Dealing with Anti-Gay Protesters at NEPA Pridefest

Image Credit: silentwitnesspa.org

This weekend, members of the NEPA Freethought Society, a local community group of non-theists, attended NEPA Pridefest in order to show solidarity with the gay community, have fun, socialize, and most importantly engage the anti-gay protesters who were bound to show their faces. Instead of ignoring the protesters, like others do at these events, I felt it necessary to engage the protesters in order to mainly distract them from interfering with the event and the event-goers and quiet their voices. I find the tactic of engagement far more beneficial than ignoring. Despite this, we worked alongside with and respected the authority of the Silent Witness Peacekeepers at the event who escorted people into the event, maintained peace, and did not engage with the protesters.

Before NEPA Pridefest, I discovered that many anti-gay protesters attend these events in order to provoke people and file lawsuits if someone was violent toward the protesters. Before Pridefest, I attended an express orientation given by the Peacekeepers in order to learn what their role was, more about the protesters, and how to handle the protesters. One of the main parts of their code of conduct, though, was not to talk to the protesters, so I could not be a Peacekeeper at this event. Regardless, I respected the authority of the Peacekeepers at this event and worked side-by-side with them.

When the protesters — a group of teens and young children, a relatively quiet adult male, and two very vocal adult males with a sound system and some sort of horn — arrived, NEPA Freethought Society members observed them and asked the leader of the Peacekeepers if we could engage them, but we were told to wait and see what happens (and we respected that). The two vocal adult males with the sound system were saying all sorts of nasty things about homosexuals and, among many other phrases, was preaching and saying that we [everyone at Pridefest], in our pride, are elevating ourselves about God, rejecting God’s truth, celebrating sin, turning people away from God, etc. After about five to ten minutes of this, both of their sound systems failed and the vocal males approached the NEPA Freethought members including myself and wanted to chat. The leader of the Peacekeepers gave us the nod.

One of the most interesting discussions I had with one of the protesters was regarding the problem of evil. He gave most of the usual responses and some really bad infrequently mentioned responses. I argued that one cannot properly reconcile an omni-god with the current state of the universe and mostly focused on natural evil. When I told him that the world would be a better place without natural disasters, his defense was surprisingly that I can’t know that because I am a finite being and do not know more than God, perhaps God has reasons for this. This defense mainly fails because an omni-god, if he exists, is all-powerful and could accomplish these reasons without natural disasters. He also argued that God has the authority to take life away and him doing so is always just. This defense also fails mainly because this doesn’t give a reason for natural disasters and even if this were true, people need not be devastated by natural disasters.

Another interesting discussion was about Biblical prophecy and “the law of compound probability.” One of the protesters said that so many prophecies in the Bible have come true and this is why we know God exists; the chances of all of these prophecies coming true is really slim, therefore the Bible must be inspired by God. This argument mainly fails because he is cherry-picking the Bible (there are many predictions that did not some true), the person is liberally interpreting [vague] passages, and many of the ‘prophecies’ are not prophecies. Regardless, even if prophecies came true, this doesn’t demonstrate that the moral teachings in the Bible are true or even that a specific god exists.

In what might have been about an hour and a half, standing in pouring rain and going back and forth with the anti-gay protesters, NEPA Freethought Society members effectively distracted the protesters, quieted them, and had an interesting discussion. It was obvious that their positions would not change and we did not expect this, but we had fun discussing and accomplished our goals. Eventually, and unfortunately, the leader of the Peacekeepers asked me and the other NEPA Freethought Society members to withdraw from the conversation because she believed that we were drawing crowds, keeping the protesters there among other reasons. After we left the protesters, they were ‘back at it;’ they continued to harass people, be very loud, and even started following people as they left Pridefest. Once again, people were angered and the protesters were undeterred by people who were engaging them.

It is obvious that I disagree with the tactics of the Silent Witness Peacekeepers, but I respected their authority there and believed they did a great job. Peacekeepers escorted people into the festival with their big umbrellas, encouraged passer-bys not to get violent, distracted peoples’ attention away from the protesters (at least somewhat), and served as a security team of sorts. Both the NEPA Freethought Society and the Silent Witness Peacekeepers effectively dealt with the protesters. Just because I preferred engaging the protesters does not mean that their tactics were ‘wrong’ and just because Peacekeepers did not prefer engagement does not mean that the NEPA Freethought Society’s tactics were ‘wrong.’ Here, we see multiple ways to effectively accomplish a goal and both sides do not have to be at odds.

The Peacekeepers have more experience than NEPA Freethought Society members in ‘working’ events like this (we’ve never, to my knowledge, dealt with anti-gay protesters), but our members have lots of experience as far as debate/argumentation is concerned. We could have gone back and forth with the protesters for hours, but we were asked to withdraw from the conversation. Working together with the Peacekeepers and offering what the other group does not have to offer, we were effective as a team. Some people, in previous discussions, unfortunately, ‘don’t get it’ and think that people who disagree cannot get along, but this was far from the case in this situation.

I also had some other major disagreements with the Silent Witness Peacekeepers. Their website, for example, says that confronting the protesters is “clearly useless” and that the protesters are “impervious to logic.” During the express training, this sentiment was echoed along with the common sentiment of “those who do not have a position based on logic are immune to it.” While this might be the case with some people, it certainly is not with all. Many former evangelical ministers and ‘hardcore fundamentalists’ are now activist atheists who have performed a ‘cognitive 180.’ One conversation probably won’t change someone’s positions (and this is never a goal of mine, for it is very naive), but a conversation may plant the ‘critical thinking seeds’ and might embark someone on the journey to reason.

The ‘audience,’ too, can always greatly benefit from the conversations with protesters (there were multiple Silent Witnesses recording the exchanges for everyone’s safety). Perhaps it was the case that those recording never heard responses that I had given to the protesters and may, in the future, use my responses or further research. My discussion was not only limited to discussion about homosexuality; I talked a great deal about God and morality. The other obvious benefits of confronting the protesters, as I mentioned, were distracting them and quieting them.

The Peacekeepers were happy with the NEPA Freethought Society members and thought that we handled the protesters really well. None of us got angry, threatened the protesters, levied personal attacks, or raised our voices. Passer-bys, security, and the Peacekeepers gave us kind compliments. It was great to work with the Silent Witness Peacekeepers…and although we disagreed in the matter of tactics, we were effective as a team and hopefully made the Pridefest a better place for all who attended.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Stephen Albert

    Justin, as I may have mentioned on Facebook, that was great work on the part of the Freethought Society. For the life of me I will never understand why some would choose to ram their beliefs (especially those that basically scream hatred) down the throats of others. Gay…straight…who the hell cares!! It’s not as if ONLY gay folks were allowed to attend Pridefest. Hell, they even invited me, but alas, I am enjoying a week of vacation.It’s ironic that in this instance more compassion was shown by the atheists than the religious crowd.

  • Long ago have I discarded the idea that religious people, by default, are more compassionate than the non-religious. This default idea needs to go away :)

  • GCT

    “It’s ironic that in this instance more compassion was shown by the atheists than the religious crowd.”Why is that ironic? Being religious is no guarantee of compassion or virtue. And being irreligious is no guarantee of a lack of compassion or virtue.

  • JDCurtis

    I’ll dissect this overly self-congratulatory and self-patronizing example of flower-power run amok later.In the meantime J-, might you check out my entry from today (Tue) and put to use some of the knowledge you (might have) gained from your chosen field of study?

  • JD, would you protest a gay pride fest?

  • JDCurtis

    Thanks for the mention on Facebook (I guess).But it was my understanding that you had studied psychology and I wanted you opinion in reference to the topic on the relevant thread. If you have the time.

  • Just because have have pron does not entail that porn causes terrorism. A vast majority of people, at least in the United States, watch porn and we don’t see a significant amount of terrorism.

  • JDCurtis

    Thank you for taking the time to answer. However if I am reading your reply correctly, perhaps I did not articulate my position clearly enough or you did not sufficiently read that which was posted. Because the overly simplistic equation porn=terrorism is not at all what I was trying to convey.

  • JDCurtis

    In restrospect J-, I just reexamined the thread I asked your opinion on and the following points were quite clearly brought up.A. “Pornography is not a necessary or sufficient cause for terrorism,..yet pornography now appears frequently in the possession of violent terrorists and their supporters”B. The statement “There [is] was a need to study the impact of pornography on those who use it, particularly on those who also become obsessed with extremist ideologies” is made.C. The hypothesis “Could it be that the greater the wedge pornography use drives between an individual’s religious aspirations and the individual’s actions, the more the desperation escalates, culminating in increasingly horrific public violence, even terrorism?” is raised.D. I specifically asked “Could pornography be a major contributing factor that helps desensitize the attacker and dehumanize the victims in Jihadist attacks?”F. I again reiterated the point raised in the cited article by writing.. “I wouldnt say that pornography is THE contributing factor here, but I would hypothesize that it is one of several”.G. Your response only refers to undefined, generic “pornography” and yet I specifically stated “We’re not talking about your father’s pornography here where an air-brushed, topless woman is held up as a thing of beauty representing the feminine form. ..I am positing that the repeated viewing of violent pornography, degrading pornography, child pornography and pornography depicting beastiality is decidedly NOT outcome neutral and an indication that a person who repeatedly engages in such activity DEFINATELY has a problem.”How anyone of even modest intelligence with an alleged college degree in Psych. could have actually read the entry and came away with the idea that the main idea was an overly simplistic porn=terrorist is quite puzzling to say the least.Then again this is hardly suprising. Especially since this analysis comes from a blog in which the successfully argument that the early party leadership of the NSDAP skewed disproportionately homosexual (butch as opposed to femme) is somehow dumbed down to the mildly retarded interpretation that gay=Nazi and is uncritically accepted by all.

  • GCT

    Apparently, in JD’s world:Pakistani = TerroristWhen people in the US look at porn, it’s to uphold the feminine form as something to be reveredAll porn that terrorists look at is not similarly nice and is violent by natureThe NSDAP rounded up other gays to weed out the ones that were too feminine because they were the butch gays that hate those limp-wristed other gays. Oh, and they were flaming liberals too who have passed down their nazi ways to the liberals of today who want nothing more than to kill and or imprison all conservatives so that they can look at porn all day and commit acts of terror…or something.JD, you’re a real piece of work.

  • JDCurtis

    1. Never remotely made this assertion and this is a lie to state that I did.2. Did not state this. Lie number 2.3. 3 for 34. 4 for 4Have group sex sessions warped your ability to think to the point that you only offer up such lies as these?

  • GCT

    1. Your post depends on it. You take a study that shows that Pakistan has the highest rate of searches for certain porn queries and then go on to talk about how terrorists are the way they are because of violent porn. Not a lie.2. When it is pointed out to you that red states/Xians have high porn search rates, you say that that’s different because they are looking at (paraphrasing) ‘Daddy’s photoshopped images of naked women that uphold the beauty of women.’ Not a lie.3. Your argument is that terrorists look at violent porn and that helps them to be violent. Not a lie.4. When you tried to paint the Nazi movement as run by gays, I pointed out that they rounded up gays too. Your reply was that the Nazis were butch gays that hated the feminine gays and were rounded them up. Not a lie. You also have paranoid delusions about liberals wanting to round up all the conservatives. Not a lie.”Have group sex sessions warped your ability to think to the point that you only offer up such lies as these?”And, here’s the icing on the cake. I point out the ridiculousness of your arguments and you call me a liar, but then you turn around and just make things up out of thin air and apparently you’re fine with that. Like I said, you’re a real piece of work.

  • JDCurtis

    1. Is it you belief that Pakistan is NOT a hotbed of Islamic terrorism? Did I notpoint out repeatedly that this is a possible factor and not THE factor?

  • GCT

    Not all terrorists are Pakistanis and not all Pakistanis are terrorists. Your willingness to lump them together as all one group is one more indication of your bigoted views. (And you claim we never present any sort of evidence.)