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.
Two writers, two great short stories.
One by one, they all fell asleep, leaving me and Michael alone to staple ourselves.
“Watch this,” I said, jamming one into my forehead.
With each new staple, our placement moved toward more dangerous locales, one upping each other with every new blast.
A cheek, a nose, a nipple, an ear, these were all fair game, but we stopped ourselves, deciding to call the competition a tie before either of us stapled our eyelids or pricks.
The one thing we hadn’t really factored into our stapling game was how the hell we were going to pick these things out of our bodies. On The Discovery Channel, gorillas harvest dirt and ticks out of each other’s fur. That’s what it must have been like, watching me and Michael pry staples out. We were the most magnanimous gorillas.
The second is a heartbreaker. “The Boy Dies” by Casey Hannan.
You wake up with another man’s erection in your hand. You were dreaming about a swordfight. A dog barked. The dog was your phone.
“I am so common,” you think.
Your phone tells you happy birthday. You are 30. It’s time to shave the beard you promised your boyfriend you would shave.
“Who is this man?” your boyfriend says.
He leans in and gets drunk on your aftershave.
You hand him the grocery bag you’ve used to collect your facial hair. He says he’ll throw it out later. You watch him place it on a shelf in the pantry. He arranges two scented candles on either side.
Your boyfriend hands you a box. It’s not wrapped. The box is a Whitman’s Sampler. You’ve often imagined your laptop keyboard as a chocolate bar. You are allergic to chocolate.
You open the box. You cut your eyes on the new chef’s knife inside.
I’m not much for resolutions but I’ve found that having predefined goals has become really useful now that I’m entirely self-employed. There are a few ideas that I’ve been mulling over, some of them for years. This feels like the right time to spell them out, to make them real.
The following are creative goals. While there’s certainly an overlap between my creative goals and my professional goals, these reflect what I’d like to accomplish as an artist and creator. My goals for Queer Young Cowboys and for freelance work fall outside of this spectrum.
Without further ado, my 2014 goals are:
Write a novel.
I’ve already started on this one. My writing productivity has increased dramatically over the past month. It turns out that writing every day will do that. I’ve completed four short stories in the past two weeks; three of those were written completely in that time.
Given that virtually all of the stories I put together involve at least two men touching penises, my aim is to complete a gay romance novel and see how viable those are as a path to income. I’ve talked about this for years, but I’m in more of a “put out or shut up” position than I’ve ever been in before. While I intend to continue publishing and doing freelance work, novels seem like my best chance at self-generated income.
Write and produce a short film.
My husband has not always been thrilled about this idea, but I think we’ve reached an agreement, a level of acceptance and necessity, for me to move forward with this. I’m continually inspired by the works of filmmakers like Travis Mathews, Noel Hortas, and Antonio De Silva.
For a long time, filmmaking was my first passion. My husband has a degree in film production (although he’s currently a nurse). These are skills in my toolset. I would like to see what happens when I bring the Queer Young Cowboys mindset to film.
Start a magazine.
This is the more ethereal goal. I have ideas.
Do more photography.
I did my first photoshoot back when I published Blowjob 3. I’ve come a long way since then. I did a photoshoot in Mid-December, and I’m currently editing photos from that shoot. You’ve already seen examples, though; they act as the headers to this blog, and I used one of the photos as my New Year card.
Marlen Boro‘s fantastic work has provided a beautiful aesthetic to Queer Young Cowboys, and I hope to work with Marlen for years to come (Marlen, I totally owe you an email. To do list, check.) It’s fair to say that Queer Young Cowboys probably wouldn’t still exist without his work.
Even outside of our partnership, Marlen is a huge inspiration for me, as well as photographers like Jeremy Lucido, Mikel Martin, and Walt Cessna. In 2014, I’d like to dramatically expand my photography experience and output, to take what I can from inspiration and contribute my own perspective.
A year is an abritray measure of time, but measures of time are what allow us to set goals, to accomplish things. It’s not enough to plan day to day, or even month to month, although each of these projects needs to be broken down into smaller projects, little goals that will build to larger projects. 2013 brought me a lot of change, 2014 presents a lot of opportunity.
I promise not to let it go to waste.