Why we should welcome Westboro to ATL.
Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church is coming to town, and I couldn’t be happier.
The “God Hates Fags” clan from Topeka, Kan., has announced plans to be in Atlanta for two days in April to protest targets ranging from the NCAA Basketball “Final Four” at the Georgia Dome on April 6 to three congregations — Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Church International in Atlanta, Beulah Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, and Basilica of The Sacred Heart of Jesus in Atlanta — April 7.
“You won’t go into the Final Four Atlanta orgy-of-gross-drunken-nasty-reveling without being warned by the faithful servants of WBC, with this core message, timely and topical at this hour: Fag marriage dooms nations,” the pseudo-church warns on its website.
You can read more about Westboro’s justifications for the new Atlanta protests at our website, www.thegavoice.com, but they all add up to the same as usual: “God will not have fag marriage.”
That these events have nothing to do with LGBT equality doesn’t matter, as Westboro’s quest is mainly about media attention, so they pick high-profile events regardless of relevancy.
Up until three years ago, I would have advocated a strategy of simply not giving it to them.
I thought we should treat the Westboro idiots like misbehaving children who thrive on negative attention: ignore them.
Many people in our community still favor this approach, and I can understand why. So why am I happy now that Westboro is coming?
Because of a hot day in May 2010, when Westboro came to Grady High School.
Grady High is an Atlanta institution. I grew up hearing my father’s stories about walking to school there. Westboro targeted Grady for the group’s standard absurd reasons.
Grady is a “typical high school in doomed America where the children since the time they were old enough to know anything were told that God is a liar,” Fred’s daughter, Rebecca Phelps-Davis, told GA Voice at the time.
“Because they’ve been taught that it’s OK to be gay and that God loves everyone,” she said. “They have no moral compass to guide them.”
Straight student Becca Daniels organized the counter-protest of students and community members that drew hundreds to drown out Westboro’s handful of hate-mongers.
“In 1998, my uncle died of AIDS and this was to honor his life and death,” Daniels said at the time. “We wanted to let them know that hate was not going to come into our neighborhood and we were going to take a stand against it.”
It’s not that I hadn’t seen protests and counter-protests like this before. But the fact that young people, including straight young people, organized the Grady effort moved me deeply. I brought my own young daughters to see what kids not much older than they are could accomplish, and to show them that even if they encounter anti-gay bias, people who love will always outnumber those who hate.
It was impossible to leave Grady that day and not know which side will win in the battle for LGBT equality.
The Westboro haters actually have a history of bringing out the best in those they target.
It started in earnest back in 1999, after Westboro moved into national prominence by latching onto the 1998 hate-crime death of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard.
With signs like “Fag Matt in Hell,” Westboro protested Shepard’s funeral. But when the clan announced plans to also protest the 1999 trials of his killers, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard’s, had had enough.
She organized the very first “Angel Action” — counter-protesters wearing angel costumes with massive wings they unfurl to block the Westboro protesters from view.
“Love, respect and compassion for everyone is why we are here today. I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate-filled,” Patterson said in an April 1999 press release, distributed the first time the angels appeared.
And in 2003, when the Phelps clan started targeting funerals of American soldiers killed in action (because they defend the Fag Nation of America, of course), the Patriot Guard Riders formed to make sure families of dead soldiers would see supporters waving American flags, not the Phelps crew.
“The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares,” Don Woodrick, the group’s Kentucky captain, told Fox News back in 2006. “When a total stranger gets on a motorcycle in the middle of winter and drives 300 miles to hold a flag, that makes a powerful statement.”
Angel actions now frequently take place in cities targeted by Westboro, and the Patriot Guard has traveled to wherever it is needed.
The targets Westboro has chosen for its latest Atlanta visit are pretty random, so they may not inspire counter-protests on the scale of Grady High. No specific plans had been announced by press time, although PFLAG Atlanta said on Facebook its members would be part of a response.
But whatever the counter protest, large or small, it will remind us that regardless of our differences, we share a common enemy in extremism and a common cause — and path to equality — in the ability to love openly.
Welcome to Atlanta, Westboro. We’re still too busy to hate.
Westboro Baptist Church targeted Atlanta’s Grady High School in 2010, drawing a massive counter-protest. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)