Few in the LGBT community, and indeed few who have paid much attention to the national news in recent years, have escaped the antics of Westboro Baptist Church, a peculiar group from Topeka, Kan. who traipse around the country protesting at funerals for victims of anti-gay violence like Matthew Shepard and for fallen American service members, and at events of social significance, like last month's dedication of the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. Westboro is monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League as a hate group alongside the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk.
Westboro, largely composed of the extended family of Reverend Fred Phelps, is not part of the mainstream Baptist church. Indeed, Baptists often bristle at WBC using the name Baptist and have publicly distanced themselves from Westboro. They, along with others, are distressed as the WBC congregation assembles with lurid, day-glow protest signs proclaiming "Fags Die, God Laughs" and "God Hates America" and flinging their verbal poo at distressed family members of the deceased.
Members of the Phelps family say their motivation is to save the souls of homosexuals by providing the sternest of warnings of God's intended wrath, should the gays not see the error of their ways and repent. WBC protests American soldiers' funerals because the service members were "struck down by God for fighting for a depraved nation." Westboro members feel it's their duty to make the error of our ways impossible to ignore.
The result is a marvel of schizophrenia: they spout Bible verses interspersed with base insults and flat-out vulgarity, the result reminiscent of the rant of someone with Tourette syndrome. There's an odd folksiness to some of their messaging -- they vary between calling gays "sodomite fags" and "chuckleheads." They cheerfully refer to the pastor of the church I attend as "a whore."
It is, however, a winning strategy for Westboro, whose goals are to spread their peculiar messaging while sustaining and growing as an organization. Its members' shtick is intentionally shocking enough to horrify us, grab news headlines and thus spread far further than it would on, as Robert Frost would say, its own melting. The increasingly viral nature of how we share news is benefitting Westboro, as well. Its members are masters of social media, and their website is surprisingly thorough, crisp and as easy to navigate as any major newspaper or advocacy site. To be sure, the Phelps family is not made up of dummies. There are legal minds among them quite familiar with free speech law. Westboro has been involved in a number of lawsuits following their protests and have a track record of both winning cases and walking away with financial spoils, which then may be spent to further Westboro's campaign of protests.
WBC members are no strangers to legal obstacles. In anticipation of Westboro protests, various state legislatures have pushed through measures restricting protest activities. In January of this year, the Arizona legislature held an emergency session to pass a bill preventing WBC from mocking the funerals of those killed in the Tucson shooting massacre.
Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation passed enthusiastically by the state's Assembly that would have required Westboro and other protesters to stay back 100 yards from mourners at funerals of soldiers and others. Explaining his veto, Brown said he agreed with the spirit of the law but felt it constitutionally invalid following a March 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found, in an eight-to-one decision, that a similar protest by WBC was within their First Amendment right to free speech.
Westboro's unpopular speech has resulted in no end of hand-wringing by LGBT and human rights activists and drawn ire from religious and political voices.
"Topeka is now identified with Fred Phelps," Joan Wagnon, chagrined then-mayor of Topeka, told a newspaper back in 1997. "If someone could figure out how to get him off the streets, they could be elected mayor for life."
Rebuke for Westboro comes from all sides. Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly stands beside ultra-liberal filmmaker Michael Moore in denouncing the Phelps family's actions. The Anti-Defamation League takes no exception to Jerry Falwell calling Fred Phelps "a first-class nut." Even the Ku Klux Klan has publicly distanced itself from WBC.
My own relationship with Westboro and the Phelps family began in 2007, when I was doing a daily video blog and found myself in the odd position of defending WBC's right to bark their Biblical gobbledygook and historical inversion. (In 1996 Fred Phelps proclaimed, "Homosexuals and Jews dominated Nazi Germany. Jews now wander the world, despised.") I myself have always had non-mainstream messaging to promote, and it felt hypocritical for me to cling to rights that allow my unpopular speech to be heard while shushing the speech of another.
It is, of course, folly for a society to allow all speech. Some speech is so potentially harmful that the risk of negative repercussion is greater than the benefit we receive from the plurality of voice. Incendiary speech can be a risk to public safety -- like the classic example of shouting fire in a crowded theatre -- and incite violence or crime. Westboro is on shaky ground here: while their stated goal is to save souls, they have espoused capital punishment for homosexuality. You can't effectively save the soul of someone you've just put to death.
It is also important to note the subtler, sometimes devastating effects of speech and messaging on our view of selves and others, and how this can lead to bullying and self-destructive behavior. This is a particularly sensitive point in regard to those, like LGBT youth, who are already disenfranchised.
But my draw to Westboro was more than just a matter of free speech. There was something in both their cartoonish messaging, and their approach, that fascinated me.
Last year, I decided to publicly engage with the group. I can't remember whether it was Rebekah Phelps-Roper who first retweeted something I'd said and attached a saucy rebuttal, or whether it was I who retweeted her. But the result was an ongoing, oddly playful public dustup. I found that I didn't have to defend LGBT positions; with each of Rebekah's and my exchanges, a number of followers would chime in with furious rebukes to whatever she was saying.
My evolving dialogue with the Phelps family is even more curious in light of my role with the NOH8 Campaign, a popular pro-equality, anti-bullying effort Westboro has assailed with a pushback they call their GODH8s Campaign.
Over the months, I made several discoveries.
First, I was stripped of any hope of forging ideological inroads with Westboro members. The lead-with-love activist in me wants to take the approach an optimistic Jane Goodall once described this way: "Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right."
Unfortunately, this is a nonstarter with WBC. Whatever dialogue I may have with its members, a softening of their stance would be antithetical to their goal: to horrify us into repentance and to garner attention by the ferocity of their messaging. If they were more Christ-like in their actions, it would undercut this basic methodology.
Second, I saw remarkably uncivil speech coming from my own community. It seemed each time a Westboro member would tweet or post a cautionary Bible verse at me, it would prompt a series of responses from alleged NOH8ers so vile that the invective would make the stony-faced flush crimson. "Die now, you fuckers," is typical.
The antipathy is understandable. WBC has long degraded us, and we're mad as hell. But any time indignation leads us to abandon the Golden Rule and assail others for our own injuries, we've morally run aground and ought to do some hard self-examination. "An eye for an eye" is not the approach taught by Christ, nor by Judaism, nor Islam, and it has no place in a movement rooted in compassion.
Third, I figured out why I'd instinctually given WBC not just a First Amendment nod but an online platform of sorts, a move for which I've caught heat from fellow LGBT activists. WBC's website tells the story this way:
When NOH8 Board member, Ben Patrick Johnson, was confronted with a little truth (i.e. fags doom nations) from a WBC member on Twitter, he accused her of calling him "vile names" while claiming that he has heroically & publicly defended WBC's rights to say what they say. He went so far as to use her own bio against WBC. But as our name is synonymous with our (God's) message, and we are a publishing company after all, WBC rejoiced when Ben's tweet landed into 72,000+ twitter machines! As WBC did each time the Lord put it into @benpatrick90069's heart to RT some good Bible sentiments from WBC members.
Thus, I found myself in a symbiotic relationship with Westboro. Their goals were served by my drawing attention to them. And I had found an ideal "villain" whose positions are utterly unpalatable not just to the LGBT community, but to Americans in general.
In presenting Westboro as the face of the anti-LGBT, we portray our broader opposition --without using any hate speech or antipathy of our own -- in the ugliest of light. While mainstream opposition voices make arguments that have some degree of emotional appeal, Westboro gets no traction. It's Westboro's crazy messaging we want in voters' heads as they walk into a voting booth, not Maggie Gallagher and NOM's taglines, which can and do sound reasonable to some voters.
I certainly didn't come up with the strategy of leveraging the opposition fringe's messaging to suit my own ends -- people have been doing it as long as rhetoric has existed -- but the approach plays deliciously in regard to WBC.
In May, comedienne Lisa Lampanelli made headlines by vowing to donate $1,000 to the Gay Men's Health Crisis in the name of every WBC protester who showed up at her show in Topeka. She'd called WBC "silly losers" on Twitter after they condemned her for supporting gay rights. "If they're going to protest me," Lampanelli asked, "how can we turn this into a little love too, and kind of turn it on them?" Her stunt resulted in a $44,000 donation to GMHC.
So I will continue my approach, despite the risk of some of Westboro's messaging actually connecting and harming LGBT people. It is vital that those who wish their speech to be heard to defend the right of others to speak. And for our own political ends, Westboro is a perfect-storm confluence of crazy we will do well to promote instead of attempt to silence.
Follow Ben Patrick Johnson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BenPatrick90069