Today was one of the more interesting days on the trip. We woke up in Topeka, Kansas and started looking for an interview. I wanted to interview someone from the Phelps clan (www.GodHatesFags.com). The Phelps family travels all over the country picketing high school gay/straight alliance clubs, productions of the Laramie Project, soldier’s funerals, churches, court houses, and numerous other events. The family is infamous for their “God Hates Fags” message. They are all affiliated with the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), although it is not a real Baptist church.
WBC is the most anti-gay organization in America. They are classified as a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. No other group spreads as much hatred toward the LGBTQ community as the Phelps family. I wanted to talk to them. In addition to Driving Equality, I also organize counter-protests to the Phelps’ pickets all across the country. I run the website, Phelps-A-Thon.com, which turns Phelps’ pickets into fundraising events for gay/straight alliance and LGBT community centers. When WBC goes to a high school to protest the school’s gay/straight alliance, I organize a Phelps-A-Thon. Folks in the local community can pledge online for every minute the Phelps family protests at the school. All the funds raised go to the gay/straight alliance. The longer they picket, the more money they raise for the group they are protesting.
I called the Westboro Baptist Church. A few minutes later, I got a call back from Shirley Phelps-Roper herself. Shirley is the new leader of the Phelps clan, since Fred has gotten old and had to step back. You may have seen her on the Tyra Banks show (check it out if you missed it). I have seen her in action at protests all over the country and have been counter-protesting the Phelps clan for the past five years. I even remember seeing Shirley there to celebrate with us at midnight on May 17th, 2004 when Cambridge became the first city to legalize same-sex marriage.
I told Shirley that I was making a documentary about the fight for gay rights in America and that I wanted to interview her. She agreed to speak to me on camera. I had a couple of hours to prepare for the interview. Then I headed over to the Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps family compound. I arrived at the house and rang the doorbell, not sure what to expect. Shirley’s daughter, Meghan opened the door. She was incredibly nice. In fact, the whole family was nice to me.
I was invited in to their home and allowed to set up my lights and cameras. Meghan asked if I wanted a few of the infamous signs to put in the background for the shot. I said that would be great and asked for the gayest signs they had. Shirley and I put on our mics and sat on the couch. We had an interesting conversation about…hmmm…I’m not really sure what we talked about. It was kind of confusing. She told me that god hates fags and fag enablers and America and rebels and basically everyone. She threw out a lot of bible versus and rambled a lot. We talked about almost everything. I interviewed her on camera for two hours. I will need to look at the footage to describe the conversation better. It was pretty surreal.
After the interview, Shirley showed me around WBC headquarters. I got to see the office and get a glimpse at how organized they are. They send teams of folks to protest all over the country everyday. It is like an ongoing military operation. They showed me a small stash of the sign collection. I told them that I would love a sign and Meghan offered to give me one. I asked for a gay sign and Shirley suggested the classic, “God Hates Fags.” Perfect! I now have my very own, original “God Hates Fags” sign from Shirley Phelps-Roper herself.
Meghan offered to show me where the signs are made. I jumped at the chance and grabbed the camera. She took me into the sign making studio, made up of computers for creating new designs, a huge printer, a laminator, and other sign making tools. It was pretty impressive. Then she showed me the sign storage garage. It was like seeing the anti-gay sign holy grail. There were thousands of the infamous WBC signs everywhere I looked. It was overwhelming. There must have been over 5000 signs. They were all organized by topic: anti-gay, anti-church, anti-politician, anti-jew, anti-school, pro-9/11, pro-shuttle disaster, pro-dead soldiers….the list goes on and on.
After the tour, I hung out in the office with Shirley and a few of the other family members. They were on the phone and computers setting up the next protests; the funeral of a doctor who performed abortions that was recently murdered. After spending some time in their home I was invited to a picket that night at the Topeka City Council meeting. I told them that I would meet them there to film the protest. It was raining hard, but they picketed in the street. I filmed them from inside the van. I spent close to five hours with the Phelps family. It was one of the craziest days of my life.
Special thanks to Shirley and the Phelps family for raising thousands of dollars for Driving Equality and for LGBTQ youth all over America. It was kind of ironic to film my interview with Shirley using the camera that her actions helped pay for. It was like my life had come full circle, or like I had crossed the streams or something. Very weird day.
After my time with the Phelps family we got a call from Randy, the former president of Kansas Equality Coalition. We met Randy at his apartment and interviewed him about the state of equality in Kansas. Randy told us about the hardships the LGBTQ community faces in Kansas and what progress is being made. He also shared with us his own story of the Phelps family. He grew up in Topeka and went to school with some of the Phelpses. Randy’s brother was also gay. He died from AIDS in the early 90’s. The Phelps clan protested at the funeral of Randy’s brother. It was one of the first funerals WBC picketed. Since then they have become infamous for protesting the funerals of gay men who have died from AIDS, Mathew Shepard, and now soldiers that have died in Iraq. Special thanks to Randy for sharing his story with us.
If you like what we are doing, please make a contribution to keep us on the road.
Below will soon be a short clip of my two hour interview with Shirley Phelps-Roper. It is 2AM and I’m at IHOP trying to upload this video and it isn’t working. I’ll try again later. Check back tomorrow night.
UPDATE: Here is just a short clip of my interview with Shirley. Below that is a clip of our interview with Randy.