On Sunday, ODU Professor Cathleen Rhodes’ Queer Studies class took to the streets of Norfolk. Not for protest, but for a walking tour of more than a dozen sites that have played a role in the city’s LGBTQ history.
Little did they know that they would end up claiming a tiny piece of that history for themselves.
For the better part of this semester, students in Rhodes’ class have been researching the gay history of locations as The Garage, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and The Naro Cinema. Yesterday, 35 of them boarded two shuttles and stopped at 14 locations where students shared what they had learned with the group.
The tour left ODU at 1:15 PM for their first stops along Granby Street in downtown Norfolk. From there, they proceeded to the Unitarian Church at The Hague.
As they unloaded, they spotted five protestors along the seawall. One was holding a large sign that read “Homo Sex Is Sin. Romans I.”
“We rounded the corner and saw them from a distance,” said Dr. Rhodes. “I was very surprised, and I thought, could this be for us?”
The group continued to the church for student presentations on the steps. Inside, a memorial service was underway, and a church member had been stationed there to make sure the protestors didn’t interfere.
“We tried to do one presentation on the steps, and the student soldiered through with the protestors drowning her out,” said Rhodes.
Beth Brooker, a 53-year old who audits Dr. Rhodes class, already knew that the protestors were directing their hate towards them. “It was obvious that they had been waiting for us,” she said. “And to myself I’m thinking, yes, what a teachable moment for these kids, they’ve never experienced anything like this.”
She and several other students walked over to the protestors to confront them. Some took pictures with them, flashing peace signs and smiling.
Beth even spoke with one. “I was having a quiet conversation with him,” she said. “It was my normal conversation with those kind of people, confronting them with their version of the Bible versus mine, and asking if they really thought that the Bible condoned hate.”
“Then I asked him, do you have a permit? ‘Of course we have a permit,’ he told me, and I said good, because I’m going to call the police.”
Brooker made that call while the church volunteer invited the group inside to a private classroom where they could finish their presentations without interruption.
“This space is your space,” he told them. “This has always been a safe space for all.”
When they finished, the police had arrived, the protestors had disappeared, and the remainder of the tour went on without incident.
“We kind of thought that’s over and done with, finished the tour, and headed back to campus,” said Rhodes. “Then the driver of our lead vehicle radioed our bus to tell us the protestors were waiting for us at the Webb Center on campus.”
Fortunately, campus security was on site and provided a safe barrier between the group and the protestors while the final presentation was made.
Afterwards, one of Rhodes’ students commented how shocked he was that events like that still happen. A few also expressed that this was a new experience for them.
“It was disturbing to them, especially the straight ones, that our community is still subject to this form of discrimination and hatred. At the same time, I think they felt the enormity of it and were able to, for the first time, understand first-hand what it feels like.”
In the end, Rhodes expressed the pride she felt in her class and the work they put into the tour.
“Their presentations were so well researched and presented,” she said. “And when confronted with hatred, they didn’t blink. They just kept on going.”