Homophobic Phelps Ridiculed By Oberlinby Elizabeth Heron (5/12/00)
Fred Phelps and about a dozen members of the Topeka, Kansas Westboro Baptist Church met with jeers and laughter when they protested homosexuality on the corner of Tappan Square Tuesday afternoon.
Wherever gay rights are championed, Phelps can be found. He and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church followers - mostly family members - picket the funerals of people associated with the gay-rights movement and stage public demonstrations condemning homosexuals at churches, colleges, political conventions, city halls and restaurants. They are perhaps best known for coming to murdered gay youth Matthew Sheppard's funeral carrying placards emblazoned with the words "God Hates Fags" and "Repent or Perish." The same sentiments are repeated on Westboro Church's webpage, www.godhatesfags.com. Their rhetoric is inflammatory, and offensive and hurtful to many.
Phelps and his followers, including several children, held signs proclaiming sentiments such as "Thank God For AIDS" and "It's Not OK To Be Gay."
"I'm here to tell these children that God hates fags," said Phelps.
His grandchildren seemed confused as to exactly what they were protesting, correcting each other's definition of "fag" until their mother supplied an answer. "We're preaching because that's what God and the Bible says," said Isaiah Phelps-Roper, age 9. Phelps' followers were largely quiet except for singing hymns, one of which contained the chorus "God hates fags."
The southwest corner of Tappan square was roped off to separate Phelps and his followers from onlookers. Safety and Security officers stood watch as Oberlin Police officers patrolled Main and Professor Streets.
Phelps drew a crowd initially, but after 20 minutes most people dispersed to take part in the "day of fun" that students had planned. It was advised that people ignore Phelps and try to not engage him. Activities included lunch, musical performances, a moonbounce, a prayer circle held by the Oberlin Christian Fellowship (OFC) and a ritual held by the Pagan Awareness Network.
"As a community, we feel that arguing with Rev. Phelps won't change his heart; we believe that prayer can though," said junior OFC president Daniel Seigfried in an letter to participants.
"It's ridiculous. They look like a circus, and we look like the fun," said Junior LGBT president Jessica Powers. "For all our fears and nervousness, it's really not so bad. We created our own culture where it's fabulous to be queer."
Some students disagreed with the way the community handled Phelps. "It seems like this is not the right way to drown him out," said sophomore Greg Gheorghiu. "If you make this a big carnival, he's going to be the main attraction. He's going to get heard even more this way."
A division also existed among LGTB students as to how to mount opposition to Phelps. "I feel that the College's portrayal of the event took away the focus from queer rights and inequality," said senior Kate Shorb. "The whole idea the planning committee had of 'ignoring' Phelps and having 'fun' is extremely insulting to queers who cannot ignore the kind of rhetoric Phelps spouts. "We have to deal with it constantly," said junior Joey Plaster. "Any radical or progressive ideas were quickly suppressed in a pathological attempt not to offend any of our so-called 'supporters.' In this way, the day was a complete failure."
"I just think it should have been a queer-centric, responsible counter demonstration," Shorb continued. "This is why I chose, as did my partner and our gay couple friends, to kiss in the open, in order to show that our love is ours, not to be dictated by anyone else, and very important."
When Shorb and others began to kiss across the street from Phelps and his followers, cheers went up from the on-looking crowd. Students staged other counter demonstrations such as parading past with rainbow flags and holding sign of their own. The signs were emblazoned with slogans such as "Gay and Proud, Say It Loud" and "Phuck Not Phelps."
Phelps was unmoved by the counter protests. "We've had over 18,000 of these pickets all over the country," he said. "If you've ever been to San Francisco or the Gay Pride march in DC, an orgy of fag lies, you would know this is nothing."
However, most felt that the event was positive for the Oberlin community. "It was really empowering to be there and feel the presence on our side of the rope," said junior Rusty McCall. "We really turned out, and I would like to see that type of energy on a proactive level a little bit more than it is already."
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Contact us with your comments and suggestions.