Dueling protests took hold of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Wednesday, as hundreds of students and LGBT allies poured onto campus to counter a planned Westboro Baptist Church rally against openly gay NCAA basketball player Derrick Gordon.
Sporting purple and tie-dye shirts, signs, and pins that read “UMass United,” students marched in support of 22-year-old Gordon, a University of Massachusetts sophomore who last week became the first active male athlete in all of Division 1 to publicly come out. Nearby, only a handful of people from the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church showed up.
Participants in the pro-Gordon camp took to Twitter to celebrate:
Derrick Gordon announced to the public that he was gay last Tuesday, two weeks after his team’s upset loss to Tennessee in the NCAA tournament. In an interview with msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell, Gordon said it was “the right time” for him to come out.
“There’s a lot of kids in my situation right now that can’t be themselves and got to hide who they really are,” he said. “I want to be the first to step up and be that leader for those people.”
Although Gordon lives in Massachusetts – the first state in the nation to legalize marriage equality – he also lives in the sports world, which has been slower to embrace gay rights. Few professional athletes have come out in support of equality or as gay themselves, despite historic gains over the last few years for the LGBT community. That trend, however, now looks to be changing. Last spring, NBA center Jason Collins, who currently plays with the Brooklyn Nets, became the first openly gay male professional athlete. And in February, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out, positioning himself to become the first openly gay player in the National Football League.
Spotting this transformation, the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church planned protests for Wednesday outside the NBA and NFL corporate offices in New York, as well as on UMass Amherst’s campus. The group published a hostile announcement on its website, godhatesfags.com:
“Today, the focus of the satanic fag juggernaut is sports. All sports, all levels (College, Professional, men, women, etc.) are in Satan’s crosshairs. Satan requires that you call fags and their burning lust for a filthy sex act, a holy thing. UMass is just the latest institution to be exposed.”
Though Gordon was certainly the inspiration behind Wednesday’s counter-rally, organizer Charlotte Kelly – a UMass sophomore – said its scope was intended to be far more broad.
“In the conception of this whole thing, we said it’s super important that we can’t let this group of hateful and ignorant individuals attack one of our peers,” said Kelly. “A huge part of why this happened was because of Derrick. But at the end of the day, this is bigger. This is about the movement.”
Students could be heard giving speeches in support of the LGBT community and chanting things like, “Black, white, gay, straight, love does not discriminate!” Kelly said her favorite part, though, was seeing a massive procession of people leaving the library to join in.
“It was one of those amazing moments that blew me away,” she said. “It was just a really symbolic and amazing picture to see.”
A spokesperson for the group MassEquality released a statement congratulating UMass on hosting such a successful rally:
“We applaud Derrick Gordon for his courage and the UMass Student Government Association for supporting him. Derrick is blazing a trail for other young athletes and men of color by embracing who he is and being true to himself. And the UMass Student Government Association is sending a powerful message of inclusion and affirmation that is fitting of the signature university system of the great, pro-equality State of Massachusetts.”