There’s been a whole lot of Phelps in the news this past few weeks. Never mind the world-record-breaking, gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer named Michael Phelps cleaning up at the games in Beijing. I’m talking about the rightwing wackjob we all love to hate, Rev Fred Phelps.
The aging homophobe, 78, is founder of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), the fanatic folks who brought us Godhatesfags.com. The Phelps clan (WBC’s congregation is, according to spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps’s daughter, largely made up of Phelps’ extended family) have made a much-cursed name for themselves by protesting or threatening to protest the funerals of everyone from murdered gay man Matthew Shepard and US soldiers killed in Iraq to Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger and, most recently, Tim McLean, the poor guy beheaded on a Greyhound bus on Jul 30. Last week Phelps-Roper told CTV that McLean’s murder was punishment for Canada’s homo-friendly ways.
Reports out of Winnipeg, where McLean’s funeral was held, indicate that between 400 and 600 people created a human barrier between the funeral and any attempted protest, which never materialized despite Phelps-Roper’s claim that WBC members had gotten across the border.
Similarly none of the WBC wingnuts made good on a promise to protest the premiere of The Pastor Phelps Project in Toronto on Aug 7, apparently because they’d been turned away at the border. (See Phelps Crew Avoids Toronto Protest for more.) The play, currently running at Summerworks, uses Phelps’ own words to skewer him.
“The Pastor Phelps Project is a tacky bit of filthy sodomite propaganda with no literary merit and zero redeeming social value, masquerading as legitimate theatre,” stated a WBC press release announcing the group’s intentions to protest the play. “It is of the fags, by the fags and for the fags, designed only to mock the word of God and the servants of God.”
The threat of a confrontation with the rabid rightwingers was enough to attract more than 150 queer and queer-friendly folks to a counter-protest, carrying placards ranging from the dutiful (“Hate is not a family value”) to the playful (“Fred Phelps needs to get laid” and “My Canada includes sodomy”).
The buzz about the counter-protest was unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years, probably since the protests in response to the raid on the Pussy Palace in 2000. I lost track of the number of emails and Facebook notifications I got sounding the battle cry. But instead of being excited by all that activist energy I was left rolling my eyes.
Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it all before. I remember giving up my post-Pride recovery Monday back in 1999 to schlep out to Ottawa when Phelps and company threatened to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples had to be treated like straight couples. Then there was a chilly November morning that same year when WBC threatened to burn the Canadian flag outside of Scouts Canada headquarters in response to the formation of a queer scouting troop. The threats came to nothing in both cases, and I didn’t expect it to be any different this time around.
But more than that I just don’t see a protest against Phelps and his ilk as useful anymore. Why rise to the bait when there’s nothing on the line? Even the US Christian right dismisses the Phelps crowd as nutters.
On one hand it’s heartening to see so many homos mobilizing against hate, especially in this age of apathy. And don’t think I don’t appreciate how energizing a good protest can be. (Not to mention how glamorous; if the photos are anything to judge by y’all looked gorgeous in your glorious defiance.)
But it’s easy to get all up in arms when someone tells you point blank that they hate you. It’s more difficult to counter the less bluntly stated homophobia that most of shrug off all the time, like cuts to queer AIDS prevention efforts or the ongoing ban against blood donation by queer men.
Call me jaded but I’d like to see some of the activist spirit that bubbled up around the Phelps demo feeding into mobilization around an issue where there’s actually something at stake.