Outside rally, followers and foes face off

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Those waiting to hear James Dobson's message last night parked in lots above Mellon Arena and trickled toward Gate 1. Those hoping to counteract Mr. Dobson's message crowded in front of the entrance, lining both sides, creating a tunnel of signage -- in essence, one message forming the physical passageway to the opposite message.

Here, perhaps only here, the two ends of a polarizing issue rubbed against each other. Those walking into the arena saw some 150 protesters. They saw two arrests. They saw signs -- for instance, "5 Christian kids + 2 Christian moms = 1 Christian family." And then they kept walking.

Holly McCullough held a neon green poster featuring a family photograph: her female partner and their 17-month old daughter. She aimed it at those who were minutes from hearing Dr. Dobson, an evangelical and conservative activist who maintains that Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible.

"This is my family," Ms. McCullough said to those entering.

Most walked by, nonresponsive.

A few slowed and smiled.

One man stopped and inspected the family photograph. "Your daughter needs a dad," he said.

So what, then, was the value of far-apart viewpoints in proximity? Three weeks ago, when Dana Elmendorf read an ad for Dr. Dobson's Pittsburgh appearance -- a landmark event for the region's religious right -- she helped create a group of gay and lesbian, civil rights and faith groups calling itself Stand for All Families. Ms. Elmendorf realized the difficulty of generating dialogue with those entering the arena. But she eyed a different target audience: the city itself.

"It is really a symbolic stance," said Ms. Elmendorf, the region's chapter leader for Marriage Equality USA.

The group maintained its pep for one hour outside the arena, reciting chants for equality. Jeff Freedman, the area's PrideFest chair, held an Aiwa boombox, playing Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" on repeat.

Gate 1 became a gathering point for that message.

Susan Whitewood of South Fayette attended the rally with her partner, Deb, and their two daughters. They'd talked to their children one night earlier, just before bedtime, and explained why they felt this was important.

Abbey, 9, and Kaitlyn, 8, saw little discrimination in their world. "Still," Ms. Whitewood said, "we're using this as a way to educate them. And this is a big deal for us, I have to admit. We are a family based on love, and though they've felt no discrimination whatsoever for having two moms, we thought it was time to show our faces. Sometimes I think if you don't have a live person to see, it's easier to believe the rhetoric."

For several minutes, the signing and chanting gave way to mayhem. Just before 6 p.m., a band of teens and twenty-somethings -- dressed exclusively in black, and wearing fabric over their mouths -- approached the arena cursing about Dr. Dobson and fascism. Several in the group -- Pittsburgh Antifa, unaffiliated with the rally -- attempted to rush onto Mellon Arena property holding a sign. Security officers stopped the blitz, and police later handcuffed two members, arresting them for disorderly conduct.

Then, things again grew calm. The Antifa members joined with the assembly, creating an odd union of peace-preachers dressed in rainbow colors and radicals holding signs saying "Feed Dobson to the Lions."

At 7 p.m., many in the Stand for All Families Group congregated at Freedom Corner, on Centre Avenue, for a prayer vigil. Dave Schelbe, though, entered the arena. He wanted to hear Dr. Dobson speak.

Though he knew it was unlikely, he wanted to start a dialogue. Maybe he could find Dr. Dobson backstage, he thought.

"Maybe I can find a way to reach this man, and negotiate or enlighten somehow," said Mr. Schelbe, executive vice president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Pittsburgh.

"The way I look at it, if you and I can talk long enough, we might see where the other person's truth is coming from. It won't be productive if one of us gets angry."


Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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