As the infamously caustic and anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church prepares to descend on Philadelphia next week, thousands of people are planning to fight hatred with love.
The Kansas-based church has announced plans to picket the afternoon of July 26 outside the Mazzoni Center, a mainstay in the community that provides LGBT health care services and counseling. But through the work of two friends, patients and employees will feel safer behind the Great Wall of Love.
Tyler Lynch and Christopher M. Whibley organized thousands on Facebook to form a literal human wall, blocking Westboro Baptist’s messages and cameras from patients entering the center. More than 1,200 people have RSVP'd the Great Wall of Love, during which counter-protesters will carry umbrellas or wear angel wings to further obstruct views of the center.
Lynch said that he and Whibley would be merging with another Facebook-organized counter-protest Tuesday evening.
"This was started by two gay men,” Lynch said, adding that it’s a predominantly trans* issue (the asterisk denoting an umbrella term for all identities within the gender identity spectrum). "So tonight we’ll be forming a board that is majority trans and turning it over to the trans community."
"I just don’t have that perspective," he said. "We said, ‘Maybe this is something that’s best led by a trans committee,’ so we will take a step back."
In all, Lynch estimates about 4,000 attendees, based on Facebook counts. But he said he’d be happy as long as there’s more people on their side than on Westboro Baptist Church’s.
"Anything we can do to reflect their sound and block their visuals, we’re absolutely encouraging," Lynch said of the umbrellas and angel wings. "What we’re not encouraging are signs that are religious based, that have hateful messages."
"If we can be louder than Westboro Baptist, that would be great," he added.
Love is the hallmark of the group’s message. Rather than engaging with Westboro Baptist in a violent or hateful way — which, they say, often sparks lawsuits from the church — they just want to be a singular message of love for the trans* community and protecting people from the church’s message.
Will Harrell, a 29-year-old patient at Mazzoni receiving transgender services, has an appointment that day, but won’t be intimidated by the church. In fact, he’ll be part of the wall, too.
"[When I was first transitioning], I know that it was very hard to hear any negativity toward my transition,"Will said. "Even nowadays, it’s very hard.
"My family knows about me. They’re not supportive, but they know about me. So I just want to show everybody else that may not be as confident or open about it as I am that there are people out there willing to help them, that are willing to shield them from this hate group."
Meanwhile, Mazzoni has warned its patients and offered to reschedule any appointments for that day.
Westboro has announced protests in the past, only to not show up after getting extensive publicity for the church and its views.
Local businesses, including Tabu Nightclub, Igloo Desserts, Saxby’s Coffee and Walgreens, will be providing water, lunch and snacks to Mazzoni employees and protesters on both sides.
Lynch said attendees will also include LGBT allies, families and children and members of clergy from various denominations, and the Freedom Band, which will play songs to drown out Westboro Baptist’s chants.
"Thishatred is not how you have to live," he said. "If you are religious, your god doesn’t have to be a hateful god."