Preachers stood out on the corner of Gaskin Avenue and Wiggin Street last Saturday to speak against Children’s Storytime at Gund Gallery. The demonstration intended to condemn the College for introducing children to concepts of LGBTQ+ acceptance and understanding.
This is the preachers’ second demonstration this month. The first protest happened on Feb. 1, and led to controversy when one of its participants used his phone to take video recordings of young children attending Storytime. Parents were concerned by the man recording their children without permission, and a Gallery associate told the man to leave.
Children’s Storytime invites the Gallery’s “youngest art aficionados” to come and listen to stories that relate to the art on display. This semester’s Storytime events have complemented the Gallery’s Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. exhibit, which showcases artwork by queer Chicanx artists and their collaborators from the 1960s to 1990s.
Protestors handed out pamphlets condemning Storytime to passersby. Eric Vincent ’22, while walking to Wiggin Street Coffee, received a foldout pamphlet that targeted one of the books being read at Storytime.
“I just wanted to walk by and read their signs or something. I had no intention of talking to any of them,” Vincent said. “Unfortunately, I should have been more prudent in my plan because they obviously wanted to talk to people.”
The books read at the last Storytime, which took place on Feb. 17, were I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. The stories encourage acceptance and understanding of different gender identities. The pamphlet handed to him targeted I Am Jazz, an illustrated children’s book about a transgender child based on the real-life experiences of LGBTQ+ rights activist Jazz Jennings. The pamphlet accused I Am Jazz of presenting false information and being potentially harmful to children.
“I guess he thought I was receptive enough where he thought I would use the link on the pamphlet — I didn’t,” Vincent said. The pamphlet provided a link to “www.ibelongAmen.com,” a ministry-run website denouncing the LGBTQ+ community. “I had a little giggle at the website name, but that was about it,” Vincent added.
A counter-protest formed, comprised of a group of Canterbury Kenyon members, Jewish Chaplain and Director of Hillel Marc Bragin, Assistant Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) Timothy Bussey and a number of other students. Before any of them arrived, however, Chaplain and Priest-in-Charge of Harcourt Parish Rachel Kessler ’04 had taken to the path.
“We believe it is important for our kids to understand how to treat all people with respect,” Kessler said. “It’s important for them to understand that not everybody, for example, identifies as a boy or a girl. Just because they are defined one way at birth may not be how they end up identifying as they grow up, and that’s okay.”
Kessler saw the protestors arrive while working inside Wiggin Street Coffee. After watching the protestors set up on Middle Path, Kessler left the coffee shop to get a whiteboard from the Church of the Holy Spirit. She wrote “God Loves You! No Exceptions” on the board and sat across from the protestors. Kessler wanted people to see a contrasting message of unconditional acceptance and understanding.
“I know seeing people like these protestors or other Middle Path preachers can be deeply hurtful,” Kessler said. “It is important for them to see and know that someone is standing up and saying, ‘No. You don’t get to define what you think of as sin. You don’t get to define who is acceptable to God.’”
Students have documented the counter-protests on social media channels, broadcasting their response to anyone online—including President Sean Decatur. He commended students and faculty for the ardent response to the “Middle Path preacher” demonstrations.
“Making a visible and vocal statement for the positive values of love and acceptance is certainly a position I support,” Decatur said. “From what I can tell, students handled it well.”