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Students from Woodrow Wilson High School joined with parents and community members on Monday to hold a counter-protest to a planned demonstration by the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, which had decided to decry the school’s decision to hold an LGBTQ Pride Day celebration for the second year in a row.
The counter-protest sprang up organically after Westboro announced their plans to demonstrate outside the school. Students from the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and the Student Government Association (SGA) organized the rally via a Facebook group titled “Westboro Meet and Greet,” which, by Monday morning, had attracted more than 1,200 people who said they would be attending. Several parents and residents of the Tenleytown, Chevy Chase and American University Park neighborhoods surrounding Wilson were also in attendance, as were several politicians, including at least three mayoral nominees: Democrat Muriel Bowser, Independent David Catania, and Libertarian Bruce Majors.
School officials estimated the crowd surrounding Wilson High School to number about 1,000, dwarfing the Westboro protestors present. Principal Pete Cahall, who had come out as gay during the school’s pride event on June 4, arrived at the rally to cheers from the demonstrators. Cahall said he was proud of the students for their initiative in organizing the counter-protest, which he called a “peaceful” and “loving” demonstration that sent a message about how all people should be treated with respect. He also reflected on his recent coming out, noting that the larger community has been highly supportive of both him and of the students.
“I thought the Wilson community would welcome me with loving arms,” Cahall said. “I had a choice between coming out and having backlash, or continuing to hide in isolation and loneliness and depression. Which one would you choose?”
Cahall also declined to comment on remarks regarding his coming out that were made by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins on his Washington Watch radio show, which encouraged parents with children in public schools to pull them out, saying, “unless you’re in a district where you know exactly what’s going on in some rural party of the country where values are still embraced, you really need to think about whether or not you want to expose your kids to what’s happening in our public school system.”
Senior Tao Marwell, a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance who identifies as lesbian, didn’t even realize how deep the level of support for the LGBT community was among the Wilson student body until hundreds of students became very active in planning for the counter-protest. She said she was surprised at how quickly word spread among parents and outside community organizations like Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who either volunteered to help the students with the counter-protest or came in person to show their support. For Marwell, in particular, the event became almost a family affair.
“My mom and my sister were here,” Marwell said. “Two of my cousins are here, a family friend is here. My family has always been involved in human rights stuff, civil rights stuff. We have a long history of social action, so this was really just an extension of that. And it’s great that they’re here to support me and all people in the LGBT community.”
Senior Todd Allen-Gifford, part of Wilson’s SGA, thinks most students were supportive of the message organizers were trying to send about the importance of treating everyone equally.
“I just wanted to stand up for what I believe in, and make Wilson an accepting place for everybody to learn,” he told Metro Weekly. “This is the most I’ve ever seen our school community come together for any event.”