Meet Shirley Phelps. She’s one of the most public, outspoken leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. You’d be hard pressed to find a more anti-gay bunch than them – they’ve unapologetically built their church around homophobia, picketing the funerals of gay people and fallen soldiers with signs that read “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God For Hurricane Katrina” and “Fags Doom Nations”. They’ve been called the most hated family in America, although now that they plan to picket a Heath Ledger memorial service, you can probably add Australia to that list as well.
Now meet Josh Kilmer-Purcell. He’s an American writer, advertising executive, a columnist for Out Magazine and a former drag queen. His memoir I Am Not Myself These Days, which tells the story of his relationship with a crack-addicted male escort, is a New York Times bestseller. When it comes to being an out, proud gay man, he’s right up there.
Believe it or not, Shirley and Josh are good friends.
Josh has long felt that the Phelps family actually helps push the gay rights movement forward. He says that the Phelps are so extreme that even most homophobes out there hate their methods. Josh says the general public need to be asked – are you with the Phelps, or are you with the gays? There is no middle ground.
“Last time I checked there was only an equal sign or a not equal sign,” says Josh. “Many gay people let their politicians, family and friends get away with ‘homophobia-lite.’ By that I mean things like civil unions but not marriage or loving the sinner but not the sin. These are all very polite ways of telling us that we’re not equal to them.” Josh says that while Shirley regards us as perverted sinners, at least she’s upfront about it. “I happen to respect [her] integrity more than the polite homophobes.”
Shirley adds, “That’s right! To say you are a little here and a little there on these issues would be like saying you are a little dead or a little pregnant!”
Last year US courts ordered the Phelps to fork out $11.7 million (AUD) in damages for picketing at a soldier’s funeral. When it looked like it would financially cripple the church and drive them out of business, Josh took matters into his own hands and set out to raise the funds necessary to clear their debt. “However, [my] initial check for $100 was returned with a sincere message that the Westboro Baptist Church accepts no financial donations from anyone – friend or foe,” says Josh. While the fund didn’t get off the ground, an unlikely friendship did.
“I like Shirley,” says Josh. “She has a wicked sense of irony, and exposes hypocrisy with cutting insults and smiley face emoticons. Shirley grew up in a religious belief system that happens to be different than mine, but she also grew up with brothers and sisters, and favourite foods, and sunshine, and toys, and crushes, and children, and a whole lot of the same things that I did. The same things we all did.” Josh says that instead of spending all our time trying to change people’s minds on particular issues, we should focus on clarifying people’s positions instead. “I’d rather spend my time [working out if] you’re a homophobe or not. After that’s clear, we can all just get on with the things we have in common.”
Josh says that he’s had a wide range of responses to his newfound friend. “I had some reactions expressing extreme disagreement and many other people write that they don’t agree with my points,” says Josh. “I will always go on record, however, condemning the Phelps’ picketing of funerals. They have explained their reasoning, which I disagree with, but I’ll always help protect their legal rights to do so.” Josh says that the most radical response he’s received so far has been from Nate Phelps – Shirley’s brother. “He has been estranged from the family for over a decade and he wanted to express his agreement with the position that Westboro Baptist Church does more good for gay rights than bad.”
“Nathan has been gone for over thirty years,” adds Shirley. “He does not know us – before he left at eighteen he co-existed among us – the lights were on, but nobody was home. He always had his mind on the next mischief he was going to engage in.”
So what’s the next step for the Phelps? How will they be dealing with the hefty bill they’re facing? “I assume, since many of them are lawyers, that they will keep appealing as long as they can,” says Josh. “They will frame the issue as a First Amendment issue – free speech, religious freedom. People mistakenly conclude that the Phelps’ are uneducated whackos, but they’re actually very well educated. Several family members make up a law firm dating back decades, and have made a specialty out of defending civil rights. Fred Phelps, the patriarch, has even received commendations for his work defending civil rights of African Americans. They are a far more complex family than people assume them to be.”
“You cannot put people on trial for their religious beliefs and practices in doomed America, that is the most fundamental and organic law of this land,” says Shirley. “[However they did put] us on trial for our religious beliefs and practices in doomed America – before the eyes of the whole world!” Shirley says that they’ve been hitting the streets in America for seventeen years, they’ve held in excess of 34,000 pickets to date and no judge is going to stop them. “What happened when we were put on trial for our religion in arrogant, first amendment bragging doomed America? You know! Our words exploded all over the world! Yeah baby! When Al Jazeera called me a few days after that verdict and said, ‘I am calling because your message has exploded all over the world,’ well, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
This week while speaking with comedian Margaret Cho, she came up with the theory that perhaps the Phelps’ are a really underground extreme queer organisation, working to push the community towards gay rights and away from homophobia. It’s such a radical concept, she might actually be onto something. So if Shirley and her posse are doing so much for gay rights, how would she feel about becoming a gay icon? “I love the idea!” says Josh, “She’d probably get a kick out of it too. Maybe we can all work together on a musical called ‘Shirley You Jest!’”
“Our message is a message of love – not hate,” says Shirley. “You don’t get to set the standards, god has already done that! We are the ones that love our neighbour – if you don’t warn your neighbour that their sin is taking them to hell… you hate your neighbour in your heart! I am not hatin’.”
“I don’t know if Shirley really cares whether or not their actions work in our favour,” says Josh. “Shirley and the entire church believe that warning the world about the sin of homosexuality is the gospel which God sent them to preach. They do not hate [us], they believe God does… As long as I believe that someone is sincerely acting out of what they think is love, I have no qualms with loving them right back.”
Shirley ties things up beautifully with a statement that almost sounds pro-gay marriage. “If it is okay to be gay then [everyone out there needs] to shut the heck up about no gay marriage, no gay this or that, they need to shut up about sin.” She asks, if everyone is so against homophobia, where were they when Westboro were only picketing at gay people’s funerals? “Where was their outrage… before the dead soldiers? They are so mad because they worship the military, the dead and the flag and we have stomped all over their idols and false gods.”
Many will write Josh off as a nutter or a traitor. They won’t want to take the time to look beyond the unpleasant words and methods of Westboro to see where he’s coming from. To say that Westboro might be the most important gay activists since Stonewall is a pretty big call, but he’s actually got a point.
“They give homophobes a bad name. [They] don’t hide their repugnance under a bushel,” says Josh. “Every time they appear on the nation’s television screens, they show millions… just how ugly unadulterated bigotry is.”
They show the general population just what us gays are up against. It’s pretty hard to argue with that.