Friday, September 25, 2009


It's a few days old, but the Westboro Baptist Church, comprised largely of the Phelps family, is at it again, this time in Brooklyn.

I lived in Topeka, Kansas for eight years before moving to NYC. For most of those years I lived near the Phelps's "church," first owning a house in the neighborhood of Westboro, then living with a friend who lived just a couple blocks away.

(As an aside, Westboro is a gorgeous old neighborhood filled with Tudor style homes, many of them on large estate lots. If you're a gay living in Topeka, it's the place to be. The Phelps's "church" is not actually in Westboro--it sits a couple blocks North of the neighborhood boundary.)

Every day, I drove by the Phelps's compound. The family owns nearly all of the houses in the immediate vicinity of their church. There's a high privacy fence around the entire compound. A major East-West road carries a large volume of traffic by the church, so they have hung a 20 foot long banner with the offensive name of their web site on it, which I won't reprint here.

Every day, I saw portions of the Phelps clan picketing along Gage Boulevard or other main roads in town.

Every Sunday, the cult picketed Grace Cathedral, the church where I sang in the choir, yelling slurs at us as we cued up outside on nice days to process in to the sanctuary.

Every performance I attended at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, I had to walk by signs telling me I was going to hell because of who I am.

Every time a concert or event was held at Washburn University, the hate slogans were blared in bright neon and chanted loudly at children and their grandparents.

For the most part, any time a group of people of any size is getting together in Topeka, the Phelps are there to tell us how we're all going to burn in Hell.

No, I'm not afraid of the Phelps. I don't believe anything they're saying. On the other hand, I can't deny that it affected me. Reading and hearing the vitriol every day was demoralizing. And while the Phelps are too smart to physically assault anyone themselves, they are only too happy to incite violence in less visible bigots, and I am quite sure they would rejoice to hear about the countless slurs, threats, and assaults I endured in Topeka.

Unfortunately, many queers think that the Phelps are actually helping the gay liberation movement. (There's a lot more than Joe, but he's where I read it most often.) The argument is that their extreme politics polarizes those who otherwise wouldn't much care about gay rights, and as most people are sensible, they're landing on our side and supporting us.

I couldn't disagree more. First, this belief focuses on the benefits that might arise from the Phelps, while entirely ignoring the negative effects. Second, generally only those polarized to our side are vocal about it, while there is a large and largely silent group of people who go to the Phelps side, believing them to be correct and worthy of support, even if this group is quiet about their agreement.

I know first hand how difficult it is for an out queer teenager to survive high school in Kansas and I've heard a variety of horror stories from queers who attended public school in Topeka. The Phelps clan is large--young queers aren't simply encountering the hate speech on the street. Phelps kids are in their classrooms, and while they may not be carrying picket signs at school, their beliefs that it's OK to bully, antagonize, and basically do anything negative they can get away with to a queer kid, are well-known to everyone and have the effect of emboldening casual bigots and bullies. Imagine trying to learn mathematics when you know the kid next to you will be holding signs calling for your death as soon as the final bell rings and everyone leaves school property. The suicide rate in queer teens is alarming and I firmly believe that this kind of hatred is a big contributing factor.

I'm very glad the students of the Brooklyn high school being picketed took a stand. I imagine they learned an important lesson. The support they show their fellow queer students and the queer equal rights movement is touching and inspiring.

Unfortunately, such a display never happens in Topeka. The Phelps won't be picketing once and then going away--they'll be on the streets of Topeka most days this week, and the next, and the next. The police won't be keeping an eye on them. No one will be counter-protesting.

Queer middle and high school kids in Topeka are and will be on their own.

Many members of the Phelps clan are lawyers. They run a law firm in Topeka. This is part of why they are so successful--they don't mind being sued. They are happy to go to trial, risk judgments and liens, and file appeals ad inifinitum. Given their horrid reputation with all but extreme right-wingers and fundamentalist Christians, you'd think they wouldn't stay in business very long. But they have, for decades.

How? The simple truth is that many people in Topeka and beyond agree with the Phelps, even if they're not willing to be associated with their tactics. They send donations. They hire the Phelps firm. For every bit of money we raise in counter-protest, be sure that there are equal or greater dollars being sent in by wingnuts from all over the country, who happen to see a Phelps story on CNN.

Other members of the Phelps clan work everywhere in Topeka, including some high levels of state government, bringing some version of this kind of oppression to workplaces, grocery stores, churches, bars--basically all parts of daily life. Adults may be better equipped to deal with the oppression and less likely to kill themselves because of it, but they still feel the negative effects--many queers in Kansas are closeted to a great degree and suffer from the resultant depression, self-hatred, substance abuse, and other problems associated with compartmentalized, oppressed lives.

This is the part that non-Kansans easily forget: the nebulous and arguable benefits of polarization caused by the Phelps come at the price of daily, concrete, and I'd argue deadly levels of oppression for the queers of Topeka.

The needs of the many do not outweigh the needs of the few. It is not acceptable to sacrifice Kansas to daily oppression in order to gain progress on the coasts. It is not appropriate to thank the Phelpses for anything!

Please, put yourself in the shoes of those who don't have the luxury of living in NYC. Decry oppression everywhere it is found. Don't pretend that hate has any up side, or that the despicable behavior of this cult is actually a net benefit to our community. It is not.