Jezebel.com posted an article about former Westboro Baptist member Lauren Drain posing for a NoH8 photography taken by Adam Houska. What was more interesting than Drain’s story of life in a cult was one of the comments listed below the article, telling of what living in Topeka, Kansas was like when Westboro started.
Native Topekan here. This is extremely encouraging. I apologize for the length, but I felt like I had to get this all out there.
In the late 80’s, early 90’s, people in town were buzzing about this guy. They were usually protesting at the courthouse, or the capital building. Didn’t shout at people, didn’t do anything weird-just stood with neon signs that all said the same thing-“God Hates Fags” and local organization names, like “Topeka High School is Fag School”, etc. His antics were off-putting, but nothing serious. My parents simply told us he was a religious extremist, explained what an extremist was in simple terms (I believe their words were “They take something people believe in and twist it, then go to extreme measures to hurt people using something they hold sacred, like their values, or the bible, and use it to get attention”), and simply told us to ignore them, not to engage them, and not to discuss them in school, etc. We had several people with the last name Phelps at my school, and my parents thought it would be best for us not to talk about it, since whether the kids believed it or not, it wouldn’t improve their lives to discuss it in an open forum.
There was a ruckus around my elementary years when a local male politician (I think it was a city board member or something) was caught with another man engaging in something sexual (can’t remember his name, so I can’t look it up) at a very small local park called Ward Meade in an upscale area of Topeka. He was married, and it was a bit of a scandal. It was on the news a bit, and as I was a precocious child, I read the newspaper with great fervor, and many people were calling for his resignation. The WBC headquarters are not far from a different park in Topeka, called Gage Park, this one being much larger. They decided to picket the larger, more populated park.
This ruffled the feathers of the community, as we aren’t a very large city (even though we’re the capital, KC and Wichita beat us hands down), and when people come to Topeka, they generally come to the much larger park, as it is enormous, has train rides, our only zoo, the best pool in Topeka, lots of different toys spread out over seemingly endless acres (including a fenced-in park where all the toys look like animals, plus a boat and a shoe), and many shelterhouses (which are small cabins with kitchens and bathrooms) to rent for birthday parties, baby showers, etc. If anyone travels to Topeka, they generally end up there somehow. It’s the place to be.
Anyhow, I’m getting off track (I do love that park!). So they protested there. And as your parents make you clean your room before company comes, you can see how this was embarrassing for the citizens. They were no longer under the rug. They were protesting in groups all over the park, in full view of children. Their signs became more crude, depicting a stick figure bent over with an additional stick figure behind him, on a sign that said “Thank God for AIDS”. We had ignored them long enough-it wasn’t working, and they were getting more brazen. This, of course, was pre-military funeral protest, so they still had a very limited audience.
Citizens united. Businesses parked their trucks in front of the protesters and would move them back and forth as necessary-Topeka PD never ticketed these folks). We began making posters in my Girl Scout troop for cookie sales at the park (BTW-if any Jezzies need tips on where to get your Girl Scouts to set up shop, the park is perfect, bc people don’t think of desserts for picnics). They said “WE LOVE EVERYONE” “WE GIVE HUGS-NO PURCHASE NECESSARY”, and my personal favorite “SIGNS MADE SIMPLY TO BRIGHTEN YOUR DAY”. My brothers began counter-protests at their school, with similar signs, and the people in the marching band began rehearsals after school to learn and play many songs from the sixties (and lots of Bob Marley) “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?”. My sister’s class wrote several letters to the church, as well as many local politicians, and her teacher simply stated that they never received replies (more on that later). People began selling t-shirts at local record stores that had Fred Phelps’ head superimposed on Freddy Krueger’s body holding a blank sign, and to the right, it said “Nightmare on Gage Street”. I cannot TELL you how many times I saw that shirt, with something written in Sharpie on the blank sign, on passerbys at the mall, the park, the library. Lots of “Give Peace A Chance” kind of stuff. The best I ever saw was an elderly man wearing the shirt and a seed brand hat, and the sign simply said “NO”. Very Kansas, and I wish I had taken a photo of him now.
One afternoon, my father had the duty to drop me and my sister at a Halloween Boo At The Zoo thing for the Girl Scouts. We wore our Girl Scout uniforms, complete with sashes, as we would be volunteering in the snack area and the gift shop, and passing out candy to little ones. This was something we did every year, without fail. On the way, my dad didn’t speak, but you could tell he was anticipating something bad. As we pulled up, there was a lady being shouted at by a group of protesters. My dad drove over as quickly as possible, said “Stay here, damn it!” and jumped out of the truck. He started shouting “Hey, hey! What the fuck are you doing?” to the group. He took the woman that was being yelled at by the hand, and screamed “SIT IN THE TRUCK”. She ran toward the zoo gate. He then began shouting angrily at this group, and yelled “DON’T YOU FUCKING PEOPLE HAVE JOBS? THESE ARE KIDS-THEY SHOULDN’T HAVE TO SEE OR HEAR THIS SHIT!” He then flipped the dirty birdie to the lady who had put down her flourescent sign and was videotaping this encounter. He said “IF YOU DON’T GET OUT OF HERE AND LET THESE KIDS BE KIDS, I DON’T HAVE PLANS AND I’D BE HAPPY TO GO TO JAIL TODAY”. They stopped talking (Fred wasn’t there, who usually led the charge at the time), and started throwing their things in the back of their truck. My dad stood there calmly, until the lady with the camera began filming our truck (trying to get close enough to see inside). He threw a rock and hit her camera, and it fell to the ground. When she turned around, he growled “GET AWAY FROM MY CHILDREN”. She grabbed her camera and got into the bed of their truck.
They didn’t come back, and the zoo thing went off without a hitch. A few weeks later, my mom came home from work, sobbing. She had a stack of papers in her hand and was holding them out to my dad. He looked through them and said “Those motherfuckers!”. They had taken pictures of our house, my mom’s car, as well as my brothers and sisters and I playing at an area park with our heads scribbled out, and faxed them to my mom’s work, and it just said “(HER NAME) IS A FAG WHORE” “FAG KIDS” “FAG FAMILY”, very original stuff. It scared the bejesus out of my mom, and my dad called the cops.
The police told us we couldn’t prove A-where the fax came from, as it was a local copy store, who didn’t have video record (although the cop admitted he’d been handling these faxes recently with people who worked for city and state), B-that it implied any threat to harm, basically this was an opinion-based paper, and C-that this was even harassment, since this was the only instance of them contacting us. There was no point in dusting for prints at the copy store, because there was no crime committed. They made a copy and mailed my parents back the originals, but the faxes kept coming for a while, though how long, I don’t know. Occasionally, we received a picture in the mail after that, and they started leaving flyers on cars at my mom’s work, with “(HER NAME) IS A FAG LOVER” and “(HER NAME) HAS AIDS”. No one ever noticed them leaving the flyers, so there wasn’t much to go on. The only prints I pulled off the flyers my mom brought home (using my detective kit I got for my birthday) were hers.
After a while, it became clear in Topeka that if you fought back, they would harass you. If you tried to injure them, they would sue you. If you protest against them, they would make you regret it. If you were a kid, who played guitar and sang songs in a peaceful protest, they would figure out who your parents were and make their professional lives hell. It became easier to ignore them.
As they were no longer making waves in Topeka, since people wouldn’t engage them, they began branching out. You see now what they’ve become. People in Topeka still blame themselves for not quashing them while they were smaller. A lot of people wonder how we couldn’t get them under control. The simple answer is, we couldn’t because they have legal power, endless funds, and if you sue them, they will win and sue for damages. Even Topeka judges, who cannot STAND the Phelps’, have to side with them on the basis of law. It’s discouraging and disgusting, but there’s not much you can do, other than ignore them, show them they don’t matter, and join or lead (peaceful) protests when they come to the city you moved away from Topeka to be in. The encouraging thing is most people who live in Topeka still think these people are idiots, and have opened their eyes enough to build a PFLAG office, mere blocks from the WBC headquarters, on Gage Blvd, caddy-corner from the infamous park. I don’t know many people in Topeka that are homophobic. Their extremist actions worked to bring us together, and it’s now starting to break them apart. I hope it does the same to your community, should they ever come for a visit.
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NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce