As part of a national tour, members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) made several stops here in Massachusetts earlier this week. The WBC, led by notorious anti-gay activist the Reverend Fred Phelps, sent a handful of activists — including some of Phelps’s children and grandchildren — to picket schools and churches in Lexington and Brookline, where they feel that tolerance, particularly for gay rights, has gotten out of hand. Phelps — who organized a protest at Matthew Shepard’s funeral and insists that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are God’s revenge against homosexuals — didn’t tag along (he was back in Kansas, leading Sunday services). But his extremist views were out in full force. "You cannot talk about God and his judgments without preaching that part of his character which is called his hatred," explained Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Phelps’s 11 children. Of gays and lesbians, she continued, "he does not just hate them — he abhors them."
The WBC picketers, with their garish signs, were hard to miss. Luckily, counter-protesters both peaceful and rambunctious effectively drowned out much of the WBC’s hateful rhetoric. During the day, a few scenes stood out.
Sunday, 10:10 a.m. — Outside Lexington’s First Baptist Church, about 30 interfaith worshipers stand holding hands. With their white shirts and serene expressions, they are easily distinguished from eight loud Westboro picketers, whose neon signs complement their bright GODHATESFAGS.COM tank tops. Messages on their signs include THANK GOD FOR 9/11 and FAGS EAT FECES. Two WBC children, Noah, six, and Deborah, 10, are also gripping signs.
10:20 a.m. — When picketer Steve Drain, 40, takes a break, I ask him where his group is off to next.
"Right now," he responds matter-of-factly, "we’re going down the street to the evil sodomite Catholic whorehouse." He’s referring to Lexington’s St. Brigid Parish, where the group will face more opposing protesters. I marvel at his ability to keep a straight face.
11:45 a.m. — I skip the "evil whorehouse" and head straight to Brookline High School (which owes its WBC visit to a tolerance conference it hosted in April). Inside and outside the school, hundreds of high-school seniors are preparing for their graduation.
As parents, grandparents, and students start arriving for the big day, an assortment of counter-WBC protesters — a less serene, but just as passionate medley that includes Boston-based socialists, high-school hippies, and older gay-rights activists — wields signs (DOWN WITH PHELPS; UP WITH LGBT YOUTH, one reads), stickers, and Brookline High–issued pins that advocate RESPECTING HUMAN DIFFERENCES.
12:15 p.m. — By the time the Westboro crew gets to Brookline, the counter-protesters are raring to heckle them with chants of "Bigots go home!"
Arthur Pinkham, the proud father of a graduating senior, calls the WBC display "disgusting and shameful. It is unbelievable that somebody would bring this kind of controversy and disruption into the lives of teenagers on one of the most important days of their lives."
Eighteen-year-old Will Conley-Elgee, a tall graduate who seems to know everyone in the crowd, angles his way up to the fence separating the WBC members from everyone else.
"I have a question," he shouts over the ruckus. "Can we have a dialogue?"
When Phelps-Roper turns to him, Conley-Elgee asks, "How long have your kids been protesting with you?"
"All their lives," she responds gleefully.
He looks appalled. "Do you let them have a childhood?"
Monday, 8 a.m. — Nine picketers (the same eight as on Sunday, plus one more) pull up to the Joseph Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington. The school is one of the primary targets of this WBC tour; it was a Lexington father who raised hell last month when his son came home with a bag of books promoting diversity — including one depicting a family headed by a same-sex couple.
Today, much of the focus is on six-year-old Noah, whose sign shows two stick-figure males engaging in a sexual act.
"Do not do that," he says, pointing to his sign.
Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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