Radical gay group's church protest questioned by community members

by Jessica Carreras

Click the play button below to hear an interview with Andy from Bash Back! done by Todd Heywood.

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Bash Back's flier

LANSING, Mich - While the apparent passage of Proposition 8 has caused a backlash of protests, lawsuits and outcries across the state of California, this weekend, a different kind of protest took place right here in Michigan.

On Nov. 9, an otherwise peaceful church service at Mount Hope Church in Lansing was interrupted by a protest demonstration outside the church that eventually led inside.

The protesters were from the self-described anarchist, militant, pro-gay organization Bash Back!, which has chapters in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill., Memphis, Tenn., Denver, Colo., Milwaukee, Wisc., upstate New York and Lansing. Known for their radical, anti-authoritative and sometimes violent and offensive forms of protest, they have demonstrated at the 2008 Chicago Pride Events, both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and Milwaukee Pride.

Most members are known to be in their teens to mid-20s and are LGBT.

According to the Bash Back! Web site, http://bashbacknews.wordpress.com, Sunday's demonstration was put on in response to Mount Hope Church's history of anti-gay stance, sermons and events, including hell houses, which feature images of gays and lesbians burning in hell around Halloween. "Mount Hope is complicit in the repression of queers in Michigan and beyond," they wrote on their site.

The protest included 30 members of the organization from Lansing, Chicago, Memphis and Milwaukee, who began with a demonstration outside the church. While around half of the members remained outside, several others went into the church and began screaming loudly, according to Bash Back! Other members came out from under pews where they had been hiding and dropped a banner that read "It's okay to be gay! Bash back!" Others threw over one thousand fliers into the congregation. A fire alarm was pulled and several same-sex activists kissed each other in front of the pastor.

According to Mount Hope Communications Director David Williams, the group fled after the Eaton County Sheriff's office was called. In a statement released early this week, Williams stated that "Mount Hope churchgoers were unclear as to what the purpose of the demonstration was. One churchgoer commented on the 'lack of civility' in the demonstration and said, 'There must be a better way for this group to advance their perceived cause.'

Bash Back! Lansing member Andy (last name withheld by request), who lives in a house on the east side of the city known to be inhabited by members of the group, was clear about the purpose of their protest. "Debrainwashing the youth - that was our main goal," he said. "... . We were raised in evangelical churches like that one, or even that one for some of us. We wanted to target the youth there and, in the most effective way possible, tell them - at least plant the seed that it's ok to be queer. That its ok to come out."

Andy agrees that the group's name is violent, but refused to answer whether protesters were prepared to become violent at the Mount Hope Church event on Sunday. "Direct action makes people nervous, just like direct confrontation makes people nervous," he said of the reaction to Sunday's protest. "This is the group who won't let people get away with that. This church actively teaches hatred. It actively teaches organizing to brainwash queer people back into the closet, ruining their lives and ruining their families. And we're not going to stand for that. We're not going to stand by and just talk about how we don't like it - we're going to go and actually do something about it."

Williams responded to the group's statements about the church by explaining that "the church does not attempt to identify as anti-homosexual, anti-choice, or right wing."

However, Williams said the church does believe homosexuality to be a sin, and that it advocates helping "sinners" to change their lives.

Some in the LGBT community, while disapproving of Mount Hope Church's stance on homosexuality, also condemned the actions of Bash Back!

"While Alliance of LGBT Students disagrees with Mount Hope's hurtful stance that homosexuality and transgenderism are sins, we categorically condemn the actions of BashBack! which not only disrespected the congregation, broke the law and put people in physical danger, but are also not beneficial to the LGBT movement," said Michigan State University Alliance Program Director Justin Lippi.

Metropolitan Community Church Rev. Mark Bidwell agreed. "While I don't agree with what that church teaches or preaches, they are still a church and I have to have a respect for that," he said of the protest. "What I'd rather see happen is to be able to go and talk to the pastors of that church, talk to the congregation in a peaceful way and let them know that all we're seeking are the basic rights we should be entitled to."

Rev. Bidwell pointed out that though their actions remained mostly non-violent, they caused chaos that could have led to injury. "Some of the things they have done, like pulling the fire alarm - people could have been hurt," he chastised. "I think the fact that they could have stood there inside the church - maybe in silence - could have meant as much than some of the actions that they took."

Bash Back! has been known to speak out against peaceful gay activists, claiming that their actions are conforming to a hetero-normative society.

To Rev. Bidwell and others, the actions of Bash Back! are harmful to the LGBT community, fueling the fears that many anti-gay believers already have about gays and lesbians. "I believe in the peaceful protest," he said. "I believe in what Martin Luther King and Ghandi and Jesus taught us that to use violence any time, I think, is wrong. To destroy property any time is wrong. The idea that this reflects on our community can be harmful for us because all that does is it makes people more afraid."

Additional reporting by Todd A. Heywood.

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