For most of my adolescence and early adult life, my life’s purpose was to protest homosexuality in God’s name. I really believed, to my very core, that gay people were destroying not only America, but the entire world. And that it was my job to let the world know just that.
The church is made up of about 70 people, and 90 percent of them are members of my immediate or extended family. WBC is best known for its picketing, which began in earnest in the early 1990s. We picketed pop concerts, football games, churches of every denomination and, most notoriously, the funerals of American servicemen and victims of hate crimes.
You know who we are. You’ve gasped at television footage of me and my family at memorial services for American soldiers, waving signs that say “Thanks God For Dead Soldiers.” You have seen the images, each colorful neon sign emblazoned with a hateful, shocking slogan: “God: USA’s Terrorist.” “God Hates Jews.” “Thank God for 9/11.” The international media have covered our protests with unflagging interest, to the deep satisfaction of the WBC leaders my aunts, Shirl and Marge, and my grandfather, Fred, the group’s pastor and founder.
I was involved in a group so inflammatory that their website is named www.godhatesfags.com. People sometimes ask why it took me so long to leave. I seem so well-adjusted and, well, normal, so they don’t understand how I could have ever thought my family and their beliefs were anything but hateful.
But, for almost 26 years, I was more than just sheltered. I was warned against the outside world: again and again, in sermons and private conversations, I was told that people outside of WBC were sinners, alcoholics, drug addicts, lost souls with no moral compass. So I was terrified of what lurked beyond the protective walls my family had carefully erected around me -– especially of gay people, because according to the WBC, homosexuals were the absolute worst group of people in the world.
From as long as I can remember, I was told daily that they were the bottom rung on the ladder of depravity and were sending America to hell in a “faggot’s hand basket.” Gays were to blame for all the natural disasters, terrorist attacks and school shootings. But their enablers were just as bad: anyone who didn’t believe in what WBC preached, anyone who didn’t attend WBC was going to hell, where the worm that eats on you never dies and your thirst is never quenched. Where fire will shoot out of your eyeballs and your body’s tolerance for pain will incrementally rise so there is never any level of comfort.
My only view of life outside WBC was that it was an orgy of sin. That absolutely everyone was bound for eternal damnation.
The seeds of doubt sprouted in me at 17, on a Midwestern road trip with my family.
“What would we talk about if we didn’t talk about picketing?” my sister Sara chirped in the car.
“Don’t even think that way,” my dad chided her.
My aunts, Shirl and Marge, were a fearsome duo who ruled WBC with an iron fist and it was when they made me the target for their wrathful machinations that I was finally emboldened to leave; the prospect of staying in the church was finally worse than my fear of the unknown.
I needed my family to reject me before I allowed myself to act on the impulse I had felt, but never spoken of, for many years. I couldn’t picket any longer and I couldn’t continue telling people that God hated them. So I packed up and moved to a city 30 minutes away from WBC, and I’ve been forbidden to talk to my parents, siblings, cousins and friends still connected with the church ever since.
It’s been four years and I continue to be a work in progress. For a long time I was scared of how my parents, my entire family, would react to what I had to say. It may sound foolish or paranoid, but I became convinced they were godlike and were somehow able to observe me at all times.
I understand the world sees Fred Phelps, who founded WBC in 1955, as an evil hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, but to me he was always just Gramps.
Few people can believe it, but Gramps became a civil rights lawyer shortly after starting WBC.
My dad is Fred Phelps, Jr. He was the oldest of 13 children and the only one born outside of Topeka. When I was eight years old and the church’s picketing ministry began in earnest, he would quiz me and my sister Sara before pickets to make sure we knew what we were protesting and why.
For decades after the church’s founding, Gramps worked as a civil rights lawyer during the week, and an old-school preacher on Sundays. My dad followed in his footsteps, working on civil rights cases as well he was Al Gore’s delegate on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 1988.
And then everything changed in 1991.
In June of that year, the picketing ministry of WBC was born. It all began at Gage Park a local “hot-spot” where homosexuals were known to meet and have anonymous sex. For being barely eight at the time, I remember the day well when my family discussed the possibility of picketing. I could tell a serious discussion was taking place by their hushed sounds, as they didn’t want the children to hear exactly what was going on.
Our first picket took place after a church service on a Sunday. We held placards with messages that were not on par with the more popular slogan, “God Hates Fags.” The first sign Gramps made was later framed and hung inside the church’s green office, named for its green carpet: “Watch Your Kids! Gays in Restrms.”
I was told Gramps wanted to clean up the park for him and his grandchildren to enjoy it. My family initially thought other churches would see the problem and come on board and help with the picketing. The opposite happened. They started preaching against the signs. So my family started picketing local churches regularly.
From there, the church moved on to bigger venues, sending groups of picketers all over the United States. WBC’s message eventually spread to just about every country in the world it’s so easy, thanks to the Internet and relentless journalists who visit the church regularly and keep the world appraised of WBC’s every move.
Initially, we had a calling tree to figure out who could go to which out-of-town pickets. As technology progressed and members became computer-savvy, a program was designed for church members to log in and answer “yes” or “no” to a picket request.
As the pickets progressed and became more extreme (to the point of me getting knocked down at the age of 12 by an angry mob of counter protestors in Golden, CO and getting punched in the face as a young teen at a frequent local Topeka picket) so did the fundamentals of the church itself.
For me, the most disconcerting change was in the way we prayed. Everything changed as a result of a lawsuit filed against the church by Albert Snyder, the father of a U.S. marine killed in Iraq in 2006. WBC members had picketed Matthew Snyder’s funeral, as they had so many others, but the elder Snyder was ready to fight back.
The case became an epic battle for WBC it eventually reached the Supreme Court and all church members were expected to rally around the cause. We actually started praying for people to die. This startling development, along with other extreme updates to WBC doctrine, further chipped away at my faith.
People often wonder about the motive behind WBC’s public face. Do they really believe what they’re doing? Is it all a publicity stunt? Are they doing it simply to be cruel? The bottom line is that they think they, and only they, are God’s servants. God put them on this Earth to spread the Gospel. Gramps saw the increasing prominence of the gay lifestyle as the single biggest indicator that America was headed for ruin, just as in Sodom and Gomorrah.
I heard extreme views like these for as long as I can remember, but I thought I was one of the few people God had selected to be His own. I felt, in a sense, privileged that by the grace of God I was born into this family and believed I was handpicked to represent God on the mean streets of America. I felt this way because that’s how my family raised me to feel.
We were to be thankful we were chosen out of this corrupt and sinful generation while all others were blinded by the truth. That didn’t mean I didn’t have conflicting emotions when something like 9/11 happened, where my initial reaction was pure and utter shock, while the elder church member’s reaction was to joyfully dance (or to dance a little jig, as they so fondly called it).
Since I’d been told what I was told since birth, a lot of it felt normal for me. I learned from a young age to push any “bad” thoughts to the back of my mind, as if those thoughts never existed. I also learned from an early age that these “bad” thoughts were not to be discussed openly for fear of public humiliation within the confines of the church.
The words on the signs (and coming from the picketers’ mouths) are not necessarily written to make people feel bad, but more for the shock factor. Short sound bites grab people’s attention and spark interest. As a result, they will look at the signs and have to make a choice: to serve God by picketing with them (though this has to my knowledge only happened once or twice), or to turn their back to them (which would be like turning their back on God) and be part of reprobate America.
When the picketing first began, WBC targeted the homosexual population. Now they are more likely to be protesting a fallen soldier’s funeral than a gay pride parade. When you look at the places WBC picketed, it seems as if church members are continually compelled to find someone or something to complain about, or they cannot be content.
In the inner workings of the church, the same is true. The elders will find fault with a person, and when that situation is resolved to their satisfaction, they’ll scan the rest of the group in search of another insignificant issue with which to find fault and “correct.” They rebuke one another. I was told sometimes that to “rebuke” means to show honor. It also means to bring something to light and expose it, and shame the person into doing right.
A few months ago, on Anderson Cooper’s show, I was confronted by the mother of a soldier whose funeral had been picketed -– not because he was gay, but because he had been fighting for a country that condoned homosexuality. They only told me it would happen minutes before the show started shooting.
I panicked; I didn’t know what I was going to say. Was I going to apologize or not? Was I going to try and explain the church’s mindset? Seconds before I went out, I decided I wasn’t going to apologize or say I lived in regret. I don’t want to regret anything I’ve done; past experiences made me the person I am today. I can only learn from the past and move forward and be an example to others that change is possible.
But when I found myself face to face with a mother of a fallen soldier and saw how much pain my family (and what I used to do) had caused her and her loved ones, I couldn’t do anything but apologize, even though I had been gone from the church when her son’s funeral was picketed. It simply was the right thing to do.
After this experience, I wondered whether I’d be making amends for my family for the rest of my life. I can only hope that at some point, my actions as I move forward in life will speak for themselves.