5 min

Nate Phelps: Breaking the mould

Growing up under the iron fist of the quintessential homophobe

Nate Phelps grew up thinking that gays were a separate class of evil - the ultimate evil. Credit: Courtesy of Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps has a story to tell. He grew up in the shadow of his father, Fred Phelps, founder and minister of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, whose mantra, “God hates fags,” is synonymous with rightwing homophobia in the United States.

The young Phelps ran away from home when he was 18 years old. Although troubled by his upbringing, Phelps has managed to carve out a niche in life, speaking about his experiences.

Today Phelps is a gay advocate, a motivational speaker and the executive director of the Centre for Inquiry in Calgary, an international organization of atheists, secular humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.

On Saturday, Aug 27, Phelps will talk about growing up in the household of one of North America’s most notorious homophobes. We spoke to him in advance of his appearance.

Xtra: What was it like to be the son of Fred Phelps?

Nate Phelps: It was different. We grew up in an environment where we believed we were uniquely different in the whole world. That carries with it some level of excitement or pride. But there was also, when you start talking about his personality, a lot of violence. There was a rigidness to the environment — we were fairly isolated from the community because that is what he thought was what God expected of his people. But then there were 13 children, so we did pretty good feeling like we were connected, because we had so many kids around us. But then he would get behind the pulpit and start preaching this extreme fundamentalist ideology. I would watch the way he would behave out there in the real world, and it just didn’t jive in my mind. There was a lot of disconnect in my mind of what the chosen ones should look like versus what we were really like.

There was a lot of tension between my father and myself — a lot of violence, and that was what ultimately led me to leave.

Xtra: The violence or the tension?

NP: Well, the tension caused the violence. He would control with an iron fist. If he detected any kind of rebellion against his expectations, then there was hell to pay for it, and I paid a lot of hell. So he cast me as the son of the devil and the evil one. I believed that. I took it in and accepted it. So, between that kind of violence — the physical and the psychological — I carried with me ideas of who I was. I had no place there; I had to get out. I left there believing that I would die and go to hell, and I was okay with that. It took a lot of years to get that stuff out of my head.

Xtra: Was it hard when you left, to be 18 and carrying this guilt around about being called evil?

NP: There was a tremendous amount of relief and joy that I was away from there. There were people I talked to in the first five years or so who would say that it was amazing that I had survived, and I would look at them as if they were crazy — I was fine. As far as I was concerned, there had been no effect and I just avoided all that stuff… there were some real-world difficulties — settling down, trying to get a job and being okay financially and otherwise — but those early years weren’t really a problem. It wasn’t until I was about 25 or so that there were some pretty strong signs that I was in trouble emotionally or otherwise… Then I got married and had kids, and it was like the sluice gates opened, and I was in serious trouble. Once I had my own kids, I was living on the other side of that equation.

Xtra: Was there a fear that you would become your father?

NP: I lived with that fear constantly. It informed my life at every level — if my father did it this way then I was loath to do it that way. I carried with me the idea that corporal punishment was okay, it was necessary, even though I was starting to let go of the idea that the Bible was the source of divine wisdom. I still had this in me that I was not doing the best for my kids if I didn’t spank them. Then one day I had an encounter with my youngest boy, who was about five at the time. I had tried to do it a different way, trying to let the kids know that I loved them, but he was still terrified. So I talked to him about it, I talked to my wife about it, and I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Some things I let go easily; some things I clung to for a long time.

Xtra: Now you are on the complete opposite spectrum of how you were brought up and who your father is.

NP: Yes, but what is interesting is that it wasn’t a giant leap. I was there — the ideas, the beliefs systems, the world view was pretty much cemented in my mind. It’s never something you feel completely settled on. I think that’s kind of the nature of what really good skepticism is. There are some things I feel pretty strongly about, but I am always hearing new information, new input, that makes me want to stop and pause. So there is an uncomfortable aspect to it, which is really the other reason my talk is called the Uncomfortable Grayness of Life — because if we are really going to be honest about the way life should be, we have to be willing to say that we are never really sure about much. New information comes in, new realities surface, and we have to be willing to change and shift when the world does.

Xtra: What would you say gave you the strength to do what you have done?

NP: I think for a lot of years, the strength, the motivation to keep going was to — It’s going to sound rather small of me — to prove my father wrong. I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent listening in my mind or thinking about the arguments of the belief system he taught us, dismantling them and proving to myself, at least, that they don’t hold water. It’s the capacity to reason through stuff that gives me hope.

Xtra: What got you into gay advocacy?

NP: It’s circumstances, really. We grew up being taught that the gays were the ultimate evil. I mean, you really saw them as a separate class of evil, and I carried that idea with me into adulthood. I never really questioned it, never challenged it, and then I got out into the real world and had to think through for myself what I really believed. The humanist ideology doesn’t really allow for this notion that we can treat one group of people different from another because we disagree with their lifestyle. The fact that that was the issue they focused on — it just seemed like the perfect fit for me to go out there and try to counter some of the damage. When I started talking, I was getting emails constantly from gay kids all over the country, all over the US and Canada, some of them terrified because of the messages they had heard… It was a natural thing for me to fight against that message they were putting out there.