Students protest anti-LGBTQ group

Steven Vargas, executive director of the Queer and Ally Student Assembly, led protesters in chants of “Love trumps hate” and “Homophobia has to go” at Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. (Emily Sagen | Daily Trojan)

More than 50 students and faculty protested an off-campus Westboro Baptist Church demonstration along Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue Monday. Protesters wore rainbow-colored attire and carried signs that read “Love not hate” and “God loves.” 

Westboro Baptist, a group from Kansas known for its rallying against the LGBTQ community, picketed the Oscars Sunday near the Dolby Theater and stayed in Los Angeles through Monday to preach their message at USC and other schools in the area including UCLA, Alexander Hamilton High School and Manual Arts High School. The six church members who were not allowed to protest on campus, chose to protest the “sinful” behaviors of USC students. 

QuASA Executive Director Steven Vargas, led protesters in chants of “Love trumps hate” and “Homophobia has got to go,” as the group chanted gospel parodies of popular LGBTQ-positive songs like “Same Love” by rapper Macklemore and “Girls Like Girls” by gay musician Hayley Kiyoko, replacing lyrics with Bible verses and slurs targeting the community. 

“That’s where things are being taught: in the churches, in the schools … and it’s been wholly given over to sodomy, to fornication, to adultery,” said in an interview to the Daily Trojan Sam Phelps-Roper, an elder at the church. All of those things have become normalized, starting in the schools, starting in the churches, and it’s shameful.”

Another longtime church member,  Sam’s mother Shirley Phelps-Roper, emphasized the urgency of the protest to help save the souls of students.

“And so, what should we do?” Phelps-Roper said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “If we don’t warn you, your blood will be on our hands at The Judgment.” 

Across the street from the church protest, the Queer and Ally Student Assembly, Trojan Advocates for Political Progress and OUTreach co-sponsored a counter-protest in collaboration with the LGBT Resource Center. 

Vargas said he was impressed by the student turnout. 

“It’s so great to see everyone who is of the LGBTQ community come together for something that we all need to stand up for,” Vargas said.

Vargas, who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, said that the counter-protest empowered people whose home environments were less welcoming of LGBTQ identities and who found a community at USC.

“When we’re in our own hometown or wherever we grew up in, it’s just us, and we’re alone,” Vargas said. “Being able to stand up [to] this type of hate that we’ve lived with our entire lives together as a community is very powerful.” 

Kaitlyn King, a junior majoring in international relations, said she came to the protest to protect marginalized groups.

“It’s really important to promote positivity, because the Westboro Baptist Church is such a hateful group that’s trying to spread negativity,” King said. “We just want to be there to support the groups that they’re trying to marginalize.” 

The LGBT Resource Center held a safe space at the Student Union to provide a place to congregate for students who felt threatened by the protest.

“We offered the physical space but also the communal area where people are able to come together and just be with each other and know that no matter what, they are loved, they are cared for and that they matter,” said Blaise Guerriero, the graduate assistant of the LGBT Resource Center.

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, USC recognized the church’s First Amendment rights but criticized its message. 

“USC has zero tolerance for discrimination and bigotry of any kind,” the statement read. “Every member of the Trojan Family is treasured. We value inclusion and equity for all.” 

Two Department of Public Safety officers were present at the counter-protest to ensure students’ safety.

“There were no problems, no arrest,” Assistant Chief David Carlisle said. “DPS loosely monitored the situation, as did LAPD, but there was no law enforcement action taken or necessary.”

Participating in the protest felt personal for many students. Amelia Horney, a freshman majoring in composition, said the demonstration allowed her to better express her identity.

“I’ve felt extremely invisible because of what I look like; I’m a femme lesbian and people think that I look like I’m straight,” Horney said. “I want to make sure that everyone else feels like no matter where they’re from, no matter what they look like, [they] can feel safe to be their most authentic self.”

Onlookers expressed support for the counter-protest, honking car horns and waving at the crowd of students. 

James Witmer, a graduate student studying social work, applauded the diversity of the crowd. 

“We are accepting of everybody, no matter what your intersectionality is and your culture and who you identify with,” Witmer said. “We’re here to stay, and we accept every culture and every individual that there is.”

Natalie Lee, a senior majoring in music industry, emphasized the importance of demonstrating LGBTQ pride to the surrounding community. 

“We’re on the streets of L.A., and all of these people are passing by on their morning commutes and everything, and I think it’s important for them to see as well that we are here, we are queer,” Lee said. “We exist, and there’s power in numbers.”

Maria Eberhart, Beatrice Gao, Mia Ross and Ignacio Ventura-Maqueda Jr. contributed to this report.