Assembling ‘Great Wall of Love’ as bulwark against bigotry [video]

As demonstrations go, this one was more party than protest: There were stilt-walkers and flag-wavers, roving musicians who got people dancing, and even a naked woman wrapped in an American flag.

Hundreds of people created a “Great Wall of Love” Tuesday afternoon outside the Mazzoni Center, a Center City health care provider serving the LGBT community, to counter picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based group infamous for protesting at soldiers’ funerals, stomping American flags, and denouncing gays.

For an hour, it was like a big, happy gay pride party — until four women from Westboro showed up at Eighth and Locust (the closest they could get to Mazzoni on the crowded sidewalks) and broke out signs with slogans like “GOD H8S TRANNIES” and “REPENT OR PERISH.” The women had jammed American, gay-pride, trans-pride and Israeli flags in their waistbands and set up a speaker to play music and sermons.

While most Mazzoni supporters stayed put outside the clinic to shield patients and staff from their tormentors, a few dozen beelined to the Westboro group to confront them, and a dueling shoutfest ensued.

“You can become a tranny, but Grandpa Tranny won’t become a granny!” a Westboro woman sang at the top of her lungs, to the tune of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.”

Mazzoni’s supporters drowned her out with chants of “Leave! Leave! Leave!” and “Get out of Philly!”As tensions grew in the summer swelter, police officers on bicycles formed a barricade between the Westboro picketers and Mazzoni supporters.

After nearly an hour, the Westboro picketers walked to their car, still behind a moving barricade of bicycle cops separating the two groups until they drove away.

Before they left, Westboro member Jael Holroyd said she was thrilled to see the Great Wall of Love.

“It’s a big arrow to us, saying look at these signs of the Gospel, which thank God for that,” said Holroyd, 31, whose grandfather Fred Phelps started the pickets 25 years ago. After leaving Center City, Holroyd and her Westboro colleagues took their signs to FDR Park, where they picketed outside the Wells Fargo Center. They plan to return there for an hourlong picket Wednesday morning.

But Mazzoni’s supporters refused to allow Westboro to claim victory.

Countering intolerance with silly signs

Craig Simon, a gay man from West Philadelphia, brought a trans-pride flag and asked supporters to sign it. It’ll hang in Mazzoni’s lobby as a ongoing reminder of the community’s love and support for trans people, he said.

Other supporters got creative in their signs, spoofing Westboro’s notorious “God Hates Fags” motto with slogans like “God Hates When the Bus Is Late,” “God Hates the Schuylkill Expressway,” and “God Hates Stepping in Dog Poop.”

“This is a really strong (LGBT) community in Philly. It’s not a Westboro Baptist Church kind of town. So I’m not surprised” at the crowd of supporters surrounding Mazzoni, said Rachel Betesh, 33, of West Philadelphia.

Betesh works as a registered nurse at a city abortion clinic, where volunteer patient escorts shield patients from protesters every week. She joined the Great Wall of Love to return the support.

“I have no patience or tolerance for hate like that,” she said. “It mostly strikes me as like insanity.”

Many in the Great Wall of Love were Mazzoni patients who credit the staff there with saving lives in a vulnerable community often targeted by public scorn.

“I don’t know where I’d be without them, not just with their physical support but their emotional support,” said Victoria Miller, 58, a transgender woman who transitioned four years ago.

Isabelle Nicole Herman, 40, a transgender woman from Allentown, agreed: “I thought I was a freak years and years ago. I called the Mazzoni Center, and they saved my life. I consider this place my church.”

Stefan Hoimes, 28, a transgender man from West Philadelphia, joined the Great Wall after stopping at Mazzoni for medical care.

“I grew up in an immigrant family, and being queer, being trans, in a family like that, I almost killed myself several times before my 18th birthday, before I moved out, and I still don’t really have any contact with my family. They don’t want to have anything to do with me because I’m trans,” Hoimes said. “So I’m really thankful for the community I have here in Philly.”

Mazzoni is the largest LGBT health care provider in Pennsylvania, with about 12,000 patients (2,000 of whom are transgender), said Dr. Robert Winn, Mazzoni’s medical director. It’s grown so much since its founding 35 years ago that the center will move, merging its two locations into a twice-as-big facility at Broad and Bainbridge, next July, Winn said.

“We know we’re very supported by the community, but seeing everybody coming out to help protect the safety of our LGBT, particularly our trans, patients, is just a wonderful thing to see, particularly on a day when so much hate is being spewed,” Winn said


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