Saturday, October 2, 2010

Making a Difference: Silent Witness Peacekeepers

In past posts, I've talked about the need to take constructive action when faced with destructive fundamentalism. I want to take this opportunity to give a shout-out to a wonderful organization that has done just that: Silent Witness Peacekeepers.

In Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley region (as in many other places), homophobic fundamentalists often protest at LGBT events, holding anti-gay signs and preaching forcefully about the "sin" of homosexuality. Obviously, these spiritually toxic messages can be very disturbing to attendees, for whom LGBT events are supposed to be safe spaces. Silent Witness Peacekeepers was founded in 2006 to act as a "human spiritual firewall" between fundamentalist protesters and attendees at LGBT events in central Pennsylvania. Bedecked in neon vests and holding rainbow umbrellas, Silent Witnesses position themselves between protesters and visitors to help visitors feel safe and to show solidarity with the LGBT community.

What is remarkable is that these volunteer peacekeepers respond to hatred with patience and maturity. Silent Witnesses are trained not to engage fundamentalist protesters in any way, including through speech or eye contact (hence the name Silent Witness Peacekeepers). At Susquehanna Valley pride events, it's amazing to see peacekeepers standing quietly between attendees and protesters, maintaining grace and poise while nearby protesters spew hateful rhetoric. I suspect anti-gay protesters get VERY annoyed when they can't get a reaction out of their targets -- and when they can't feed on the emotions of others, they quickly deflate.

While I have no statistics to back this up, anecdotal accounts I've heard indicate that fewer anti-gay protesters have been showing up at central Pennsylvania LGBT events. I suspect that this is due to the presence of Silent Witnesses, who prevent protesters from intimidating their usual prey. I can confirm that attendees at LGBT events feel safer with peacekeepers present, which is important for the LGBT community's morale.

In short, I want to give a warm THANK YOU to Silent Witness Peacekeepers for supporting the LGBT community, standing up to homophobic fundamentalists, and demonstrating courage and patience. With luck, the program can be a model for similar organizations across the country.

To learn more about the Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance, visit their website. You can also watch this news video about their deployment at Judy Sheppard's speech in Reading, PA, in anticipation of a (cancelled) Westboro Baptist Church protest.

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