Fred Phelps And The Value Of Hate Speech
KANSAS CITY/TOPEKA — In suburban Kansas City, where little American flags flutter in flowerbeds and shiny SUVs with “Bush/Cheney 2004” bumper stickers fill church parking lots, it takes courage to stand at a street corner on a brilliant Sunday morning and hold a sign declaring, in foot-tall black letters, GOD HATES AMERICA. No one can say Shirley Phelps-Roper is a coward.
“God does not hate!” a woman screams from a passing car window. Phelps-Roper scarcely notices. She is mid-way through a fierce jeremiad about the moral rot at the heart of American culture and nothing can stop the words gushing out her mouth. “They say it’s OK to be gay. They have elevated this thing that the Lord their God called an abomination to an innocent alternate lifestyle. This is an unprecedented thing going on in this generation. I’m telling you that we’re living in the Last Days. ”
It seems that God hates America because — as the sign of another protester says — GOD HATES FAGS. And the Lord is going to snuff out the world anytime now because too many people don’t share His holy hate.
A young man wearing a ballcap leans out the window of a car. “God bless America!” he roars.
On sidewalks lining both sides of the street, Phelps-Roper’s fellow picketers shake their heads and waggle their signs. Most are young, including a handful of teenagers and children. Clean-cut, dressed casually in shorts and T-shirts, they could be a church group appealing to drivers to pull over and have their cars washed for charity.
In fact, they are a church group. They are the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and they are on a crusade to tell the world that homosexuals and all those who fail to condemn them with at least as much fervour as the Westboro Baptists — which is pretty much everybody but them — will be cast into the eternal writhing agony of hell.
In person, they’re nice people. Shirley Phelps-Roper, a middle-aged mother of nine, is polite, helpful and bursting with energy — the sort of woman you might expect would whip up more cookies than anybody for the school bake sale. She is one of the 13 children of the Westboro Baptists’ charismatic preacher, Pastor Fred W. Phelps, the man who launched the anti-gay crusade 14 years ago and has conducted it with such unrelenting zeal and venom he is probably the most infamous hatemonger in North America.
Ottawans will remember the Westboro Baptists as the group that stood outside Canada’s Supreme Court building a few years ago to protest gay rights rulings by burning a Canadian flag. The protesters weren’t sure how to set the flag on fire so they sought the advice of an Ottawa police officer who explained that it should be doused with something flammable lest the nylon melt and drip on someone. Nail polish did the trick.
The Westboro Baptists don’t burn flags much anymore but they are protesting more than ever. On this Sunday in Kansas, traffic slows as drivers’ eyes are pulled to the signs’ garish colours and gaspingly hateful statements. Some gape. Others look confused. A few faces twist in anger, particularly when they see a young boy holding a sign with a yellow ribbon and the words FAG TROOPS.
The boy is “my number nine child, Jonah,” beams Phelps-Roper. “Seven of my children are out here today.”
“F— you!” someone screams from a passing car. A police officer watching the protest rolls his eyes.
On the sidewalk, one of the protesters gently nudges a stroller back and forth on the sidewalk, lulling a sleepy toddler. The little boy wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the Westboro Church’s website: Godhatesfags.com.
At precisely 11, Phelps-Roper waves and the protesters, as happy and chatty as if they were picking up after a splendid picnic, pack away their signs, clamber into vehicles and they’re on their way to Topeka to catch a noon-hour sermon which will, as always, condemn fags, fag-enablers, fag media, fag churches, fag companies and all the other cadres in what Fred Phelps calls “the worldwide fag juggernaut.”
The Westboro Baptists weren’t always obsessed with gays. Phelps has been preaching at the church since 1955 but it was only in 1991 that the congregation first hoisted picket signs to protest gay men cruising in a Topeka park. A crusade was born.
Their hate pours out in faxes and on two well-designed websites that carry the latest about Pastor Phelps’ sermons, and tickers counting the number of days that murdered gays have been in hell: Click on a picture of Matthew Shepard, a gay man tortured to death in Laramie, Wyoming, and a voice screams “For God’s sake, listen to Phelps!” while flames ripple around the dead man’s face. The websites are also available in Spanish.
Mostly, though, the crusade is about picketing. Eight to 10 times a day, some of Westboro’s faithful can be seen with signs in hand on the streets of Topeka. Three or four times a week, they picket elsewhere in the state and there’s a longer trip at least once a week. There is no ceasefire, ever. They picket every day of every week of every month. Even on Christmas Day — which they don’t celebrate because it’s not mentioned in the Bible — members of the Westboro Baptist Church are out somewhere proclaiming the good news of God’s burning hate.
Pastor Phelps and his flock have marched at countless churches, universities, libraries, city halls and schools. In New York, they picketed the United Nations. In Texas, they marched outside George W. Bush’s ranch. Earlier this year, they demonstrated at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, where they sang a version of America the Beautiful that begins, O, filthy land of sodomites, your World Trade Center’s gone.
On the Fourth of July this past summer, they picketed at the cavernous hole that was the World Trade Center with signs saying THANK GOD FOR SEPT. 11. When they learned that the former chaplain of the New York Fire Department — killed in the Sept. 11 attacks — had been gay, they waved signs decrying FDNY FAGS at New York firetrucks.
Marching in Hawaii to protest that state’s liberal policies toward gays, they reached back in history to THANK GOD FOR DEC. 7 — the date of the Pearl Harbor attack.
When Bill Clinton threatened to attack Saddam Hussein’s regime, Phelps gathered his signs, flew to Iraq, and spent two days on street corners denouncing homosexuality and America to confused Baghdadis.
Funerals are a favourite target. The Westboro Baptists and their signs appeared at services for Ronald Reagan (because he was a friend of Rock Hudson), Barry Goldwater (he did not reject a gay grandson) and every child’s favourite neighbour, Fred Rogers (because Mr. Rogers didn’t use his television show to warn kids “that fags go to Hell”). They picket the funerals of their critics, and even the funerals of their critics’ family members. They picket the funerals of AIDS victims. And when gays are murdered by hateful maniacs, they pick up their signs and condemn the dead: When the body of Mathew Shepard was laid to rest, Fred Phelps was on hand to announce the young man was burning in hell.
The Westboro Baptists do not advocate or condone violence. They say the Bible calls for sodomy to be criminalized and punished with death but they know that’s not going to happen before the Second Coming. In the meantime, gays should be assaulted with words only.
The Topeka crusaders get almost as good as they give, however. Wherever they travel, newspapers swell with furious editorials and letters. National and international media — from ABC’s 20/20 to the BBC and Rolling Stone magazine — have run horrified profiles of Phelps or cited him as Exhibit A in stories about hate.
A similar wave of disgust rolled across Canada in 1999 when Phelps announced he would picket in Ottawa. He didn’t, that time, but Canadians were shocked to learn that the police could do nothing to stop Phelps because the hate speech law did not cover sexual orientation.
Calls for the hate speech law to be extended were answered this year, when Parliament passed Bill C-250 after a heated debate in which supporters routinely pointed to the horrifying example of the Westboro Baptists. Few people can claim to have had such a direct effect on Canadian law as Fred Phelps.
Phelps says he won’t be coming back to Canada anytime soon because he thinks he would be arrested. He’s probably right. The new law has an exemption for views “based on a belief in a religious text,” which would seem to provide a defence. But given that Phelps was the law’s inspiration, even its poster boy, charges would seem to be all but certain. A conviction and prison sentence is not impossible. It may even be likely.
In this regard, Canada is not unique. Most western countries have hate speech laws. This summer in Sweden, Pentecostal Pastor Ake Green was sentenced to a month in prison for saying homosexuals are “perverts whose sexual drive the Devil has used as his strongest weapon against God.”
In the United States, however, there is no hate speech law and likely never will be because the American Constitution’s guarantee of free speech — in the famous First Amendment — is much stronger than other countries’ and most scholars agree it would strike down any such law.
For the people of Topeka, this created a terrible dilemma. Unable to silence the Westboro picketers with hate speech charges, they struggled to find another legal solution. Court battles followed, but the Westboro Baptists won every time. The law could do nothing and Topeka was humiliated as the home of hate.
But then the people of Topeka started to do something unexpected, something that surprised even the people doing it. Something that questioned what we think we know about hate speech. Something that casts doubt on Canada’s hate speech law and shows there is another way that tolerant, loving people can deal with the likes of Fred Phelps.
What happened in Topeka was wonderful, even beautiful. And hateful words made it happen.
Fred W. Phelps may be a man filled with hate but he can still laugh. “That was real good picketin’, that Reagan’s funeral,” he says. “There were so many world leaders, all gathered there in one spot, and they had to walk right by our signs. (Henry) Kissinger walked by. He looked like death eatin’ a cracker. That old fraud. He just walked by, lookin’ at those signs, like he was readin’ his doom on those signs. Couldn’t hardly tear himself away.” Pastor Phelps’ thin lips stretch wide and he chuckles.
“Old brother Kissinger. That brother is going to split hell wide open.”
A few years ago, a Canadian newspaper columnist spoke to Phelps by phone and wrote that the preacher’s words were so hateful he must spit when he speaks. An interesting theory, but it’s not true. Born in Mississippi, ordained as a Baptist minister at 18, he is actually something of a Southern gentleman when he greets a guest in his church. Polite, soft-spoken, and gracious: At 75, with hair white as goose down, pale blue eyes and a gentle manner, he could be a beloved grandfather.
He is also endearingly honest. The media are sinful, he says to this journalist, then breaks into a grin and leans forward: “Lyin’ bunch of crooked, fag-promoting media.” Despite myself, I smile.
This is not the same man who takes to the Westboro pulpit every Sunday. Standing before his congregation, Pastor Phelps is transformed. His face becomes taut and cruel, his voice swells with manic energy and his easy charm is consumed in a furnace of hate.
“Every fag in the world knows he’s a monstrous, filthy beast and sinner!” he bellows into the pulpit microphone and the words burst out of stereo speakers with enough force to rattle the walls of a cathedral. Sitting in a pew at the back of the windowless suburban rec room where the Westboro Baptists worship, my knuckles are white, my gut clenched.
Pastor Phelps’ sermons are delivered in the classic rhythm of the Southern preacher. After a crescendo, a long pause. Then he starts again, low and soft: “They’re puttin’ on like they don’t agree that they’re filthy sinners. They’re puttin’ on like they kinda think it’s an innocent alternate lifestyle.”
His eyes burn, his voice rises into a rage: “While they’re puttin’ a dollop, just a dollop, of feces on a slice of bread and eatin’ it!”
His voice drops down again and he adds, almost conversationally, “They call it scat. One of the love-making techniques of the sodomites. Licking each other’s anuses. Urinating on each other. They call that golden showers. And quite a few more such delicacies. To prove what God Almighty says … ”
A long pause.
” … that they are filthy!”
Around me, the congregation of 60 or so is politely attentive. They’ve heard it all many times before. A baby dozes in her mother’s arms. A young boy waggles his legs and looks around, bored.
The child, like most of the congregation, is Fred Phelps’ progeny. As the Bible commands, the preacher and his wife were fruitful and multiplied, producing 13 children, who begat 52 grandchildren. Now Phelps is adding great-grandchildren — three so far. Including spouses, the Phelpses make up more than three-quarters of the people in the pews.
Like the man who spawned the clan, the Phelpses — even their critics agree — are bright, disciplined and energetic. They have to be. Every member of the church spends at least a few hours of every day picketing and the cost of the constant travel — the church spends $250,000 U.S. a year on airfare alone — is paid entirely by the congregation.
“Anybody who wants to serve the Lord, they’re going to be tithing and they’re going to be working,” says Phelps. “All the people in this church work hard. They got jobs. Most of them have got real good jobs, making big money, good money.”
At work and school, the Phelpses are careful to put aside the crusade and although conflicts happen, the Phelpses are more likely to be victims than instigators. Shirley Phelps-Roper says her husband lost his job as a human resources manager for a major company after the head office discovered how he spent his free time; he sued for wrongful dismissal and settled out of court.
“People treat you differently,” she complains. “Even if you do your job well. All these people know their jobs and they work as hard as any two people at their jobs. And yet, they still may not get a promotion. But we don’t care.”
Phelps-Roper’s children attend public school and when the crusade began 14 years ago, her eldest son, then 11, got into fistfights. “But a lot of that has died down,” she says. “Now, it’s mostly verbal things.” Still, the children do well. One daughter is the top runner at the Topeka West High School, Phelps-Roper says proudly, and “my three oldest children all went through college on academic scholarships.”
For the Phelpses, college usually means law school. Eleven of Phelps’ 13 children became lawyers and one of the college-age grandchildren is on her way. Four spouses and in-laws are also lawyers, making the Phelpses not only their own church but their own law firm — operating under the name of Phelps Chartered. Like everything else about the clan, the Phelps’ affinity for law comes from the patriarch.
Although a Baptist preacher all his life, Fred Phelps paid the bills as a lawyer. His specialty was representing black clients claiming employment discrimination and he earned a reputation as a tough litigator able to shake out pre-trial settlements. In 1987, a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave Pastor Phelps an award for his “steely determination” and “undauntedness” in defence of civil rights.
Bill Beachy, president of Concerned Citizens For Topeka, an organization formed to fight the Phelpses, recalls when he first heard the preacher-cum-lawyer speak in the 1980s. It was a civil rights rally in a Topeka auditorium and “I was sitting way up, 50 rows back, and I remember seeing the guy way down on the stage and he really got my attention. I was just blown over by how good a speaker he was. There was no hate, it was just kind of a rabble-rousing speech about civil rights, a let’s-go-get-em kind of speech.”
But Phelps’s strength as a litigator — his blistering oratory — hinted at his great flaw: A love of taking attacks to extremes. In 1977, he sued a court reporter for allegedly failing to have a transcript ready when he needed it. He pursued the suit to such extreme, abusive ends that judges of the Kansas Supreme Court said it was a personal vendetta and they stripped the preacher of his state licence to practise law.
In 1989, Phelps lost his federal licence, too, after he and several of his oldest children repeatedly claimed federal judges were biased against blacks. Phelps agreed to surrender his licence in exchange for permitting the children to keep theirs, saving the family firm.
The family’s legal firepower was to prove critical when the church launched its anti-gay crusade in 1991. “We do have the capacity to litigate,” Phelps says with a chuckle. “And I think that’s the Lord. If we didn’t have that, we’d have been stopped 14 years ago.”
When the church’s signs first sprouted on the streets of Topeka, “people were honestly disbelieving,” says Roy Menninger, a Topeka psychiatrist and one of Fred Phelps’ toughest opponents. “They could not imagine such gross, blatant offensiveness just right out there. They couldn’t imagine that someone would shout these obscenities at passing motorists or that they would lean in the windows of cars paused at a stoplight to mouth comments about being ‘whores’ and ‘bitches of Babylon’ and all kinds of dreadful labels.”
Everyone wanted to stop it, but without a hate speech law it wasn’t clear that the Westboro Baptists were doing anything illegal. An obscure criminal defamation law was dusted off and charges laid but Pastor Phelps argued the law was unconstitutional. A judge agreed and the law was struck down.
Charges for using “fighting words” — direct personal insults likely to provoke a fight, a category not protected by the U.S. Constitution — were also laid. But this simply taught the Phelpses to avoid shouting insults. Now they often sing songs.
Slowly, Topekans began to realize the law could not silence hate.
It could regulate hate, however. A slew of laws and bylaws inspired by the Phelpses poured out, the most important being a restriction on picketing at funerals.
“They would picket right up to the edges of the sidewalk in front of a church so people attending a funeral had to walk through a gauntlet,” says Menninger. “At my mother’s funeral, some of his people actually came into the entry of the church to protest. Why there wasn’t fighting or a physical reaction I don’t to this day understand.”
The new law kept pickets back 30 metres from a church. The Phelpses went to court and a judge cut that to 15 metres. “So now, there is a buffer zone in these areas and they typically take it across the street. That was our major legal victory.”
“Fred Phelps knows his First Amendment law,” says Rick Musser, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas who has followed the Phelps saga from the beginning. “He has taken the town to school on what the First Amendment allows and doesn’t allow.”
“We beat ’em into submission,” Pastor Phelps says, relishing the memory of his legal victories. He later faxed me copies of cheques for legal expenses he won from the state and city. They total more than $210,000 U.S.
Having beaten back the law, Pastor Phelps and his followers were free to shout hate to the heavens and conjure new ways to horrify. They embraced that freedom with a zeal still burning fiercely.
The church has almost finished a new warehouse for the sign collection. The crusade against gays just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s his duty, Phelps insists. The Bible says that when you see your neighbour sin, “you sharply rebuke him for it. If you don’t, you hate him. These kissy-poo preachers hate them. Coddling them. Telling them they’re OK as they are. Telling them that God loves them unconditionally.”
“By that scriptural standard,” Phelps says softly, “I’m the only one that does love these fags.”
Tiffany Muller knows what it feels like to be the object of Fred Phelps’ love. The picketing “is hard to see,” she says. “It kind of takes your breath away for a moment. On a gut level, you want something done. Just make it stop, you know. Why does he hate me so bad? What have I done to him?”
Just 26 years old, Muller is a member of the Topeka city council. She is also a lesbian. Those two facts have made the former community activist the focus of the Westboro Baptists’ boundless wrath. One of Pastor Phelps’ signs has a picture of Muller’s face on the body of a cartoon dog: MUTT MULLER, it reads. Another features a newspaper photograph of Ms. Muller and her partner looking at their wedding album. A third, in typically garish
colours, depicts two pigs, one in a trash can and the other in wedding dress, with the words SOWS WED.
Like the old preacher who hates her, Muller is sharp-tongued and combative. She may be a target, but she’s no victim. “Some of the gay activists have a joke that you know you’ve made it when the Phelpses have a sign about you. I figure since I have three now I’m doing good.”
Black humour aside, there is no doubt about the psychological pain inflicted by hate speech. One law professor likened the sight of the Westboro signs to “spiritual death.”
It’s also true that hate speech threatens to spread the hate beneath the words. Centuries ago, John Milton famously defended free speech by arguing that when ideas clash openly “the false and unsound will be vanquished,” but as the committee which called for Canada’s hate speech law noted 30 years ago, the history of the 20th century is proof that truth does not always triumph over lies.
Hate speech may also promote hate crime. There is surprisingly little social science research on this crucial question, but it is certainly a reasonable fear and Muller feels it intimately. In Topeka, as in other cities, there are gay-bashers and while Muller acknowledges that the Phelpses are not involved in violence, she worries that their omnipresent hate speech “does allow those lunatic fringe people to think that their hate is more justified or somehow more acceptable.”
In 1990, in the landmark Keegstra case, these concerns convinced a majority of judges on the Supreme Court of Canada to break with the American jurisprudence and uphold Canada’s hate speech law. The judges were also swayed by the fact that the Canadian constitution, unlike the American, explicitly recognizes the importance of equality and multiculturalism.
Egale, the Canadian gay rights group, made the same point when it argued in favour of extending the hate speech law to cover sexual orientation, saying that to do so would “promote mutual respect, equality and tolerance.”
Most Canadians would agree. The hate speech law is popular across the country. Hate speech is dangerous and it contributes nothing valuable, most people think, so the balance tips heavily in favour of banning it.
But is it true that hate speech contributes nothing to society? In the Keegstra decision, the Supreme Court said so but it never really tackled that critical question. The judges just assumed it was true. Most people do.
That may be a mistake.
“The peculiar evil of silencing an expression of an opinion is that it robs the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation,” wrote John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century political philosopher, in his enormously influential work On Liberty. “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity to exchange error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit — the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Mill argued that if truth is never challenged by error, it can lose its vitality and “the meaning of the doctrine itself will be
in danger of being lost or enfeebled.” Unchallenged by falsehood, the truth will continue to be accepted by people but only “in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.” No longer will it be a “real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience.”
In this shrivelled state, the truth has no power to move hearts and minds and stir us to action. As Mill puts it, it does not shape “character and conduct.”
If Mill is right, even the most venomous hate speech is not worthless. It challenges people to recall why they believe what they do. Why is hate wrong? Why do we think tolerance, diversity, decency and love are right? Hate speech forces us to answer these questions, and in doing so the ideas are strengthened. They come alive. They take on the power to really influence our “character and conduct.”
If Mill is right, hate speech can contribute to an inclusive society in ways that no hate speech law ever could.
In most places and times, it would be difficult or impossible to put Mill’s challenging idea to a real-world test. But Topeka is different. For 14 years, the city has been steeped in hate speech. If Mill is right, it should be evident in the streets and hearts of the little city in Kansas.
“This place is under siege,” PASTOR Phelps says, waving his hand around the office of the Westboro church. “We got a security system that wakes the dead.”
The church is impossible to miss. Originally a ranch bungalow in a 1950s suburb, additions were added over the years, forming a strange compound — draped with a giant “godhatesfags.com” banner — in the midst of a Rockwell-esque neighbourhood where sedate oaks line the streets and crisp American flags grace front porches. The church has a flagpole, too, but the American flag it flies is upside down — the international sign of distress — and above it is an upside-down Canadian flag. The maple leaf is on top because, Pastor Phelps says, Canada is “a cancer sitting on top of the head of the United States, metastasizing.”
The base of the flagpole is surrounded by its own wrought-iron fence, with spikes pointed outward to stop climbers. It was expensive, Pastor Phelps says, but cheaper than replacing the flags when they were cut down.
The church kept losing flags even though, to get to the flagpole, intruders have to scale the fence and bushes ringing the property. Which they do, regularly. “Every now and then somebody comes and tries to do something” and trips the alarm, Phelps says. “We see them runnin’ away. One of them pretty near fell in the swimmin’ pool the other night.”
In July, shots were fired at the compound in the early morning. Several years ago, a pipe bomb exploded in the driveway that would have killed people if a parked van hadn’t taken the brunt of the blast.
Violence is much less common today than when the congregation first started picketing. Back then, punches and other attacks — one woman tried to plow into the protesters with her car — were almost a daily occurrence. But the Westboro Baptists remain pariahs in Topeka. People have simply learned not to be goaded.
“Topeka is in the middle of the country. It’s Republican, it’s Christian, it’s all those Midwestern farm-belt kinds of things you would think it would be,” says Rick Musser. “I’m sure you can find plenty of people in Topeka who don’t think much of the homosexual lifestyle. And you can find plenty of support in Kansas for the anti-gay marriage cause.” But what cannot be found is support for the Westboro Baptists. “Fred is so far out on the fringe.”
After 14 years of tireless preaching, Phelps has no converts, a fact he’s happy to admit because, he says, it proves he’s doing God’s work. “I’d be worried if they flocked to what I’m saying. The Lord Jesus says woe unto you when they should speak well of you, for in like manner speak their fathers to false prophets. But blessed are you when all men shall revile you and say all manner of evil falsely.”
Almost as soon as the picketing started, Topekans who revile Fred Phelps formed groups to fight the Westboro Baptists. “Concerned Citizens for Topeka” was one of the first. “Five corporations in town each put up $5,000 to fund the organization,” recalls Menninger, whose family has been prominent in the city for generations. It wasn’t social justice the businesses were after, however. It was an end to the embarrassment the city suffered in the national media. “They were concerned with one thing and one thing only: Let’s get Phelps off the street.”
But Menninger began to realize that wasn’t enough. Although he had never thought about homosexuals and their place in society before, he began to see that if Topekans were to really confront Fred Phelps and what he stood for, that’s exactly what they had to do.
His insight proved too controversial for the business leaders. “So, the corporate participation gradually subsided. It moved more and more to citizens who were more comfortable with the issue of homosexuality.”
A local Unitarian fellowship organized the first counter-pickets. Community groups banded together for an event called Love Thy Neighbour which filled the local performing arts centre.
Various groups, including city council, passed resolutions condemning hate. Most recently, 55 Topeka clergy, including three bishops, signed and published a declaration that “sexuality is a gift from God” and every person is “deserving of respect.”
One of the biggest changes has occurred within the evangelical Christian churches which were initially silent but have lately “come out to take more of a public stand,” says Menninger. A year ago, when Menninger and Concerned Citizens for Topeka met with leaders of the churches, one of the evangelicals began the meeting “with an apology, to the effect that they had sat on the sidelines, they did not confront Phelps and his hate speech, and they had left it all to us. And they felt that was wrong.”
This switch may be a sign of things to come. Two years ago, a proposal to extend Topeka’s anti-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation was defeated in a 5-4 vote mainly because the evangelical churches opposed it. Now supporters of the ordinance say it’s just a matter of time before the proposal passes.
Other positive reactions followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the Westboro Baptists took to the streets with signs celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center as God’s will. Counter-pickets formed, almost spontaneously. “These people just took to the streets. It was incredibly grassroots,” Tiffany Muller says. “The slogan was Not Today Fred, Not Tomorrow, Not Ever. It was kind of a taking back of Topeka. And they counter-picketed every day for at least a year. It was amazing. There were no confrontations. Occasionally, people would yell. But it was mostly just speech against speech, sign against sign. And it swelled from a couple of people to, I think, by the second evening, there were two or three hundred people there picketing with them and doing candlelight vigils.”
In a dark time, the counter-protesters even managed to find a little humour: A hot-air balloon floated over the city one morning with the message “Not today, Fred. We have our own gas bag.”
In September, Topeka’s evolution took a giant step forward when Muller was appointed to fill a vacancy on the city council. “I’m the first openly gay or lesbian person to be appointed or elected to a position such as a city council member in the state of Kansas,” she says. Reaction has been mixed. “It’s a fairly conservative town. You have people who have been pretty vocal in saying that it is homosexuality that is causing the downfall of our society and nobody who’s gay should be a leader in our city.” But at the same time, “a lot of the response has been good, that my sexual orientation shouldn’t matter.”
“It’s unbelievable that we could have moved this far,” marvels Roy Menninger. Not so long ago, homosexuality was firmly closeted in Topeka. Now a proud lesbian is a city councillor in the heart of Republican America.
Menninger knows who to thank, although he’s reluctant to say so. “I don’t want to give Phelps credit for a damned thing but I think the truth is there. He surfaced an issue the community would not face, would not recognize, and gradually, partly because of the reaction to Phelps, we have moved into a new place.”
Bill Beachy agrees. “I wouldn’t attribute it all to the Phelpses, but I think they’re a part of that. It spurs people on when they see that (hate).”
On balance, Tiffany Muller thinks Phelps and his followers have done more good than harm for Topeka’s gays and lesbians — one reason why she would not support a hate speech law like Canada’s. “I don’t feel the most effective way of dealing with the hate speech of the Phelpses is to just make a law suppressing it. When you suppress, you don’t educate. When you suppress, you don’t organize.” And the hate remains, she says. “It just bubbles under the surface.”
Rather than using the law to drive hate underground, Muller says, “the more effective way is to do the grassroots organizing, to bring people together, to have conversations and educate the members of our community.”
That’s what the people of Topeka did. And it’s what people in other cities have done whenever the Westboro picketers appeared: The media run stories about hate, people talk about gays and discrimination, and rallies are organized. The first time Phelps announced he would picket in Ottawa — prior to the extension of the hate speech law — 500 people gathered in solidarity with gays. The same happened at the Calgary gay pride parade when the Topeka pastor threatened to picket.
In Laramie, Wyoming, the picketing of the Westboro Baptists at the funeral of Mathew Shepard inspired others to act in a way that “was much more powerful than if we just had a law saying they couldn’t do that,” Muller says. “They made angel costumes with huge wings on them and they stood side by side and opened these wings and surrounded the Phelpses so nobody could see their signs. It was amazing. What a powerful statement. And would that kind of statement have been made if (Phelps) weren’t there?”
From ugliness, beauty. From rejection, unity. From hate, a deeper understanding of acceptance and a more passionate embrace of love.
It is a paradox, but Muller believes it is very real and too valuable to let go. “I totally support their right to free speech,” she says of those who hate her and parade their feelings every day in the streets of Topeka.