I wrote this one year ago. A year later, I encountered the same group of people that brought hate to my campus before. As I process the experiences I had today, I'd like to reflect on last year's events.
It's easy to simply be a bystander, watching on and choosing not to intervene. It's safer, less stressful, but it doesn't drive change. Standing still doesn't push the movement forward. Staying quiet doesn't let them know what they're saying is self-righteous bigotry. Looking away only prevents you from being unable to look me in the eye when you're questioned about your passivity. Stepping in and speaking up can be terrifying but it's necessary; without people on the front lines, what matters most to us fades quietly into the distance.
If you're familiar with the bystander effect, you know that it is a psychological phenomenon that explains people's unwillingness to step in in certain situations. I witnessed the bystander effect yesterday. I watched hundreds of students stand still or just walk by as a group of middle-aged men told LGBTQ+ people that they were "going to hell" and that women were only meant for "submission and quietness." These men had traveled an hour to my college campus to preach what they called "God's truth." I was on my way to class and followed the sound of yelling to the middle of campus.
On the steps of the education building, there was a balding man yelling at a group of students opposite him, Bible in hand and voice booming. At one point, a brave group of students stood in front of the man and blocked his view every step he took. I'll admit, fear overtook me for a moment and I considered just getting to class early as I had planned. As I watched this man yell horribly homophobic things to my peers, I knew that wasn't an option. I joined the protest for as long as I could, chanting and making my presence known before I had to get to class.
Clearly, homophobia does not rest because these men were still on campus an hour later when I walked out of class. There were more protesters and the men had scattered to opposite sides of the building with their signs, each surrounded by protesters. I joined the group, this time with more anger and the intense desire to let these people know that we weren't going to accept any of what they were spouting off as our reality. With people like this, there is no room for reasoning. When there are people who firmly believe that your existence is "evil" or a "sin," there is no rational thought possible that will persuade them to think differently. Our best course of action was simply to be loud and advocate that our space had no room for bigotry.
Admittedly, I did not respond with the "love not hate" attitude that people so often encourage in the face of sheer ignorance and hostility. When dealing with these kinds of people, I do not find it to be as effective. I believe in love, I spread love but standing there in front of those people, I just wanted my voice to drown out the nonsense they were spewing. I shouted about how their "message" was untruthful, how it was rooted in hate. I yelled at them to leave, to throw their homophobic and sexist signs in the trash where they belonged. We, as a group, chanted that "Gay is OK" and waved every pride flag as high as we could. And for a moment, I felt safe with this group of people that I didn't know personally; the fact they were there told me everything I needed to know about them.
Reflecting on this now, I realize how unfair this entire situation was. A group of grown men invaded the space of thousands of college students and proceeded to harass them. College age students shouldn't have to deal with such a great amount of hate in a place where they're meant to feel safe. Despite this, I applaud the resilience of the community and their ability to make the situation a little lighter. It felt odd in the midst of such chaos but there were numerous times that I found myself laughing when fellow protesters made jokes out of these men. There was a person that sat on the steps next to where one of the men was "preaching" with a sign that said simply, "You are loved." Another person stood next to the building with a sign advertising free hugs with a plethora of rainbows decorating it. And as we finally got these bigots to leave, a transgender student got up on those same steps and thanked everyone for fighting for acceptance, a pride flag tied around them like a cape.
That brave soul didn't choose to be a bystander. I didn't choose to be a bystander. Hundreds of others didn't choose to be bystanders. And as I think about this, one thing continues to resonate with me. At one point, I overheard a police officer tell a student that if we would just "leave them alone and not give them the public outrage they want, it'd be fine."
Almost instinctively, I immediately responded. I told him that just letting this happen without any consequence wouldn't solve anything and it would only let these men continue thinking that their bigotry would be accepted. I told him that this fight is much bigger than what was happening at the moment. He only offered me a small shrug. It may not have meant much to him but it's the only message I am trying to get across. Passivity may be the safer option, the quieter option, the less disruptive option but it's not the only one. You have a choice.