Friday, January 14, 2005

Hate the Hate, Not the Hater

New Year’s Day, America’s most extreme homophobe posted a “News Release” on his web site God Hates Fags.

Thank god for tsunami. Thank God for 3000 dead Americans! Yes! Thank God for Sept. 11 and 3000 dead sodomite Americans in 2001. God sent the Muslim planes to destroy fag New York’s twin towers and hurl 3000 vile Americans into Hell. Even so, God sent Tsunami last week to execute vengeance upon another 3000, carcasses swallowed up in Asian jungles, and concerning each of whom it shall be said: “He shall be buried with the burial of an ass.” Jer.22:19


Sweden worships at the fag altar, affording fags more rights than God-fearing normal people, despite their filth, disease, and soul-damning behavior. Sweden goes so far as to imprison people who do nothing more than quote God's prohibition against their filthy ways! Canada and now France have followed suit! Is it any wonder that God has punished these vile nations with these losses? That is the ultimate goal of the fag lobby, and they will soon achieve it in America!

It is no wonder that God has sent these great, unstoppable waves to sweep people away like so much chaff. Just as it is no wonder that God sent the Muslim planes to destroy the World Trade Center, it is no wonder that the God who created the Earth and Seas (Genesis 1:9-10) could use them to destroy thousands of unrepentant sinners. Be thankful it wasn't BILLIONS, as it was in the days of Noah!

It is entirely appropriate that these heathen, God-hating Sodomites should be swallowed up in the Asian jungles, being buried by bulldozers, receiving that burial which is appropriate for them, to wit "He shall be buried with burial of an ass" (Jeremiah 22:19).

He had some similarly vitriolic rants on his companion site God Hates America.

The Rev. Phelps’ Westboro Baptist congregation made an appearance Wednesday night on ABC’s Nightline. The show discussed the fallout of a two-part article that appeared September 26th and 27th in the Washington Post. Post writer Anne Hull examined the struggle of a gay teen, Michael Shackleford, in a small Oklahoma town, Sand Springs, to come out and come to terms with himself. His community, his family, his school and his church declared him a sinner. He was harassed, ostracized and rejected in varying degrees and manners. The harassment at school eventually got bad enough that he dropped out of school. With Michael and his mother in the room, the preacher at his church expounded on the evils of homosexuality. His mother tried to get him help to “fix” him. Inadvertently, by putting him in touch with qualified therapists, his mother helped him on the road to self-acceptance.

But the publicity of the articles attracted the opportunistic. In a November 13th follow-up article Hull discusses the arrival of Phelps in small Sand Springs and the town’s reaction. Phelps started by faxing “flyers” about the teen to local churches declaring him a “doomed teen fag” and announcing their intention to picket in town. The story that Hull tells, and Nightline repeats, is that the town, the church and his family – while not changing their views on homosexuality – rally to the support of the young man and reject the hatred and intolerance of Phelps and company.

It’s supposed to be a heartwarming story of a community rallying against a common threat to protect one of their own. I suspect that we were supposed to feel a small point of hope for some kind of reconciliation for a country deeply divided in its attitudes about GLBT people.

The whole story left me vaguely unsettled. This is partly because I once occupied a psychological space not too dissimilar from the this young man and know that he has a difficult road ahead of him. But I was also disturbed by the implied exoneration of the community. Various members of the teen’s family, church and school were all quoted as heaping scorn on Michael just for being gay. There was not one authentically supportive voice. And yet, the point that was made was that they weren’t evilly hateful like Phelps. When the Rev. Eubanks of Sand Springs’ Cornerstone Church declares the inherent superiority of heterosexuals, he’s just expressing a sincerely held belief. And this is what I want to take issue with, the idea that homophobia is acceptable, as long as it comes packaged in sincere religious beliefs and bromides about “loving the sinner.”

In their zeal to “love the sinner” this community has caused real trauma for its GLBT citizens. The right to believe as one wants extends to the right to live as one wants and not the right to punish others who differ. Michael assumed that being gay meant that real love was no longer and option for him.

"Being gay, you'll never have that true love like a man and a woman," Michael says, standing against his truck as Merle Haggard mixes with the backyard whippoorwills. "Hearing all the songs about a man coming home from work to his wife's loving arms, you never hear of gay couples like that.” He sets his ratchet down. "Do you?"

There is real psychological damage here. This, of course, is no accident. This is exactly what he was meant to think. This is exactly what the fuss over “defining” a family is about. The townsfolk weren’t trying to hurt Michael. They were trying to help him – through trauma and ostracism – to not be gay - a kind of aversion therapy. But no sincerely held belief that sexuality is chosen makes it so (nor is it any excuse for intentionally inflicting psychological harm). Countless teens, just like Michael, still grow up in climates of loathing and fear. Perhaps it is time to start holding people accountable for that. It is, in fact, a little hard to believe that in 2005 this point still needs to be made.

Phelps simply showed up to exploit an existing situation. The people of Sands Springs, OK, created that situation. They created the atmosphere of intolerance. They harassed and rejected a vulnerable young man. That doesn’t become okay simply because they drew the line at the guerrilla tactics of the Westboro Baptists.

Is it right to ask an entire town, an entire culture, to change to accommodate a minority of people? Yes. Homophobia is not morally acceptable. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up. Any culture, which depends on the victimization of a subset of that culture for meaning or coherence, needs to change.

This kind of conscious, intentional vilification of GLBT people performs the service of enabling conservative heterosexuals in places like Sand Springs to feel better, superior, on the side of righteousness. And it’s something at which they cannot fail. If being heterosexual makes someone morally correct, then these particular homophobes are guaranteed to be morally correct – at least in one respect. The fact that they insist that sexual orientation is a choice only adds to their personal moral luster - for making the moral choice despite the temptations. This is part of the power and appeal of this issue for right wing fundamentalists.

And it is precisely this chosen, conscious homophobia that wraps itself in ideology and demands respect as legitimate point of view. But for the GLBT people, like Michael, caught in the undertow of this cultural current, this is not harmless self-aggrandizement, but a full frontal assault on the integrity of their sense of self.

One of the most interesting elements of this drama is not the use of Phelps and his followers as the bogeymen in comparison with the townsfolk are meant to seem reasonable. It’s the degree to which Phelps is let off easy. What neither the Washington Post or Nightline stories tell us is just how extreme and marginal Phelps really is.

To begin with, the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, is his home. The congregation is his extended family. An interesting and lengthy article, which itself has something of a history, tells the story of the handful of Phelps children that have left the fold. They recount a long history of domestic violence coupled with an indoctrination from childhood in the belief that Phelps himself was their only avenue to heaven. According to the claims made in the article, the God Hates Fags campaign started right around the same time that the Phelps children had grown and there was no one left at home to abuse. If this is true, this isn’t a church, it’s just a kook and his terrorized family that has been mobilized in the service of personal demons.

What made Phelps so angry at the world that he apparently is seeking the total submission of the world to his hate filled theology, we’ll never know. But what is clear is that Phelps plays a useful role for Love the Gays/Hate the Gayness crowd. And it is not in their interests to demonize Phelps too thoroughly. Hull and the Nightline producers understood this at some level too. Phelps and Eubanks share too much common ground – not to mention Falwell and Robertson. Phelps is certainly not the only right wing fundamentalist to interpret natural disasters or the events of 9/11 as God’s judgment of gays. Nor is Phelps alone in his sense of moral superiority in the simple fact of not being gay. And so it must be the vitriol and not the homophobia that the good people of Sand Springs reject. And the members of the Cornerstone Church get credit for not actually using the word “Hate” while never for a moment backing down from the idea that gay people are just wrong.

Phelps differs from the folk in Sand Springs in his tactics and his vitriol but not his core beliefs. There is a danger that in creating a picture of Phelps as being completely insane, that the points of agreement he has with Falwell and Roberston may share in the tarnishing; that there may not be sufficient differentiation between Phelps and the Falwell’s of the world and the latter may be indicted as a result.

Michael plans to leave town for a more accepting environment when he has the opportunity. This is, of course, a wise move and really his only option. And that fact alone is all the indictment of the town’s culture we really need.

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At 3:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to freak you out with this random and anonymous posting...but as a "survivor" of a brush with the said Reverend, I feel the need to provide a personal comment. The Reverend Phelps picketed my high school in Las Vegas last year when our Theater Department was in the midst of performing The Laramie Project. His vile flyers, advertising his site and slogans claiming our entire school would go to hell, infiltrated and invaded the campus the day before he showed up. His pathetic attempt at creating a stir did, unfortunately, succeed. The local news stations covered the protest. The student body belatedly discovered that his protest was an afterthought; he had originally come to Vegas to participate in Howard Stern's radio show, which at that time was broadcasting from a local strip club. Ironic, no?

At 5:09 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

I think you're slightly confused here. You both conflate Phelps with broader homophobia and say that no one points out how "extreme and fringe" he is. Isn't the fact that even Jerry Falwell thinks Phelps goes too far an indication that there is a gap between a genuine theological stance and the levels of depravity Phelps engages in?

In fact, Phelps's extremist stance can only be met with laughter. He's self-parodic, campy and incredibly amusing. His influence is negligible in the broader evangelical community, his own ministry quite small, and treating him as a serious threat gives him more credit than he deserves.

That being said, you've definitely got a point about the indictment of a larger community. Yes, these people should be admired for eventually opening a dialogue, and yes they see homosexuality as a grave sin, but not necessarily different from lying or greed, as one parishoner points out, but they are also responsible for the creation of an environment that is deeply hostile to healthy sexuality of any kind and all are responsible for this young man's psychological trauma. But I'd extend it further -- to include even the gay evangelicals themselves, all gay Christians and all pro-gay Christians. They have chosen to remain in a religion that has proven itself deeply hostile to homosexuality. It is not worth being saved from the inside, it must be destroyed from the outside. The Christian religion has produced no works so good that they justify the grave evils the religion has inflicted on this world. To stand proudly as a Christian and yet talk of tolerance, love and reconciliation with sinners is, itself, hypocritical. Christian social justice is a figment of the imagination, and those who support this Church are guilty for all its sins.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger JimG said...

Joshua, Let me be a bit more specific.

It is in the interests of the right wing fundamentalists (RWF) to distinguish themselves from the pure lunatic hatred of Phelps. But they cannot afford to completely demonize him. They criticize his conduct. But the content of his message, while substantially different than Falwell et al, is also substantially similar. The area of agreement between Phelps and Falwell-types is an area of danger for the latter. And they cannot afford to criticize Phelps on or near this ground. Accordingly, they need to locate Phelps a safe distance away, but not too far away. Phelps performs a service for the RWFs. The fine folks in Sand Springs weren’t defending Michael so much as themselves. They wanted to be able to continue to assert the fundamental superiority of heterosexuals while not feeling like hate-mongers.

I’d also like to quickly challenge your criticism of gay Christians. I am not, as they say, of faith. But Christianity is an amorphous thing. In itself, Christianity is morally neutral. Historically, it has been a force of great destruction punctuated by random acts of kindness. Because of the a) mass of contradictions in Christianity and b) the utter impossibility of actually living with all those rules and laws; by necessity Christians must map the social prejudices of their day onto their faith. Where I’m going with all this is that a non-destructive Christianity is entirely conceivable. I may have no intention of being a part of it, but I applaud the efforts of those seeking this noble goal.


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