By becoming the face of homophobia, the WBC inadvertently helped make being anti-gay look terrible. Now that they are protesting pro-pot legislation, could they hurt the anti-marijuana cause?
I rode two and a half hours through a snowstorm on December 29 to Pueblo, Colorado, to see the Westboro Baptist Church picket at two marijuana dispensaries. The hate group was in town to protest Pueblo County becoming one of the first in the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, inspiring 400 counter-protesters to come out in opposition.
Before arriving in town, the WBC had announced its plan to also protest outside of Marisol Therapeutics and Pueblo West Organics, warning us all that "God Hates Your Sorceries (Drug Trade!)." So there they were: Six lonely WBC sign-wavers at Marisol, the first demonstration site, guarded by a team of cops who stood 30 yards away. There were also 25 to 35 marijuana supporters who held their signs, pretended to puff on novelty-sized fake joints, and shouted obscenities. The counter-demonstrations were a hysterical circus of costumes, props, jokes, and laughter. The general sentiment among the pro-weed people was that if Westboro has become anti-pot, then full legalization must be around the corner.
"They're making disapproval of cannabis look silly, just like they did with being anti-gay," said Kayvan Khalatbari, owner of Denver Relief Dispensary and Consulting, who was dressed as a chicken at the Marisol dispensary. (Khalatbari runs a small publishing company that is putting out a novel of mine, and was also my ride to the event.) "They aren't a threat to marijuana. The cannabis side is mostly joking around and belittling their cause."
Westboro Baptist Church began picketing in the early 90s, a time when it was more socially acceptable to be openly homophobic. Through their tenacity and media moxie, WBC would go on to become the most recognizable anti-gay organization in the world, with every TV news story about sexual bigotry containing a clip of their iconic "God Hates Fags" signs. And it was these aggressive and offensive efforts that also helped rally progressives to fight for gay marriage.
At the same time, however, Westboro wasn't the threat to gay rights that people like Tony Perkins or the National Association for Marriage were, because traditional marriage conservatives hated the WBC—who also picket military funerals—as much as they hated liberals. (Fox News host Sean Hannity once called the church "mean and sick and cruel.")
That such a despised group became the public face of homophobia arguably helped the cause of marriage eqaulity.
"There were a complicated set of factors that lead to gay marriage acceptance, but extreme opposition groups were definitely one of them," said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at CU Denver. "Taking an extreme position on social issues can backfire and mobilize the opposition. You'll get more attention than a moderate position would, but it has a cost of credibility."
The campaign for a legal and regulated marijuana market is still miles behind the fight for sexual equality, which is understandable considering it doesn't have the same moral urgency. Marijuana legalization also doesn't have a recognizable and ubiquitously hated villain, someone advocates can point to and say, "Hey, look at this dipshit, you don't want to be like him, do you?" Which might be where WBC could lend a hand to the marijuana movement. They certainly galvanized the pro-pot crowd last week.
Despite heavy snowfall and below-zero temperatures, people came from all over to show their opposition to WBC's stance on weed. Comedian Andy Juett drove the 112 miles from Denver to Pueblo to film a comedy sketch at the protests with stand-up comic Ben Kronberg. "If they're going to take on marijuana, they're going to create a whole new set of enemies that they didn't have before," he told me.
Even older people suffered the cold to make sure their message was heard, like 62-year-old Wendy Moore. The medical marijuana patient who suffers from chronic back pain and resides in Pueblo said to me, bluntly,"They're a sorry group—they suck."
Ironically, the WBC presence in Pueblo also caused even more people to buy and consume weed. At the second protest site, Pueblo West Organics owner Randy Russell offered all of the counter-protestors a 30 percent discount for the day, giving the event the communal air of a holiday. Russell said that while he wanted nothing to do with a hate group like the WBC, he had to admit that their anticipated arrival was publicity. "The fact that they're protesting here is bringing customers into our store."
For whatever reason, the Westboro Baptist Church never made it to Pueblo West Organics for their second scheduled protest.
"Maybe they had enough?" wondered Russell.
For the sake of the marijuana movement, I certainly hope not.
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