Fred Phelps is dead. I don’t know whether to dance or be sad or not care.
Here’s an essay I wrote back in 2009, recounting my experiences counter-protesting the Westboro Baptist Church
“God Hates Fags.”
That phrase is one of Westboro Baptist Church’s most familiar slogans. As an atheist, I can’t say that the words themselves mean much to me. Still, there’s nothing quite like seeing the motto printed in bold letters on a colorful sign being held by a 6-year-old boy. Ultimately, it’s not the words that matter; it’s the hatred.
The Westboro Baptist Church (or WBC) was founded in the 1950s by Fred Phelps, a lawyer who focused primarily on civil rights cases, in which he defended African-American clients. Phelps was disbarred in Kansas after he used a lawsuit to pursue a personal vendetta against a court reporter, calling her a slut on the stand, and accusing her of a variety of sexual acts. In 1989 he agreed to stop serving in Federal Courts as well.
Phelps has used the WBC to protest what he sees to be the many wrongs in America today. The Church gained national attention when they protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard. To this day, they continue to protest at productions of The Laramie Project, a play about Shepard’s death and its effects on the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. WBC protests regularly at gay and religious events, and most notably, at the funerals of U.S. soldiers who have died serving in Iraq since 2005.
When the WBC announced that they were scheduling an afterschool protest on November 2nd at Hazelwood Central, a high school just north of Saint Louis, to preach against the school’s Diversity Alliance, my partner, Evan, and I decided to attend a counter-protest. It was the first day of a weeklong vacation for the two of us, and we’d left the afternoon open, specifically for that purpose.
When we arrived, there were only about a dozen people milling about. The sun was high, the sky clear, and the air warm. It was a beautiful afternoon. “If God hates us so much, why does he always give us such beautiful weather for our events?” a man asked.
At first, traffic was light. Occasionally, someone would honk as they drove by. “It’s hard to tell if the people honking are supporting us, or…” I said, not wanting to think about the alternative.
“I just react the same, no matter what. I give them a peace sign,” said the woman next to me. She was in her late 60s, and wearing a bright red hoodie. Beside her was a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap that read “Vet.” He wore a tiny cross around his neck and was waving a small American flag. Later, his son joined him. Both were veterans. The WBC had protested at the funerals of soldiers that the son had served with in Iraq. Someone offered the father a rainbow flag. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’ll stick with God and Country.”
We watched a young woman approach. She was wearing bright colors, giant sunglasses, a half-dozen oversized bracelets, and white angel wings. “I got out of class for this,” she said. “My teacher said she’d give me extra credit for coming.”
After standing around for half an hour, someone said: “They’re here.” We all looked down the street. The anticipation was strange. The Westboro Baptist Church, after all, are almost celebrities, if there are celebrity hate-mongers. This was kind of a big moment for me, like seeing Pat Robertson or Mel Gibson in person. Still, we knew that Fred Phelps himself wouldn’t be present. Apparently his age keeps him from hitting the streets as often as he used to.
The first thing everyone noticed was how few of them there were: seven people altogether: three adults and four children. This was, for me, the moment where the legend of the Westboro Baptist Church crashed into the reality of the Westboro Baptist Church, and the legend did not survive. It’s hard to be intimidated by a group in which the children outnumbered the adults.
By this time, the crowd on our side was about 50 people, and continued to grow. The WBC set up across the street from us. Each of the adults held two or more signs. Their signs were varied, as though there were simply too many things to protest. There was the aforementioned “God Hates Fags,” followed by “Fag Enablers,” which had an illustration of two men. They were drawn in the style of the figures on bathroom signs commonly used to indicate gender. Here, one of them was bent over waiting for the other to penetrate him. They had a sign that read “Bitch Burger,” with a picture of a hamburger, only the meat had been replaced with a baby. One depicted Obama’s head with fetuses floating all around him. One woman wore a shirt that read “Jews Killed Jesus.” Another had a bloody American flag tied around her waist. It dragged on the ground, where she stepped on it as she paced.
There were a couple of guys standing near us. Evan helped them hold up one corner of a white sheet that they had brought with them. The white sheets symbolize peace and unity. They’re also good for blocking out the WBC, like a real-world “censored” bar.
The guy at the other end of the sheet was bald, wore a wifebeater, and had a good sense of humor. “Obama looks like Hellboy,” he said of a WBC sign that depicted Obama with long, curving goat horns. At one point he turned his head to avoid having his face photographed. “I called in sick to work,” he explained, holding up a police badge.
His partner was dressed for a day at the office and had a full beard. At one point his partner told us, “We’re married.”
“Oh? Where at?” Evan asked. There are only so many places gay men can get married in this country.
“Here,” he said. “We tricked the system.”
“I’m transsexual,” he said. “My driver’s license still has an ‘F’ on it.”
“That’s awesome,” Evan and I agreed.
As it got closer to the time that school let out, traffic began to increase. The air was steadily punctuated with the sounds of honking horns. Short, staccato bursts and long, blaring tones. In between the horns, we could hear the members of the WBC singing, although it was hard to make out their words.
Despite the fact that we had come here to counter-protest and witness the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, the afternoon was unexpectedly inspiring. The number of people who showed up to support our side was incredible. The fact that the overwhelming signs of support from passersby, in the form of honks, waves, and peace signs, aimed in our direction was completely unexpected. Of the few hand gestures aimed at the WBC, several were less than supportive. Drivers who honked and raised a middle finger were always rewarded with a round of applause from our side. We were there to be peaceful, to show love and support. It was nice when someone else could express our true feelings for us.
When it came time for school to let out and the buses began leaving the parking lot, students leaned out of windows shouting and waving. Smiling. A student tried to run down and join our group, but was turned away by the police. Instead, he returned to the group of students on school property who’d organized in a protest of their own. Counting their group, the counter-protest had grown to well over 100 attendees.
Right now, for the gays and lesbians of this country, it feels like every day is a fight for our rights. Our media and our blogs are filled with news of groups who are actively trying to deny us rights, to ensure that we remain second-class citizens. It was refreshing to go out into the real world and see that people do support us. Not only the activists and the organizers, but the everyday people who traffic the area.
Every honk and wave from an elderly couple was a revelation. Every peace sign from a kid hanging out of a bus window was a clue that the future might just be all right. Gestures of support for the WBC were few and far between. That, coupled with the small size of their group, was both a literal and figurative display that hate is small. It cannot bring people together. A sunny afternoon though, filled with dozens and dozens of people from all walks of life coming together to show support for one another, to stand between hate and the audience that it was intended for? To celebrate our differences, as well as our similarities?
Well, that sends another message entirely.