How to Respond to Public Displays of Bigotry

By Jared Hammer on October 6, 2017

When we’re faced with ignorance, intolerance, and hate, it can be hard to find the best way to respond. If you’re like me, being confronted with public displays of bigotry results in an impulse to respond in anger. I’m reminded of a time I gave in to that impulse.

The very man I yelled at during the Montana Pride parade of 2011.
[Photo from my own collection]

I was 18 years old and participating in my first ever LGBT pride parade in Montana. I had never been surrounded by so many LGBT people, and I was basking in the love and sense of community that was so new to me.

But then a man came out to disrupt our celebration with a sign that read “Jesus saves from Hell.” As he began preaching homophobic brimstone and Hellfire from a megaphone, I lost my cool. I responded with my own hatred, yelling obscenities and lewd insults at him. I was furious he would bring such discriminatory rhetoric to our celebration. I was young and ignorant of the ways of social conflict. Consequently, I embarrassed myself and the people I came with.

From that bigoted man’s eyes, I’m certain my response was a mere confirmation of why he thought LGBT people belonged in Hell. I allowed this man’s negativity to infiltrate a day of peace, love, and unity. Thankfully, others at the parade knew better than to feed into this man’s hatred. Shortly after my outburst, the bigot exclaimed, “Jesus condemns the homosexuals” and a woman from the sidelines responded with “Jesus loves everyone!” We cheered and instantly the mood was lightened. In that moment, I saw firsthand the difference between responding with hate versus responding with love. Hatred moves us backward. Love brings us together.

A few weeks ago, I was walking to class to find a group of students gathered around a man preaching religious doctrine mixed with messages of hate towards Jews, homosexuals, and I suspect, a handful of other targets. On our campus, as I’m sure is true on college campuses across the nation, this happens at least once a semester. I was annoyed this man was speaking, but I was more annoyed at the students gathered around watching.

“Why are you guys giving him a platform?”

I stated the question rather than waiting for a response and hurried my way to class. My sentiment was that if we took away his audience, if every single person disengaged from this hateful message and altogether ignored him, he’d see his efforts as pointless and hopefully leave.

I realize that the vast majority of students watching the event were merely curious onlookers, and not necessarily buying into the messages being spoken. However, curiosity, just as it killed the cat, also kills any chance of shutting down bigotry. While I chose to ignore the offensive rhetoric, even openly questioned onlookers for paying attention, my actions (or lack thereof) didn’t change anything that day. I encourage people to ignore public displays of bigotry, for at the least this decision doesn’t feed into the hate. But if you really want to shut hatred down, it requires a bit more action.

After I had passed by the scene that day, a fellow classmate took the scene over. When Tim Osen found out there were religious zealots attempting to spread hatred and homophobia, he decided to assert that he, and the LGBT community he stands for, didn’t feel intimidated by the words of a few small minded men.

At the same time, he was an effective distraction from the scene. Donning a flamboyant outfit, complete with staggering high heels, Tim simply danced, smiled and laughed. It takes courage to be yourself in the face of hatred, something other students picked up on and respected. Seeing Tim inspired fellow MSU student, Baillie Eichenwald, who said:

Tim Osen strikes a pose in front of angry religious zealots. The crowd I saw earlier that day, is shown diminished into a small handful of onlookers. The sign to the left reads, “If we ignore them, they might leave.”
[Photo shot by Elizabeth Marum]

“I realized that as this man stood above us calling Timothy an attention seeking satanist, his words of slander did not stem from his ‘connection with faith’ and being a ‘chosen disciple of god’ but his intimidation of Timothy’s self confidence, and self love which existed without a need to follow a higher power.”

I wasn’t there to see Tim perform his unique protest, but I heard about it all over campus. The repulsive message the religious demonstrators had tried to send, was completely overshadowed by the man dancing in heels to Beyoncé. In the process, he inspired others to stand up and speak out against bigotry.

You don’t have to be able to dance in staggeringly high heels to shut down bigotry. What’s important is to be confident and not allow hatred to intimidate you. From there, find a way to provide a distraction.

I’ve seen students bring instruments and play music alongside demonstrations like this. Sometimes, somebody starts singing a song, and before long, the majority of the crowd joins in, successfully drowning out the voices of oppression. Not a singer, but have a Chewbacca costume from Halloween a few years back? Put in on and hold a sign that says “Jesus loves the Wookiees.” You can really go as absurd and creative as you want, or you can make a serious statement that contradicts the bigoted message.

It doesn’t matter much what your method of distraction is, but make sure it comes from a place of love or humor rather than anger. If you’re not going to respond in a positive and meaningful way, don’t just stand by and watch. Doing so only gives them an audience to spread their ideas. You can either be a part of invalidating the situation, or you should move along and ignore it. In these situations, your idle attention makes you a part of the problem. But if you can counteract bigotry, like Tim did, you can actually make a difference.

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