division 1 men’s college basketball player.

“They indicated they would come to where we are,” student Ellie Miske, coordinator of the UMass group, said in a telephone interview.

The demonstration will now begin at the Fine Arts at 11:30 a.m. and participants will march to the Student Union for a rally at noon where campus and community members will speak, Miske said.

Westboro church representatives have contacted the University of Massachusetts Police Department asking for a “safe zone” for their picket within sight and earshot of the UMass gathering, according to Miske, who met with campus administrators Monday.

UMass police could not be reached for comment.

Miske said student leaders decided a campus location would better accommodate the crowd, expected to be nearly 2,000. They also decided to take the focus off Gordon, who has not communicated to student leaders his support for a rally held on his behalf, she said. As a result, the name of the event has been changed to simply #UMassUnited.

“We want to support the LGBTQ community and show that as a university we stand together,” Miske said. “We’re here for all students.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. Caroline Meyers of South Congregational Church in Amherst said she and a few other area church leaders will hold their own silent gathering near the Westboro picketers to communicate a message of peace. She said people from her church, the Edwards Church in Northampton, First Congregational Church in Northampton, the Ashfield Congregational Church and the Haydenville Congregational Church will gather at South Church, 1066 South East St., Amherst at 11 a.m. and then proceed to wherever the Westboro demonstrators set up. She said she has been in contact with UMass police to coordinate.

“We want to be witnesses of a different kind of church in front of the Westboro church,” she said.

Meyers will be dressed as the “Christian clown,” a representative of truth and love. “We will be bringing communion and I’m going to make little fliers that talk about the symbolism of the clown and the communion because we won’t be talking,” she said.

She and others had received an email from the Rev. Steven Wilco of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, located near the campus, urging church leaders to join the UMass rally and “not engage in any way with the Westboro folks.” Meyers and the Rev. Susannah Crolius of the Haydenville Congregational Church had put the call out to their own and other parishioners to attend a rally to counter the Westboro message.

In his email, Wilco urged church leaders to participate in the UMass rally but ignore the Westboro picketers who are notorious for their virulent anti-gay rhetoric. To do otherwise, he said, “only encourages them and gets them the attention they crave.”

But after a flurry of emails and phone calls Tuesday, Meyers said her group decided to go its own way.

“There needs to be a way to express church outside of the larger university gathering knowing there is also church gathering as part of the university’s own witness,” she said. “To me personally, it felt important to be a witness where the expression of brokenness is.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, which stages demonstrations at high-profile events, is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination.

A group of Amherst Regional High School students reportedly plans to leave school at midday to attend the rally as well. Principal Mark Jackson, however, said that he had been approached by only two students. He told them to follow the proper school sign-out process if they intend to go, which requires parent or guardian permission, he said. “I have not encouraged anybody, just advised them how to sign out of school properly. Beyond that I don’t have any sense of the size or proportion of this.”

Miske said while she and two other students, Sionan Barrett and Charlotte Kelly, are the UMass demonstration coordinators, there are about 25 students involved in planning the rally. She said students leaders also met with multiple administrators Monday to come up with a cohesive plan. Those administrators included representatives from residential life, the athletics department, the Campus Center and the public relations department. “There were a lot of different people with a wide range of reactions and ideas,” she said. “Everybody was supportive of our message, but wanted to express concerns that this be acted out safely and productively.

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