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Religious zealots provide for a teachable moment

October 17, 2009 - 8:33 am

IMG_0227Aside from its glossy signs (“GOD HATES FAGS,” “THANK GOD FOR 9/11”) and its sickeningly callous tactics (its parishioners have protested at the funerals of AIDS victims and soldiers who died in Iraq), Westboro Baptist Church is perhaps most famous for prompting creative counter-demonstrations.

Ten years ago, filmmaker Michael Moore and a team of gay friends chased around the church’s founder, Rev. Fred Phelps, in a giant pink bus dubbed the “Sodomobile.” Last March, a group of frat boys at the University of Chicago danced to such queer classics as Donna Summer’s “I’m Coming Out” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” during a WBC protest.

And on Friday afternoon, a boisterous crowd of gay-rights activists, open-minded church-goers and high-school students from across the city met half a dozen WBC protestors picketing outside the San Diego High School Educational Complex with signs bearing slogans like “LOVE IS ALL U NEED,” “GOD IS LOVE” and “GOD LOVES FAGS.”

When it comes to hatred, Westboro Baptist Church has it in spades—the organization is anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-military and probably anti- some other things that observers haven’t yet noticed. The group is so hateful, in fact, that even some of the country’s most intolerant evangelicals have distanced themselves from it: The late Jerry Falwell, well-known for his homophobic remarks, once called Phelps a “first-class nut.”

But that hasn’t dissuaded Phelps and his followers, many of whom are either related to Phelps by blood or through marriage. In fact, this has only encouraged them to focus their ire on rival evangelicals as well: They once condemned Billy Graham as a “Hell-bound false prophet,” and they protested at Falwell’s funeral in 2007.

The Phelps clan has essentially made a business out of their work. Some members, including Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper—who showed up at Friday’s protest in sunglasses and a “Godhatesfags.com” tank top—are trained lawyers who work for the family’s law firm, Phelps-Chartered. They are known to sue aggressive counter-protestors and municipalities that fail to provide for their safety.

On the other hand, these veteran media hounds are able to escape accusations of committing hate speech by putting their hatred into God’s mouth. “We’re not judging anybody. God is,” said Jonah Phelps-Roper, a 12-year-old Westboro member carrying a red-white-and-blue colored sign saying, “ANTICHRIST OBAMA IS DOOMED.”

The Westboro members showed up at the corner of Russ and Park boulevards—one of the first in a series of planned protests at high schools, Jewish centers and churches this weekend—just after 2 p.m., a few minutes before school let out. Posted kitty-corner to the school and often blocked by a throng of cars, their presence was barely registered by many of the students who began pouring out of the campus down Park Blvd. Of course, it helped that crowds of demonstrators espousing universal love filled every other street corner, drowning out the Westboro protests with chanting and drumming on pots and pans.

But it was still a media bonanza over at the Westboro corner. As the police tried to maintain order, photographers snapped pictures, cameras rolled and the Phelps disciples spewed their hyperbolic gospel in interviews. “Homosexuality is an abomination,” Shirley Phelps-Roper told a TV news reporter. “These children have been taught that God is a big, fat, stinking liar—that it is, in fact, OK to be gay. He says you’re going to Hell if you do that. They’ve been taught, ‘No, God is a liar.’”

At lunch earlier that day, many students were dismissive of the group. Westboro could hardly claim to have any fans at San Diego High School, which has its fair share of students who are queer-friendly, or have Roman-Catholic parents or relatives in the military, or all of the above. Lupe Brito, a junior at the School of Media, Visual and Performing Arts, one of the high school’s six “small schools,” had only one thing to say to the Westboro clan: “Get a life.”

But many students had been briefed about the protest in class, and members of the Gay Straight Alliance made their presence known when the protestors came—commandeering the school’s marquee at the corner of Park and Russ and covering it with a giant, hand-painted GSA sign. “They’re just invading our school,” said Jo Gookin, 17, president of the GSA. “This is a place of learning. It shouldn’t be brought here.”

All the same, some teachers considered the event a perfect “teachable moment”—a debate over the boundaries of free speech flaring up just outside the school’s gates. “I think that the students had a very good reaction to hearing about it. A lot of students were just really supportive of tolerance and equality,” said Kara Potter, a math teacher who was standing with the equality crowd. “It brought up a good point for discussion.”

And what was the lesson for ninth grader David Jones? “Let people be who they are. Let them be free to express themselves,” he said. “Who am I to judge you? We’re all humans here.”

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Enrique Limon permalink
    October 17, 2009 - 3:05 pm 3:05 pm

    “proud flamers.” Serioulsy? I know a LOT of out, proud, productive, honest and hard working members of the LGBT community. None would refer to themselves as “flamers.” We’re an alt-weekly and all, but don’t let your idea of edginess, read as meat-headness and ignorance.

  2. David Rolland permalink*
    October 17, 2009 - 3:22 pm 3:22 pm

    You’re right, Enrique. I’m editing it out.

  3. October 17, 2009 - 7:17 pm 7:17 pm

    Thanks for the comment. I definitely didn’t mean it to come across that way – sorry for that, I should’ve given more thought to that. -Peter

  4. October 18, 2009 - 10:51 am 10:51 am

    Just to explain my reasoning: I saw the video of Moore’s “Sodomobile” and the team of gay men Moore was with were acting exaggeratedly flamboyant on purpose to make Fred Phelps uncomfortable, so that’s how I came up with “proud flamers.” But when you point that out, I realize that this doesn’t exactly explain it right. -Peter

  5. Will K Shilling permalink
    October 18, 2009 - 12:17 pm 12:17 pm

    I certainly don’t want to speak for anyone, Enrique, but I have gay friends who use “flamer” — albeit ironically as re-appropriation — to describe themselves or others, so I am confused as to your objection to the word in this context. Is it because you find it offensive as a deragatory term, a slur? Or is it because the use in this story just didn’t fit as either appropriate or contextual? Is there any time words like “fag” or “queen” or “homo” can be used by CityBeat writers in a non-deragatory, even playful, humorous or just plain neutral but contextual manner?

    I am just curious, as a matter of style and standards that are constantly in flux in an alternative paper like ours. I remember using the phrase “art-fags” about the band Erasure in the same sentence I praised their music as seminal to my generation’s formative years (not to mention horizon-broadening in their openly queer lyrics). When Troy Johnson was my music editor, he didn’t flinch at my use of the “fags” then.

    But years later, I wrote the same exact phrase in almost exactly the same context, but a new music editor cut it, saying CityBeat should “never use the word, which amounts to a deragotory, homophobic” term; he said we would never use “nigger” or “nigga” either, no matter what the context (unless it was a direct, related quote in a news piece).

    Just exploring where and when such things cross the line, is all. Curious to hear what you think…

    WKS

  6. Will K Shilling permalink
    October 18, 2009 - 12:21 pm 12:21 pm

    Oh, and btw: now I wish I could read the original context the flamers phrase was used, lol!

    see how censoring something can REALLY make it interesting?!

  7. Brad D permalink
    October 18, 2009 - 10:53 pm 10:53 pm

    These people make me sick… but even more so, look at the young girl in the picture holding the sign that reads’ “God hates the USA.” Click on it and zoom in. Get a good look. This child is having her life ruined at it’s very start. All her potential to learn and love is being crushed. Though it might not meet the legal definitions, this is child abuse.

  8. Will K Shilling permalink
    October 19, 2009 - 8:19 am 8:19 am

    Great live version of the song “Fuck Fred Phelps & the Westboro Baptist Church” — by the best band to ever come out of Portland, Ore.: I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House…

  9. David Rolland permalink*
    October 19, 2009 - 10:42 am 10:42 am

    Will, that doesn’t sound like any music editor I have ever hired.

  10. Wisunka permalink
    November 15, 2009 - 6:43 am 6:43 am

    Hey, MAJeff! Thanks for the link to Michael Franti’s great video. I’d never heard of him. I was worried that folk music was going the way of the dinosaurs. It’s refreshing to see another generation get up there and actually address important social issues. Of course there is the fact that he’s a damn good musician and one I’m going to follow.
    Hope your headache is better. 🙂

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