When Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church sent its minions to chastize the fun-loving sodomites of San Francisco, Simon Sheppard was there to cover the event for his column "Notes of a Cranky Old Fag." The following was originally published on CarnalNation on February 8, 2010.
"Feces is dripping out of your fag mouth," the nice middle-aged lady said to me.
Yes folks, the Fred Phelps freak show had come to town. Members of the gay-bashing, Jew-hating Westboro Baptist Church—you know, the delightful folks who picket funerals with signs that say things like "God Hates Fags" and "You Will Eat Your Babies"—were on a whirlwind two-day visit to Sodom-by-the-Bay. Since I can be kind of lax about going to counter-demonstrations, I had already missed what was apparently the stellar moment of the Godly Grand Tour—a confrontation outside, improbably enough, the headquarters of Twitter. That one had brought out pro-queer neo-Dadaists with signs like "I Was Promised Donuts," "This Is a Sign," and "God Loves the Delicious Taste of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese." But hell, I don't even tweet. And the fun-loving Phelps Family were themselves a no-show at the previous night's performance of Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps worried they'd be outbellowed by the show's star, noted Christ-killing, baby-eating Jew fag Harvey Fierstein.
Still, I did manage to make it to their little demonstration in front of the San Francisco Federal Courthouse, where satanic lesbians were fighting for the right to wed. And "little" was right; there were all of five of them behind a police barricade, each valiantly toting up to four shit-stirring signs. (To be fair, though, inbreeding is hard work, and maybe some of their relatives were en vacances.)
They, of course, were on a mission from God, but I'd shown up mostly out of morbid curiosity and an urge to have my picture taken with the Westboro bunch so I could use it on my website. And besides, I'd been stood up by some asshole I'd met on craigslist, so I had the afternoon free.
Ridicule can be a potent weapon: Our Side consisted of a ragtag bunch of truly tacky drag queens, one Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, and random plainclothes homos, mostly being puckish and singing the Barney the Dinosaur theme and suchlike. One young fellow, carrying a placard that read, "Jesus Had Two Dads," was hellaciously cute; I tried my level best not to drool.
Now, I knew going in that it would be futile to argue, to shout things or to tell them that in fact theirs was a God of love—especially since it says right there in the Good Book that Yahweh merrily laid waste to entire towns because somebody'd pissed Him off. I mean, theologically speaking, the Westboro bunch might well be closer in temperament to the deity who slaughtered every firstborn son in Egypt than are those nicey-nicey goyim who delude themselves into thinking that Noah's Flood was a fluke.
One thing I like to do with religious folks is ask them precisely why they believe what they do. Yes, I understand that belief doesn't actually require a reason, but it interests me to hear why an otherwise sane adult would believe that Jesus rose from the dead or Muhammad rode to heaven on a horse. Not that I thought that people who'd spend their tourist time in San Francisco marching around with pictures of buttfucking stick-figure men were rational, not when they could be buying refrigerator magnets at Fisherman's Wharf instead. I gave it a shot, anyway. I went right up to the woman with the sign that read "FAGS ARE BEASTS." She, with Appalachian looks reminiscent of a Dorothea Lange photo and the pleasant mien of a speedfreak, was trampling on a rainbow flag whilst wearing an apron with a Star of David drenched in blood, like some Third Reich version of Ma Walton.
"What do you want, fag?" she inquired across the barrier. Well, wasn't this encounter already going swimmingly?
"Um, I was just wondering why you believe what you do."
"About Jesus, actually. Why do you believe in him?"
"Why don't you?" she asked, cleverly turning the debate around. I started in on a litany of the Usual Reasons when she stopped me cold.
"Fag, I don't care what you think." Apparently her question had been rhetorical.
Mine hadn't been, though. "No, really, I'm curious. Why do you believe in your god?"
"You think you're so clever, don't you, with your smirk, and your hand gestures, and your fancy eyeglasses…" Holy cow! This woman hated me for my sense of style! Granted, I'm no Heidi Klum, but I had to guiltily admit that I thought my lesbian-designed l.a.Eyeworks frames were pretty swell. Apparently, though, Jesus felt otherwise. "…and you stand there acting like a girl…" Oh, the horror! And here I figured I was butching it up, though admittedly not as successfully as she was.
"No. please, answer the question."
"I am answering it."
"No, you're attacking me. Please tell me why you believe in God." This was becoming surreal. I could see why a sign about mac and cheese probably was the best response to the situation.
"Because, fag, after you die and are dragged before the Heavenly Throne of Judgment, God is gonna drop-kick your dirty crap-stained ass straight into Hell."
And there you had it. "You mean the reason you believe in God is because he's going to torture me for eternity?"
And the sweet old lady grinned broadly. "Exactly," she said.
"Wow," I said, genuinely taken aback by the implacable illogic of it all. "You're a sadist!"
She just nodded, smugly gleeful about the whole Hellfire-and-homos thing.
I was dealing with a genuine sociopath, not merely crazy, but unpleasantly so. One might be tempted to write off the Westboors as irritating clowns, but this was the same week that a Bible-believing Christian was convicted of murdering a doctor who performed abortions. I actually shivered a little.
And then the moment passed, and some civil libertarian type butted in to quiz Frau Walton about the Constitution. I'd turned my discreet attention to the cute lad with the "Two Dads" sign when, perhaps responding to an urgent tweet from God, the Phelpsers prematurely packed up their placards and anticlimactically called it quits.
After the god squad had gone, the Sister of Perpetual Indulgence insisted we form a blessing circle so we could banish the bad spirits from the sidewalk. I took part in the rather silly ritual, but only because I got to hold the cute boy's hand. And then I headed for home, wondering whether ridicule was, in fact, the best weapon against such naked evil, whether Anne Frank would have been better off if only she'd carried around an ironic sign reading, "God Hates Kittens."
Oh yeah, I got my photo.
copyright 2010 Simon Sheppard