“A positive way to combat hate”
Their confrontation with an anti-gay-rights activist fizzled, but the anticipation of it moved a group of 60 teen-agers to gather Saturday with a handful of adults to take a stand against hate in their community. The Peace Jam was held at a downtown Kalamazoo church as a response to the threatened protest of the Kalamazoo Central High School’s production of ‘The Laramie Project,’ in February.
“I am very happy with the turnout,” said 19-year-old Adam Taylor, executive director of Project Light, a suicide and resource referral organization in Kalamazoo. Proceeds from T-shirt sales and concessions at the event were donated to Project Light. Taylor said the event raised about $600 for his group. Final numbers were not expected until later this week.
The gathering featured local bands, speakers discussing how to combat hate and a chance for youth to connect with groups like Project Light, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and the Triangle Foundation, a lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender anti-violence group based in Detroit but serving the entire state of Michigan.
The event was put together when word was received by Taylor and others in the LGBT community that Fred Phelps and his Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and those who have died from HIV disease, said he would picket a production of “The Laramie Project” at Kalamazoo Central High School. The play is about the reaction of Laramie, Wyo., following the 1998 beating death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Shepard, who was gay, was murdered in what has been called a hate crime by authorities and Shepard’s family.
Once word had reached the Kalamazoo community that Phelps planned to protest the Feb. 22 opening of the play with his trademark signs of “God Hates Fags,” and others, Taylor and others began meeting to plan a response. Many, Taylor said, wanted to protest Phelps, but the community was discouraging that. Instead, planners developed the Peace Jam event to gather youth together to listen to music and discuss ways to combat hate in their community. As it turned out, Phelps did not make good on this threat to stage a protest.
Taylor said the group is continuing to meet and discuss further activities.
“We definitely want to keep a tap in that kettle,” he said.
Collette Beighley, the West Michigan Field Office director for the Triangle Foundation, was also in attendance Saturday night.
“I thought it was a great celebration of diversity and a wonderful way for the youth to come together and find a very powerful and positive way to combat hate in their community,” said Beighley.
Beighley said she had 60 cards supporting the Matt’s Safe Schools bill filled out at the event. The proposed law, which passed the Michigan House last March, would dictate that local school boards adopt an anti-bullying policy based on the state Board of Education’s model anti-bullying policy. The bill is hung up in the Michigan Senate, where conservative Holland Sen. Wayne Kuipers is preventing the bill from receiving a hearing in the Education Committee, which he chairs. Kuipers opposes the bill because it would include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected classes.
Both Beighley and Taylor hope the event in Kalamazoo Saturday will lead those 60 young people and their friends to attend a statewide lobby day in Lansing on March 26 to support the anti-bullying law.
“This was a good response,” Beighley said. “And if you get those same kids going to lobby day, that empowers them further.”