BBC2 did a video piece on the Phelps family of Topeka — the most hated family in America. I have a good deal of personal experience with the Phelps family. I lived in Topeka for almost 10 years, where one hardly goes a day without crossing paths with one of them or their protests.
For those who don’t know, the Phelps run a Baptist church near Topeka whose mission is to spread God’s message of hated towards not only homosexuals (or “fags,” and the Phelps would call them), but also anyone who tolerates the presence of homosexuality. They insist that God hates America, that America is doomed, and that pretty much everyone is a fag and everything is a “Fag whatever.”
Back in my early days with the Phelps, they spent most of their time picketing things that seemed directly tied to homosexuality. For example, they picketed the funeral of Kansas City composer Kevin Oldham (who was gay and died of AIDS) and that of Matthew Shepard, who famously died after an anti-gay hate crime against him. I remember them picketing nearly every musical performance I ever gave in Topeka, because inevitably someone that was performing was gay. Today, they don’t seem to make much association between homosexuality and what they protest. They protest everything. Lately, they’ve been making headlines picketing at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.
Not all of my experiences with the Phelps family were bad. I actually become sort of friendly with Sarah Phelps in college — I believe she was one of Fred’s granddaughters, and when she wasn’t picketing and singing songs of hate on the street corners, she was actually quite nice. She was a vocal major at Washburn, and the two guys she spent most of her time with at school were — you guessed it — gay.
One of my proudest moments was when I nearly scared Fred Phelps out of his skin. I pulled up to a stop light on 17th and Gage in Topeka, a semi-busy intersection where his family (which is extremely large, by the way) used to (still does?) protest almost daily. As I waited for the light to turn green, “Gramps,” as he’s called, crossed at the crosswalk in front of my car. I couldn’t resist. I put my car in neutral and stepped on the gas as hard as I could. Phelps dropped his picket sign, jumped sky high, and almost fell over. Most of the cars around had their windows rolled down on the hot summer day, and my scare tactics elicited cheers and horn honking. It was great.
The thing that bothers me most about my experiences with the Phelps is how much I grew to tolerate them. Seeing them every day for nearly 10 years, I because desensitized to their hatred. Oh, I spent the first couple of years getting in arguments, flipping them off, and generally letting them know how much I disapproved. But after I while, I gave up. I find that sad, though. If there’s anyone in the world that deserves my hate with pure, unbridled passion, it’s these guys. And I just didn’t care. I drove by them daily, pretending like they weren’t there.
I should have ran that bastard over when I had the chance.