PHILADELPHIA—Westboro Baptist was running late. Beth McGuinn was not.
"I'm a patient at Mazzoni, they've provided my hormones for the last couple of years," McGuinn, in a tie-die dress that matched the colors of the "Love Wins" signs being passed around, told me. "They're life savers. I don't want anybody hating on them because they're essential to our community."
The Mazzoni Center is the only LGBTQ health center in the city, and on Tuesday afternoon, its sidewalk was crowded with people laughing about the heat and sarcastically wondering when Westboro, the Kansas-based hate group, would finally show.
While they waited, volunteers handed out water and song lyrics. Some people held up "Trans Rights are Human Rights" signs while others had Westboro-style poster boards—all clashing primary colors—mocking cheap toilet paper ("God Hates Single Ply") and condiment choices ("God Hates Ketchup on Hotdogs") resting at their feet. (Editor's note: This latter sign was wrong.)
By now you know Westboro Baptist Church and you know what it does. They show up, they hold up their signs, and they shout. Then they pack up and go home.
Their protest style is incendiary, and their targets are meant to wound—the group has picketed funerals, including a recent service for a victim of the Pulse massacre—but their blink-and-you'll-miss-it style of protest has also garnered them a reputation as a kind of fly that needs to be batted away more than anything else.
In contrast to anti-LGBTQ organizations like Focus on the Family that have an extensive funder network and the ear of many members of Congress, Westboro spends most of its efforts on its cross-country excursions. It's a tactic that has both established its notoriety while also turning it into a politically marginal sideshow, even among conservative anti-LGBTQ evangelicals.
"This protest will come and go," Mazzoni's CEO, Nurit Shein, told me. "We're here, day in and day out, doing the hard work."
Which is why so many people turned up to join the "wall of love."
"It is asinine to come to a place where people are receiving healthcare and much needed services and protest it," said Niecee X, who was in from Dallas representing the Black Women's Defense League.
Tom Hall, one of the angels whose towering "wings" obscure the Westboro signs, had turned up to show gratitude for the center's health initiatives and its presence in his own life. "Through the free testing initiatives I've been able to protect myself, I've been able to protect my partners," he told me. "Just the fact that they're here gives me an option and an outlet. I know I can go somewhere that I'm safe."
"When you start out transitioning you're anxious, just worried about what anybody thinks of you," McGuinn told me, smiling behind her mirrored sunglasses. "But you walk in those doors—it's just a feeling. You feel like you've found home."
Westboro did eventually turn up. A group of them marched down an adjacent street while the sidewalk and street in front of the Mazzoni Center spilled over with people singing and playing instruments. But they just kept walking. Even the cops seems mystified as to why they didn't stop.
But Westboro's showing wasn't even close to the sea of people holding space and celebrating around Mazzoni. Home team advantage and all that.