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7 min

Phelps a no-show

But hundreds protest in the rain

WAITING FOR PHELPS. Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church never made it to the Drive Nov 28 as threatened, but the community turned out in force and endured hours of rain to stand up to his homophobic "god hates fags" rhetoric. Credit: CHRISTINE MCAVOY PHOTO

“Pick fruit not fights”

“Homophobia is gay”

“A family of douchebags does not a religion make”

“I don’t think you’re in Kansas anymore”

Those were just some of the legends adorning signs scattered throughout the dozens of damp rainbow flags that lined Commercial Dr Nov 28, as hundreds of queers and their supporters awaited the arrival of members of the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church.

But Pastor Fred Phelps and his followers never showed up.

The Kansas-based church, which runs godhatesfags.com and pickets funerals like that of Matthew Shepard who was brutally gaybashed, tied to a fence and left to die 10 years ago, had threatened to picket a local production of the play, The Laramie Project.

The Laramie Project depicts the reactions of the people of Laramie, Wyoming to the 21-year-old Shepard’s murder.

No one from the Westboro Baptist Church could be reached prior to press time to explain their failure to appear.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) can’t say what happened to the church members either, or whether they were turned away at the border as they have been in the past.

“CBSA does not confirm or deny the entry of any person into Canada,” says spokesperson Faith St John. “If there’s an arrest we can talk about it.”

There were no arrests.

But police were on hand at the rally just in case.

“There’s always safety concerns,” explains Detective Tim Houchen of the Vancouver Police Department’s hate crimes unit. “We’re here to keep the peace.”

Had any Canadian hate speech laws been violated, Houchen adds, police would have been ready to gather evidence. “If [Phelps] breaches Canadian law, we can act on it and prosecute.”

Phelps and his followers had hinted on their website that they intended to thwart any attempts to block them at the border by arriving by sea.

“Hint! Hint! ‘Your Coast Guard Efforts Are In Vain,'” the website read on the day of the threatened picket.

The mere threat of Phelps’ arrival galvanized members of Vancouver’s queer community.

As of Nov 30, almost 9,000 people had joined two Facebook sites dedicated to challenging Phelps and keeping him out of Vancouver.

And an estimated 400 people endured hours of rain last Fri night to rally in case his Westboro Baptists showed up.

Denise Norman, the cousin of Aaron Webster who was brutally gaybashed and left to die in Stanley Park seven years ago, was among the speakers at the rally.

“Before Aaron’s crime, there was Matthew’s crime,” she told the wet but determined crowd. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”

Rallies like this are vital to stand up to hatemongers, Norman told Xtra West.

“We’re not going to take hate against people mainly because of their sexuality,” she says. “Hate’s out there. We stand against it.

“If nobody speaks out, it’s not going to stop.”

Norman says she’s been reading the Westboro website and is shocked at what she sees. “They seem to hate and blame gay people for everything,” she says. “How narrow-minded can you be?”

Community member Nick Danford also braved the rain to rally for hours Fri night. He says it’s vital to support the diversity of the community and to stand up against hatemongers.

“It’s important to show we don’t think that way in Vancouver,” he says.

Heather Verdon, who is straight, carried a signed reading “God hates lies.”

She says she’s heard a lot about the Westboro Baptist Church and its activities and felt compelled to speak out.

“It’s just so much hate and so many ignorant people,” she says. “I thought it was [important] to come and show my resistance to homophobia.”

Newly elected queer MLA Spencer Herbert was also among the speakers at the rally. He welcomed the rain.

“It’s washing away the hatred of Phelps and allowing us to bring in the love and the light we stand for,” he told the crowd.

Earlier in the week, in anticipation of Phelps’ arrival, Vancouver East MP Libby Davies and Burnaby-Douglas MP Bill Siksay called on the federal government to keep the members of the Westboro Baptist Church out of Canada.

“Hatred, bigotry and harassment are not welcome in our communities,” the queer MPs said.

In asking Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan to bar Phelps and his followers from entering the country, Davies and Siksay described the Westboro Baptist Church as a “viciously homophobic hate group known for disseminating hate speech, inciting violence, and for contemptible acts such as disrupting funerals and harassing mourners.”

The MPs say the church’s sole purpose for visiting Canada was “inciting hatred and harassing people on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

And that, they say, is “a premeditated violation of section 319 of the Canadian Criminal Code.”

Section 319 of the Code says it’s a crime to make statements in a public place that incite hatred against an identifiable group such as gays and lesbians.

Not everyone wanted to block Phelps at the border, though.

Many community members and allies maintained that free speech should be allowed for all, no matter how odious that free speech may be.

The BC Civil Liberties Association argued that Canada’s borders should not be used to stop the flow of ideas.

President Rob Holmes pointed to Canada Customs’ repeated seizures of books destined for Little Sister’s as an example of what happens when border guards try to stop free speech.

As 7 pm approached with no sign of Phelps, the crowd began to disperse and organizers started dismantling the stage. Then word surfaced from a CBC reporter that one of her colleagues had reached a member of the Phelps family who claimed they were just 10 minutes away, having successfully crossed into Canada.

The crowd immediately regrouped and moved out of the park to line the sidewalks in front of and across from the Havana Theatre.

As cars honked supportively and the queer crowd swelled, the rain continued unabated with still no sign of Phelps.

Only a press release received by the Havana theatre that stated: “GOD HATES CANADA. Yes. This Sodomite nation is an evil and a dangerous country; practicing morbid idolatry and every form of perverted sex deviancy. We fly their hateful flag upside down —in contempt.”

Despite the Westboro Baptist Church’s no-show in Vancouver, its website now indicates plans to picket the Canadian consulate in Chicago, Dec 4.


Check out Liz Hargreaves’ Xtra.ca video report below: