“Queer Talk” now appears every Saturday afternoon.
To anyone aware of the “Reverend” Fred Phelps, and his (primarily family members) Westboro Baptist Church (independent and unaffiliated), of Topeka, Kansas, the announcement of “God Hates” protests at funerals of victims of the shootings in Tucson was not a surprise. This is the same group that picketed the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards, carrying their typical signs, including “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
With this national moment’s focus on “civility,” and with Phelps not surprising insertion of WBC into Tucson, I started thinking about responses to hateful (not simply angry) words, not just toward Queerdom, but toward whichever group such words are directed. Do you give the attention obviously desired, by responding? Do you ignore them? The arguments for providing no attention are persuasive, and in terms of actually standing across from the Phelps clan, the people with whom I’ve stood have made that choice. We did fill the silence with quotations about equality from a wide variety of people, MLK to Audre Lorde, among others. And I find myself now thinking of something Lorde has written: “Your silence will not protect you.”
On Thursday, the day WBC was scheduled to protest at the funeral of nine year old Christina Greene, the group announced they would not, in fact, do so. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, the group agreed to skip the funeral “in exchange for air time on 102.1 The Edge in Toronto, Canada, and an interview with KXXT-AM in Phoenix on Saturday morning.” Later, The Capital Journal reported that WBC had received another offer by nationally syndicated talk show host Mike Gallagher, in exchange for their agreement not to picket any of the funerals of the six victims. “(Shirley) Phelps-Roper (a daughter of Fred Phelps) said the decision boiled down to the church being able to communicate its message with as wide an audience as possible. She said Gallagher’s radio audience is estimated to be about 10 million people.”
The Journal also reported that “four other Westboro Baptist members on Friday will travel to Washington, D.C., in order to picket the memorial service for Richard Holbrooke … as well as protest at American University and an Islamic center in Washington, D.C.” This is standard practice for WBC.
Such deals are one solution, keeping the message of hate away from family and friends, and that’s a good. It gives the message of hate several media opportunities, and that might well be troubling to many, a kind of “reward” for the hate. Free speech, of course, involves compromises.
Phelps, (many but not all of) his 13 children, their spouses, and their children are, from my perspective, one of the more virulent and venomous sources of hate speech. They’ve had decades of practice. Broadly, there is a sort of continuum of hate speech. In fact, the “view” of LGBT’s ranges from totally supportive to totally judgmental, from “religious” or other philosophical / ideological positions. Phelps is an extreme, of course, though he does not directly call for the killing of those he claims God hates. Of course, proclaiming that “Fags die. God laughs” does seem to make the preferred outcome obvious.
How do you handle hateful, judgmental words? LGBT’s have been dealing with that dilemma for a long time, as have many other groups. And at least at one time or the other, probably everyone of us. The “how to” fits within the broader national struggles with conversation, particularly political conversation, with the underlying values, and with the practical meaning of “free speech.”
Phelps has websites, “GodHatesFags” and “GodHatesAmerica.” I don’t encourage a visit. I’m actually hesitant about including any of their language, but some is necessary in order for this to make any sense. Prepare to skim and skip if it gets too much, but these are quotes from the flyers and video WBC posted announcing the Tucson protests. The words here are the norm for them, though they are not the worst.
From the Phoenix New Times, excerpts from the flyer:
“THANK GOD FOR THE SHOOTER — 6 DEAD!”
“God appointed this rod for your sins! God sent the shooter!”
According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, the shooting of Rep. Giffords and the murder of Federal Judge John Roll are a punishment of “God,” because of earlier free speech ruling by a Baltimore judge. “That’s why that judge (Roll) is dead. He doesn’t care about free speech.” She continues to say that Jared Loughner is a “tool of god.” He’s “bat-shit crazy … but god sent him. And (god’s) sitting in Heaven laughing at you!”
Before the change in plans, WBC was asked why they would protest at the funeral of a nine year old girl. Phelps-Roper “We’re connecting dots for you rebels … [Greene] was appointed when she was born for this — she just happens to be the one God chose to make an example.” Thankfully that, and other, protests didn’t happen. But there will be more “funeral protests,” and protests at other sites and events with the same words of hate.
There are response, in years past and now related to Tucson. In this case, Arizona state Sen. Kirsten Sinema initiated action that led to Gov. Jan Brewer signing into law “emergency legislation …. Unanimous votes by the House and Senate on Tuesday sent the bill to Brewer. It took effect immediately with her signature Tuesday night. The new law prohibits protests within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service.” Similar laws have been enacted in about 40 other state. “Other legislation (via The Southern Poverty Law Center) sparked by Phelps’ protests includes the federal ‘Fallen Heroes Act.’ Passed in May 2006 after Phelps made headlines targeting the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, it prohibits protests within 300 feet of any national cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral.”
The Anti-Defamation League provides extensive information about WBC, including its claim to have “staged over 40,000 total protests over the years in more than 600 cities across the United States and … in Canada, Jordan, and Iraq since 1991.” Those numbers probably can’t be verified, but even if exaggerated, the protests certainly have been widespread and frequent.
Early on, the only attention they got was local. It was in 1998, when they protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, that they got a nationwide reaction. They didn’t stop protesting at churches, schools, city halls and elsewhere whenever they identified a “fag” issue (which they attach to basically any and everything), and protests at funerals of AIDS victims were not unusual. It wasn’t until they began picketing at the funerals of servicemembers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, though, that they succeeded in getting more consistent and widespread attention. Clearly they like it. The murders in Tucson were just another opportunity for them. Like, for example, Katrina’s devastation was something to “celebrate.”
Queerdom didn’t receive much attention until the Stonewall Riots in NYC, in 1969, widely seen as the beginnings of the LGBT civil rights movement. The “Anti-Gay Movement,” as SPLC calls it, followed, with one early version that of Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” national campaign. “Not only were homosexuals ‘sick,’ ‘perverted’ and ‘twisted,’” she claimed, “they posed a very real threat to American families.”
Basically, things continued with the same kind of accusations about “homosexuals” that are ridiculous but have a very serious side. The “religious right” gained significant power, through some very smart political strategies (start local and build from there; use of “talk radio” and “televangelism”) — Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, American Family Association, Family Research Council and others don’t have the same high visibility as in the 1990s, but all you had to do was listen to the recent arguments against the repeal of DADT to hear their continuing influence in politics and policies.
Over the decades Queerdom developed its own strategies. One tactic devised in response to WBC’s protests at services of victims of AIDS was for a group of people to stand between the WBC group and the entrance of wherever the service was being held. Before the laws mandated a distance of 300 feet (the specific distance may vary) the epithets yelled could still be heard, though not as well as the group creating a living barrier between hate and families sang hymns or whatever was appropriate.
It is, obviously, a matter of compromise, give and take … just as are the deals that kept WBC from Tucson funerals. Phelps and family, and whoever else, can say what they want, with all the hate they find necessary. But the family and friends are provided a buffer against the hateful words. Finding that “free speech” balance is an ongoing struggle across the nation. It’s about actions and responses, and more fundamentally, about the values and principles that support them.
“Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde says, and that makes a lot of sense to me. Of course, how we fill the silence does matter.