By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The death of Matthew Shepard was, of course, a turning point for the gay rights movement in the United States. The country´s perception of homosexuals went from a barely articulated ¨ew!¨ to a vast and resounding ¨Oh! Those poor fruitcakes!¨ And Westboro Baptist Church found itself even more at loggerheads with public sentiment than before.
Church members did not care. To their way of thinking, ´tis a far better thing to set oneself against 300 million angry Americans than a single, pissed-off, omniscient and omnipotent God -- especially one who occasionally pulls stunts like incinerating entire cities, unleashing cataclysmic floods upon a fornication-mad planet, and turning all a country´s rivers into blood. No matter what they tell you on CBN, the God of Abraham can be a very moody guy. He´s presumably got his reasons, but even if he doesn´t -- well, he´s God. Tough titty.
This kind of thinking doesn´t sit well with a lot of folks who like their God friendly and subservient. We are modernpeople, they say. Fuck off, Phelps. Stop bugging us with the fine print. We just wanna get jiggy with that ¨God is love¨ dealio. And definitely, certainly, without a doubt, never, ever, everdarken our door with Romans 26-32. Why, if we were to start thinking about that sort of big-league nastiness, we might have to protest a bathhouse or print a pamphlet, and then, and then -- the kids might miss soccer practice! The kids really love soccer practice, and if they missed it, all the other moms might start talking... so Mr. Phelps, please, just back the fuck off.
This was the situation in 1998. When Westboro began picketing soldiers´ funerals five years later, it got much, much uglier.
I first met the Westboroans at a picket in Sarasota near the beginning of 2006. I´d been corresponding for a little while with Shirley Phelps-Roper, who´s become the church´s de facto spokeswoman now that Fred´s getting on in years, and I thought these pickets might be interesting to write about. The scene was brutal: Big bikers with murderous intentions, a wretched man with a fake Southern accent and prosthetic teeth accosting the Westboroans´ kids (¨Y´all gonna grow up to be gaaaaay!¨), much violence in the air, many threats. The Westboroans were there because, as they have patiently explained to endless reporters since the beginning of the War in Iraq, America has ¨turned her back on God,¨ and dying for her at this weird moment in history is a surefire way to land your ass in hell. Assembled Vietnam vets and assorted mourners took great umbrage at one of the Westboroans´ signs, which read ¨FAG SOLDIER IN HELL,¨ and I was reasonably sure we were all about to be killed.
The atmosphere worsened the next day at a public school in Lithia and at the school district building in St. Petersburg. My friends and I, unrepentant sodomites, received severe tongue-lashings from the Westboroan contingent, but we were frightened only by the counterprotesters, who did not have almost 20 years of experience from which to draw their picket-line etiquette and who did not have any unified philosophies to keep them from explosively bad behavior. The Westboroans know exactly what they stand for; when I nearly got decked by a counterprotester for politely rebuking his repeated verbal attacks against a 5-year-old Westboroan, I realized he stood for nothing.
This is where I first met Marge Phelps. On that occasion, she called me ¨dark-hearted,¨ said my soul was a ¨charred husk,¨ and called me a ¨sick, vile, perverse, and delusional pseudo-intellectual¨ who ¨keeps company with demons.¨ She informed me that, when I die, God will listen to me stammer out my defense because he´s got all the time in the universe, and then he will cast me down to hell, where the ¨worm that eats on you never dies¨ and where, for all eternity, ¨flames will shoot out your eyes, your friends´ eyes, and the eyes of every American hero that ever lived. And you know it, and there´s nothing you can do about it.¨ She told me all of this with perfect articulation over the course of about two and a half minutes, during which I said nothing. Having finished, she turned back to the street and joined her sisters in a rousing rendition of ¨God Hates America/Land of the Fags.¨
I was scandalized. Pseudo-intellectual?
Yet this morning, in Opa-locka, Marge is the very picture of friendliness. We´d had what I thought was a very productive telephone interview two days before, touching on everything from mainline apostasy to the Anabaptists. Greeting me this morning, she said: ¨Hi, Brandon. How are you?¨
I watched as she removed her signs from a big black satchel. Besides ¨YOUR PREACHER IS A WHORE,¨ she wished to inform Florida Christians that ¨FAGS DOOM NATIONS,¨ that they should ¨PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS,¨ that they were ¨NOT BLEST, JUST CURSED,¨ that ¨GOD HATES THE WORLD,¨ ¨GOD HATES YOU,¨ and, gosh, I hate to break it to you, but ¨YOU EAT YOUR KIDS.¨ She distributed these signs among three of her nieces, one aged 20, the other two aged 14; pretty, friendly, smiley, talkative, and fundamentally girly all. Marge stood on the street outside Opa-locka´s Northwest Baptist Church to deliver some Very Bad News to the faithful, and...