I long entertained a fantasy that the rabidly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church is actually a brilliant performance art piece orchestrated from some remote island by Andy Kaufman, who is alive, well and laughing uproariously at his handiwork. They have to be a joke, I thought.
Then ex-WBC member Lauren Drain wrote a book about her experience being booted from the church at 21, and then two of Fred Phelps’s granddaughters left the church last year, so I grudgingly accepted the reality that the WBC wasn’t an awesome joke perpetrated by Andy Kaufman. The cartoonishly hate-filled villains that criss-cross the nation staging deranged protests at funerals and running a website with the url GodHatesFags.com, shockingly, must be flesh-and-blood human beings.
Thankfully — praise Jesus — the number of WBC members is shrinking, by all accounts. By 2011, membership reportedly was down to 40 members, most of whom are descendants of founder Fred Phelps. Since the church preaches that anyone who isn’t a member of the WBC is going to rot in hell, it’s presumably difficult for members to find people to have sex with who aren’t their relatives.
Recent defections have led some to question the WBC’s ability to hold onto its younger members. Libby Phelps-Alvarez wrote about breaking from the church for xojane.com. Drain wrote a book, Betrayed: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, that describes her teen years in the church before her ousting at age 21; Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a very vocal member before leaving the WBC last year, has been fairly candid about the hypocrisy she saw in her church’s doctrine that led her to make the split. From an interview with journalist Jeff Chu:
“She started to question another Westboro sign, ‘Fags can’t repent.’ ‘It seemed misleading and dishonest. Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church. But this one thing—it gives the impression that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin,’ she says. ‘It didn’t make sense. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending. It’s like saying, ‘You’re doomed! Bye!’ and gives no hope for salvation.’”
Whether the remaining church members are true believers of the hateful shit they spew or not, they are undeniably media whores on a par with PETA in their shamelessness. For years, like everyone else, I’ve seen news stories about the WBC’s latest demented protest plan posted by outraged friends on Facebook. Over time, I’ve not only gotten a bit desensitized about WBC’s possible impact – how could anyone listen to them or take them seriously? — I’ve gotten increasingly annoyed that anyone is paying attention to them at all. “Don’t encourage them!” I want to yell (even though writing about shameful things that people do is how I make much of my living). My disgust with this whorey Kansas church inspired a self-imposed ban on Westboro Baptist press.
But some Westboro-related press has been pretty uplifting. A group of cyclists have reportedly staged anti-WBC protests during their protests, and ListVerse reported on the group Anonymous’s harassment of the WBC: “When they again threatened to picket at the Boston Marathon funerals, Anonymous released the statement: ‘If #WBC protests the Boston funerals, they will have to expect us.’ Soon afterwards, they sacked the WBC website, posting such fare as inspirational pictures of Martin Luther King, and photos of cute kittens.”
I’m lifting my WBC ban today because of another pretty delightful anti-WBC protest that two University of Missouri sophomores organized in support of Michael Sam. Sam, the school’s former defensive end who told a reporter for The New York Times about his intention to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, made his first public appearance since the news about his sexuality broke at the University of Missouri’s home game against Tennessee over the weekend. But although the WBC made a beeline to the game to trot out their “God hates fags” crap, around 1,000 students, reportedly, formed a “human wall” around the stadium, blocking the WBC protesters from view. First Lady Michelle Obama was one of many who tweeted her support to #StandWithSam on Twitter, and after the game Sam tweeted:
And warm fuzzies were had by all. Or by almost all.
While researching the latest dealings of the WBC, I not only saw an amusing ticker on their site of how many people God has cast into hell since I visited their website (three every two seconds, according to these omniscient homophobes) and listened to their parody of Katy Perry’s “Roaring” (in the WBC version, the roaring is God’s fury about gay marriage), I came across a story about Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, the sisters who both left the church one year ago. Their friend Jeff Chu wrote another lengthy profile of Phelps-Roper that is pretty interesting. He writes:
“Lately, Megan has been thinking about how to begin making amends to the gay community and to military families. ‘It’s really hard for me to think about sometimes,’ she says. ‘There are the families whose funerals we protested—the parents, the sons and daughters, the siblings. I’ve been thinking about a girl in a class we attended at McGill University. It was a gender-and-women’s-studies course. She was really angry. One of her friends was gay and had committed suicide. You can say our intentions were good, but there were definitely people that we hurt, and that’s hard to face. But I feel a need to connect with people, to try to repair some of what I am afraid is irreparable. All I can do is try.’
“Grace she finds herself defending her family when she hears them criticized, gingerly trying to navigate a thicket of emotions and contradictions. ‘I’ve argued with so many people at my school: Don’t write off my family. They’re not evil,’ she says. ‘It may be wrong what they do, but I want to say, ‘Can’t you understand?’”
I don’t know how you come back from publicly denouncing homosexuality your whole life and celebrating the deaths of people who had sex in ways you think is wrong, right in front of their grieving family and friends. But Megan and Grace should be applauded for leaving their family and their bizarre religion and at least trying to make amends. Chu’s article also managed to humanize a couple (albeit ex-) members of the church for me in a way that one would think isn’t at all possible. It is clear that WBC is completely f**ked, but the Phelps-Roper sisters do give some hope for change. Because if anyone can grow up in the atmosphere they did and eventually reconsider the idea that gays are evil and will burn in hell for eternity, anything is possible.
But with the church’s dwindling membership, its increasingly laughable reputation and growing legal troubles, it won’t take many more member epiphanies to kill the WBC. Nature is taking its course and killing off the weak and unsustainable.
(And if you’ve never seen the WBC’s parody of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” video, do yourself a favor.)
(Sorry, Megan. Too good.)
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.