COLUMBIA, Mo. – Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, home of the anti-gay extremists behind the “Gods Hate Fags” and “God hates the World” fundamentalist movement, on Saturday protested the coming out of Missouri football player Michael Sam outside Mizzou Arena on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia.
An estimated 2,000 students and supporters formed a “Stand with Sam” human wall blocking view of the protesters from campus.
“I came out just to stand by a cause that I think is really worthy and to show that love really is greater than hate,” said Rachel Bauer, a graduate student at Mizzou.
Sam, a former defensive end for Missouri’s football team, came out publicly in interviews last week and could become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
The 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior completed a stellar season for Missouri, which finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was named a first-team all-American. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.
“I think that it was brave and I was proud of him. I’m also proud of Mizzou because they didn’t make an issue of it. I think today was more about celebrating Michael Sam rather than anything to do with Westboro Baptist,” said Sarah Senff, also a student at Mizzou.
Later in the evening, Mizzou fans gave Sam a standing ovation at Missouri basketball game, Sam’s first public appearance since coming out.
Sam’s decision to go public about his sexual orientation came less than two weeks before the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis, an event where draft prospects show off their skills and are tested by the 32 NFL teams.
Accordingly, the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year is about to find out if America’s most popular sport, rooted in machismo and entrenched in locker room hijinks, is ready for its first openly gay player.
“The Constitution is a beautiful things,” a Columbia police officer said to passers by as he watched over the WBC clan, who held anti-LGBT signs and sang bastardized versions of songs by Carrie Underwood and others.
Based in Topeka, Kan., the Westboro church is not affiliated with the Baptist denomination or any other Baptist church. According to news reports, almost all of its members — fewer than 100 — are related to founder Fred Phelps either by blood or marriage.
The group has protested myriad LGBT funerals and is best known for protesting at the funerals of U.S. service members. The group came into the national spotlight in 1998, when it picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally attacked on the night of October 6, 1998, then tied to a fence and left to die.