Update (3/20/14): Fred Phelps died today at the age of 84.
The Rev. Fred Phelps stands out from a block away. Sixty-nine years old, Phelps is tall and reedy; his white hair billows out from under a cowboy hat. Like a latter-day Moses, he holds in each hand bright yellow-and-orange posters: “Baptist 666 Fags” and “Matt in Hell.” You need to get closer, though, to recognize the accompanying photographs: the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old Wyoming man beaten to death because he was gay.
It’s December 8 in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, the day of the funeral for Al Gore Sr., a former senator and the vice president’s father. Gore has earned Phelps’ ire because, according to Phelps, his son “sold his soul to the fag agenda.” Falwell earned it partly because he called Phelps a “first-class nut.” And Shepard — “that little fag,” as Phelps refers to him — earned it, well, by being gay. It’s in this way, a Day-Glo vision of defiant hatred, that Phelps wants the world to see him.
Today, few people will see him at all. The Nashville police and the Secret Service have forced Phelps and his small group of followers — wife Margie, three of Phelps’ 13 adult children, and a daughter-in-law — to a corner behind the site of the memorial service. There’s little chance that any of the dignitaries attending the service, including both the president and vice president, will be able to see the group in this location. Nor, for that matter, will many in Nashville: The police have shut down much of downtown, cordoning it off for the ceremony.
Two months earlier, when the Phelpses showed up at Shepard’s funeral, their protest brought them unprecedented public scorn. The outcry even prompted religious leaders known for their denouncements of homosexuality — Falwell and the Family Research Council’s Gary Bauer — to take great pains to distance themselves from Phelps. But he is used to such a response. The Shepard protest was only the latest in a line of publicity stunts that the Phelpses started pulling in 1991, and their funeral pickets — which have included those for Barry Goldwater, Sonny Bono, Bill Clinton’s mother, and noted gay journalist Randy Shilts’have proved a successful formula for fomenting outrage and, perhaps most important, attracting media coverage.
What’s unclear is how effective the protests are. “I think right now they just look mean and extreme,” says Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights organization in the country. And while Phelps’ extremism may tempt some to dismiss his group as a mere lunatic fringe, Birch concedes that he could also shift the political spectrum, making less hysterical anti-gay figures — such as Falwell, Bauer, and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) — appear more moderate. Says Birch, “Phelps plays the role in the antigay movement that [Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry] played in the anti-abortion movement.”
Still, she says, Phelps is hard to take seriously. His demonstrations get press, Birch admits, but she dismisses them as “callous theater.”
In Nashville, Phelps’ theater gets almost no audience: The two-hour protest nets not a single press clip for his files. But as he and his family carefully pack up their signs and head to the airport, Phelps remains upbeat: “We’re going to be on the ‘Jerry Springer Show’ next week, you know.”
Phelps was approached by a producer for the show during two visits to Chicago to protest the marriage of a lesbian couple. On the second trip, during the wedding ceremony, the 12 members of Phelps’ group were met by an estimated 1,500 counterprotesters.
Phelps says he understands the format of the show, and he’s looking forward to his showdown with gay advocates. “They should get Elizabeth Birch,” he says. “Of course, she’s a dyke, but she clearly is articulate and capable.” And he’s not concerned about the show’s style, saying, “They assured us they would not get someone who would be yelling and cursing.”
Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church has been a fixture in the small city of Topeka, Kansas (population 120,000), for 44 years. These days, the church feels like a bunker — from its chain-link fence to its sign pockmarked from gunshots and the enormous American flag hanging at half-staff and upside down in front of the building. “It’s the signal for distress, because those are the times we are living,” says Phelps.
At first, Phelps is soft-spoken; he seems almost gentle. In this atmosphere, his frequent references to “fags” and “dykes” explode like firecrackers. When he goes to a local barbershop to get his hair trimmed in preparation for his Springer appearance, he waits outside in near-freezing temperatures until it’s time for his appointment, too shy to interrupt the two beauticians and their matronly customers. Phelps is an outsider, and he has spent his life actively pursuing that role.
His regular performances as a fire-and-brimstone preacher started long ago. Hanging on his office wall is a framed article from a 1951 issue of Time, which describes the 21-year-old Phelps, then a student at John Muir College in Pasadena, California, preaching to fellow students against “promiscuous petting” and “pandering to lusts of the flesh.”
He launched Westboro in 1955 after he and Margie moved to Topeka; in 1962, he earned a law degree from nearby Washburn University. That’s when this icon of religious intolerance became a civil rights attorney. “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town,” he says. While this is clearly an overstatement, local officials confirm that he approached this earlier cause with customary zeal.
Phelps sees no difference between the cause he stood for then and the one he stands for now. Today, he says, the increasing acceptance of gays in America reflects a growing immorality to which much of society is turning a blind eye, just as it once did to racial discrimination. And considering how unpopular his cause as a civil rights attorney must have been in Kansas in the early 1960s, it’s not surprising Phelps would link the two. Once again, it’s Phelps against the world. And the world is wrong.
His career as a lawyer ended in 1979, when Phelps was disbarred by the state of Kansas for allegedly being too abusive to witnesses. Phelps seems to have compensated for being forced to leave the law by grooming his children to take up the profession: Eleven of his children now have law degrees.
Phelps remained prominent in state and local politics, working for years as a major organizer for the state’s Democratic Party. (He still calls himself a Democrat, refusing to change just because his party has.) In 1988, Phelps housed campaign workers for Al Gore’s first presidential run; in 1989, his eldest son, Fred Jr., hosted a fundraiser for Gore’s Senate campaign at his home.
Phelps has frequently run for public office — for governor in 1990, ’94, and ’98, for the Senate in ’92 — always losing the primaries by a landslide. Because of their years as loyal Democrats, the Phelpses have even been invited to — and attended — both of Clinton’s inaugurations. They protested at the second one. But Phelps’ campaign against homosexuality actually began in earnest just before the 1992 campaign, when politicians, especially Democrats, began to openly court gay voters.
(When asked if he has ever actually known any homosexuals, Phelps misreads the question. The fixed smile and soft voice end: “Heavens, no! There’s nothing like that in my past! My goodness, no!… I didn’t even know what a fag was!”)
Phelps started locally: In June 1991, he led a picket of Gage Park, a popular Topeka recreation area that, according to Phelps, had been “taken over by sodomites.” The pickets multiplied rapidly — his group began to demonstrate outside local businesses that employed people Phelps suspected were gay and funerals of people Phelps believed had died of AIDS. He then turned his attention to national events: During a 1993 gay rights march on Washington, D.C., Phelps and his group heckled the marchers; ABC’s “20/20” captured Phelps lying prostrate on a sidewalk after being maced by an angry demonstrator.
Also during those years came the faxes. Already picketing daily in Topeka, the Phelpses began to shower faxes on the community, targeting business and political leaders they disagreed with. After Topeka councilwoman Beth Mechler publicly doubted Phelps’ claims that wild gay sex was occurring in Gage Park, Phelps fired off a fax calling her a “Jezebellian switch-hitting whore.”
If Phelps had stopped with mere name-calling, the faxes might have been ignored. But he somehow obtained and disseminated Mechler’s confidential blood bank records, revealing that she had hepatitis antibodies; he suggested that they were evidence of a sexually transmitted disease. She denied it, and tried to point out the numerous ways one can contract hepatitis. Still, Mechler lost her next re-election race. Embittered and dispirited, she then left politics for good.
Local district attorney Joan Hamilton, a frequent Phelps foe, faced his wrath after he mysteriously obtained — and again rapidly disseminated — a private e-mail Hamilton had sent to her husband that made reference to an apparent “one-night stand.” Hamilton, however, has since been re-elected.
The phelpses rarely bother to protest at the city’s three gay bars, but their power in Topeka is such that they probably don’t need to. Besides, says Phelps, “they’re not the decision-makers. They’re the dregs.”
Club Paradox is Topeka’s young and “hip” gay bar. It’s in a huge second-floor space just a few blocks from the state capitol, with a bar in the front and a stage and a dance floor in the back. On weeknights the bar caters to a dozen or so regulars, but that number balloons on the weekend, when students from the nearby college towns of Manhattan and Lawrence drive in.
On this Saturday night, the club features a fairly tame revue of female strippers. About 50 local lesbians sit close to the stage; a much smaller group of gay men stands in the back, giggling. At the bar is one aggressively obvious straight man. He’s drinking a beer, and sits on a stool with his legs spread apart — wide apart. Periodically, he waves a bill in the air to attract one of the strippers away from the lesbians near the stage; he tucks the money into one of her straps as she playfully bumps and grinds in the ample space between his knees. The strippers, all local women, are full-figured and good-natured.
Also onstage, performing in drag, is the club’s bartender, Jon Johnson. It turns out that Johnson is the person scheduled to “confront” Phelps on the “Jerry Springer Show.” He also alerted its producers to the Phelps family, after having been on a previous show titled “She’s Obsessed With My Man.” Then a witness for his sister’s sister-in-law, he now can’t remember who exactly was obsessed with whose man. He appeared in drag.
“Once they saw [Phelps] up in Chicago, and after I had been talking him up, they gave me a call,” he says. “They said, ‘We want you on, too.'”
There was only one catch: They wanted him to appear in drag again. He agreed, and today he has spent the day as Phelps did, getting ready. He has decided he will wear sequined shorts, a black bustier, platform boots, a tear-away wedding dress, and heavy, heavy makeup.
At 23, Johnson is a gay man who struggled through his teen years under Phelps’ ever-present condemnation. Johnson looks forward to the confrontation, even if he has to do it in high heels. “Phelps is a menace,” he says.
Also at Club Paradox tonight is Sharon York. A 44-year- old caterer and former restaurant manager, she has the voice of a woman who spent years smoking through her shifts. Of all those in Topeka who have had to endure Phelps’ gay-baiting, York has survived his longest sustained attack.
In 1992, York was a manager at a Topeka landmark, the Vintage, a restaurant and bar popular with state and local political leaders. Jonathan Phelps, one of Phelps’ lawyer sons, had represented her in a small legal case in the mid-’80s, and after the family had all but declared war on gays, York, a lesbian, felt betrayed: “It was like being black and finding out you had been represented by the Ku Klux Klan.” The City Council asked community members to form a gay and lesbian task force; by being on it, she hoped to counter the Phelpses’ growing impact.
Phelps immediately began to protest outside the Vintage and never let up. He protested outside the restaurant every single night. His catcalls eventually drove York’s regular customers elsewhere. Finally, after two years of unyielding harangues, the restaurant’s owners fired York in 1994. “It was amicable. They gave me severance pay,” says York. “They were like family to me. I understood.”
Later that year, York landed a job as a catering specialist in nearby Lawrence. Phelps began protesting there as well. The next year, however, Lawrence passed an ordinance that protected gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination.
York returned to work in Topeka in 1996. She is now the concessions manager for a local racetrack. Occasionally, she also works at events for the Topeka Performing Arts Center, which brings her back in touch with some of the political elite that used to frequent the Vintage. Such reunions are bittersweet. “Since then, a lot of them have become [Phelps’] targets, so they understand now,’ she says.
But York doesn’t see why the same thing wouldn’t happen again. “It really got to the point where nobody stood up for me,” she says. “I wish I could say I think things would be different now, but I can’t.” The city task force York joined never accomplished much, and the City Council has resisted approving an initiative like the one in Lawrence that would protect the civil rights of Topeka’s gay and lesbian citizens, including making it illegal for them to be fired because of their sexual orientation.
The cinder-block construction of the city’s oldest gay bar, the Classics, along with its low-slung roof, one small window, and — perhaps most important — its lack of a sign, give it the deliberately nondescript look typical of a Midwestern gay bar. It sits right next to the county prison. Inside it’s warm, with twinkly Christmas lights and the familiar conversations of a neighborhood bar. But no one is willing to talk about Fred Phelps on the record. Says one middle-age professional, “I hate him, but he scares me.”
Whether Westboro Baptist is a church or an official family get-together is a question frequently asked by Phelps’ critics. The IRS considers it a church, though, and that qualifies Westboro for tax breaks on “church activities,” including the $250,000 the family spends traveling to protests each year. The large brood has grown and married and includes 45 grandchildren; they fill the pews during Westboro’s single Sunday service. With one exception, everyone attending the service on this Sunday in December is a relative, either by blood or through marriage.
Not all of the Phelps children have remained loyal to the family. A few years ago, two of his sons told a Topeka reporter that Phelps regularly, and viciously, beat his children with a wooden mattock handle. The brothers, Mark, 44, and Nathan, 40, both now live in Southern California, where Mark owns a small copying business. Today, they stand by their story.
Another sibling, Dortha Bird, 34, has remained in Topeka, where she works as a lawyer. She looks like her sisters: They share a broad, round face and pale eyes. There’s one notable difference: her short hair. Her sisters wear theirs long, nearly waist-length.
Dortha left the family in June 1990, changed her last name to Bird to distance herself from it, and quietly tried to live her life. She married and had a daughter, and recently, she self-published a small booklet, Voice of Wild Bird, whose New Age, spiritual musings would surely alarm her father. She says she’s letting the Topeka AIDS Project sell the book as a fund- raising item.
She generally shuns reporters’ queries. “The reason I’ve never spoken of it? Fear,” she says. But as the years have passed, her fear has subsided. Today, she’s just angry.
“Growing up, it was chaos. It was intense and scary. There was a blowup at least once a week,” she says. She speaks quietly, with calm intensity. She says she was never beaten with the mattock handle as, she attests, her brothers were. She doesn’t flinch or pause when she says that he used a leather shaving strap on the girls. “He would do it in rounds. You’d think he would be finished, then he would get his anger up and do it again. God, that thing stung. You can’t imagine. They left welts that looked hollow inside, like fat little horseshoes.”
Still, she claims she got off easy, learning early to find ways to avoid her father’s anger, and she says the girls had it better than the boys: “He never coldcocked us.”
The siblings who are still close to the family deny abuse ever happened. Shirley, 41 and expecting her tenth child, says, “I would describe it as, We got spanked as kids.” Her sister Rachel, 33, has the same response: “Hit? No. Spanked? Yes.” When asked about her brothers’ allegations that their father beat them with a mattock handle, Rachel replies, “I know that the Bible speaks of a rod. If he was using a rod, then that would be the basis for it.” Phelps declined to comment on these allegations. But in 1994, he told the Topeka Capitol Journal, “There’s not a shred of truth” to his sons’ stories.
In the years since she left, Bird has spoken to her family on only a handful of occasions. She says when she left, she knew there would be no coming back. Her father had always made it clear: “You’re either with us or against us.”
Isn’t it beautiful!” Fred Phelps exclaims. The “Jerry Springer Show” has just called up to cancel his appearance. He forces a broad smile, but his voice has the false ring of a carnival barker’s.
“He can’t take it,” Phelps says. “It shows they’re scared of this message.”
Phelps’ fax machines begin to whir with his latest missive: “Jerry Springer, King of Controversy, Folds Under Fag Pressure.” Actually, a Springer spokeswoman says they canceled the show after the Phelpses proved too demanding.
What does it mean for Fred Phelps when Jerry Springer, king of controversy, won’t put him on his show? Could it mean that Phelps is, as he’s insisting now, just too “hot” for the show? Or could it be that Phelps’ shtick hit a peak at the Shepard funeral only to become tired three months later? Just a few weeks after Springer cancels, Phelps travels to Sacramento, California, to protest another lesbian wedding. This time, the Phelpes, and a dozen others are met by a crowd of nearly 1,000 who turn out in part to squelch Phelps’ message. Worse than the no-show in Nashville, Phelps now mobilizes the masses in solidarity against him.
Ultimately, what does sucess mean for Fred Phelps? He manages perhaps the ultimate spin. “You understand this is a win-win situation for me. If the fags win, and the country accepts them, then fine. Then they win. But it’s the end — and by this, he means, the end. The Bible, he says, makes clear that there will not be room for everyone, but there will be room for him. “Either way, you see, the world will be over, but I win.”