As the ever-delightful George Takei and so many other gentle souls make the Internet rounds preaching "turn the other cheek," I have thought much about the time I went undercover inside the Westboro Baptist Church compound, spending several afternoons with Fred Phelps.
In the summer of 1994, writer Donna Minkowitz asked me if I would join her in Kansas to help with logistics and leverage our collective gay-activist connections.
As you might imagine, the LGBTQ people in Kansas were in distress over the ugly actions of Phelps and his extended family, and we were met with warm response for coming all the way from New York. We did note a sense of real intimidation; some LGBTQ Kansans we spoke to were deeply traumatized, not so much by Phelps' grotesqueness but by the tacit complicity they observed in how the greater public shrugged off the media-savvy efforts of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Donna was familiar with my activist work in ACT UP's affinity group Action Tours and had heard that our group would occasionally assemble in my intensely cluttered, bohemian East Village apartment to comb through and assemble faux-elegant evening wear from boxes of sequined fabrics and old tuxedos saved from stage productions I'd designed. Then we would "dress up," sometimes with cocktails in hand, to "Mission Impossibly" infiltrate, disrupt and/or just leaflet VIP events at, say, the Rainbow Room, University Club, or City Hall.
For me and Donna to go undercover, a quick run to the giant Salvation Army in Hell's Kitchen (and about $20) had us frumpily wardrobed for our junket. I was initially concerned that once in costume, Donna ended up reading a little more Hasidic than psycho-Christian, but since I originally hail from the Midwest, I felt confident that this fashion nuance would not be discernible to the Midwestern eye.
As for me, attaining frumpiness came easily; I'd assumed it easily for several ACT UP events when I inhabited my priest character, with a clerical collar made with white duct tape. No one ever looked at me with suspicion; subway-booth attendants would smile and buzz me in, and people passed out on park benches would sit up and smile, saying, "Hello, Father."
Donna made the phone call to arrange to meet Phelps. Our cover story about being writers for a small Christian publication was much easier to pull off then; the Internet had not matured yet, so Phelps could not Google our "publication" to find a 404 error or pictures of both Donna and me in the gay press.
Still, his eagerness to bring us "inside the compound" gave us both pause. I recalled how terrified I had been when I'd gone undercover to a couple of Ku Klux Klan events a decade earlier. I had been writing a play, We Shall Not All Sleep, about a Klansman who had "outed" himself at a local City Hall meeting by pulling off his hood so that he could shout at a black crosstown-busing organizer. (They eventually became close friends and were both considered traitors by many within their respective communities.) To research the play, I'd managed to wrangle myself into three Klan events as a "journalist from Iowa," and to be taken to two of them, I was blindfolded. The two events in the South, one a "graduation" of teens into their chapter, felt far more community/Knights-of-Columbia than horrific-neo-Nazi-skinhead. Only at the rally near Hartford, Ct., did I actually fear their palpable, vicious venom.
But inside the square-block Westboro compound that warm summer day, our fears were palliated; the Fred Phelps we met was in workday mode. As you would expect, he was a braggart, but he mainly wanted to demonstrate to us what an efficient operation he led. Like a company marketeer, he proudly walked us around, Vanna Whiteing the number of printers and fax machines. Then he moved on to extolling the impressive academic accomplishments of his offspring and their spouses.
In the compound's courtyard we heard the quiet activity of his well-mannered next generation on a small swing set.
Phelps' demeanor was relaxed. He was generally uninterested in us personally, only casually testing us, throwing around some of his favorite expressions about "New York City rectumites." He would carefully check our expressions each time he'd say "sodomite," "fag," "monkey," or "liberal" -- all of which he savored gleefully as "naughty words." But overall he was more methodical in discussing with us the importance of his calling -- more than one time gesturing to the children out the window.
Photo by Jamie Leo
After each of our three days with him, as soon as we would leave the compound, we'd flee into the arms of some of our local LGBTQ hosts, who would repeatedly beg us to please keep in mind the thriving progressive communities in Kansas. Then they'd show us "the sights," a heavily cruisey park or an all-blonde, blue-eyed, Scandinavian community production of A Fiddler on the Roof.
The queasiest day for us both was when Phelps urged us to join his party in protesting a Deepak Chopra lecture. Of course, it was the ultimate fun-house-mirror test as we stood with Phelps and his clan and their "FAGS BURN IN HELL" signs (as far behind and to the side as possible without stirring suspicion), watching so many of an educated audience -- about to hear Chopra's enlightened ideas -- seethe with rage and snarl as they passed us.
On our last day Phelps thanked us for our time and expressed hope that we would succeed on our mission for Christ.
And it seemed that Fred's guardian angels were looking out for him. Back at the motel we learned that days of footage that I'd shot had jammed, irreparably, in the rental video camera. We'd lost it all: Fred's jokes, his wife's cautious but gracious hospitality, some frothing new-agers.
Maybe living with the loss of that footage is one of the reasons that I feel so strongly that whether we say "rest in peace" or "ding, dong, the witch is dead," we must study and dissect as much as we can of Fred Phelps so that we might learn how to understand and resist missionaries for and exporters of hate, in ourselves as in the Other.