Five Days with Fred Phelps

Donna with Phelps

I had the privilege of reading this piece at a recent Brooklyn Museum event with Queer Memoir for Women’s History Month, March 5, 2016. It’s a companion piece to the original article I wrote for Poz magazine in 1994 about the five days I spent undercover with the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family in Topeka.

Anyone here remember the Rev. Fred Phelps? I can see that some of you do 🙂 He was this guy who had a church in Kansas that was almost all members of his family, and they would fly all over the country to celebrate at the funerals of people who died of AIDS.

He and his adult children would picket funerals in New York and LA and Topeka with enormous signs that said “Fags Equals Death” with a big smiley face. Or they would say “God Hates You. Filthy AIDS Spreaders.” Phelps liked to send personally-crafted, mean letters to bereaved family members. Right after Nick Rango died, Phelps mailed his mother a letter calling him a “famous fag” and “filthy piece of human garbage who checked into hell November 10.” “I love to use words that send them off the edge emotionally,” Fred said. “There’s nothing better than that.”

I decided to go visit the guy and write about him. I was a writer for the Village Voice at the time and for the past couple of years I’d specialized in getting in Christian disguise and writing about antigay activists. They really scared me and at that time, they were really getting powerful, even in New York. But Fred scared me more than the rest, not just because he was all about hurting us in a very personal, emotional way but because he had a history of violence.

Two of his adult children said he’d beaten them all, including their mother, with an axe handle, and starved some of them. They remembered a game involving Fred holding a child in the air and repeatedly smashing his knee into the child’s groin while laughing. Fred was convicted of battery on someone protesting one of his demonstrations in the 90s, and other folks his church had hit had filed charges. I called the church and said I was a writer for a conservative publication and I wanted to visit Phelps and his flock in Kansas. They said come on down.

A couple of days into my visit, I asked Fred about beating his kids, and he said, “Those boys saying I beat ’em when they were little are telling the absolute truth! You know, that word ‘nurture’ means corporal punishment.” Five of his loyal adult kids, the ones who still turned out every day for demos with him, had told a reporter that he’d routinely hit them with belts and hairbrushes but that it was “appropriate discipline.” To prepare for my visit, I arranged with my mother and sister that I would call them at regular intervals, and if I didn’t call when I was supposed to, they should call the police.

I wore a shoulder-length wig to cover my butch hair, a long, flowered dress, and I kept looking mild and smiling. I had a notebook in my hands at every moment

Fred, who was 66, turned out to be a tall, athletic guy in tight, sexy little bicycle shorts. His wife, a grim little gray cipher, served me cookies. She looked two decades older than Fred, but wasn’t. I was moved somehow by the cookies. She was the only one of them who did anything to make me feel welcome. She served me a plate with Oreos, and some pretty tasteless pink wafer cookies with the pink cream inside, and not very good supermarket chocolate cookies. I remember being weirdly disappointed that she hadn’t baked them herself.

I guessed that regular flyer-making and activism were more important activities in the Phelps household than the traditional housewifely skills. A straight woman whose brother’s funeral the Phelpses had picketed told me an old lady regularly called her house and said, “Is this the house of fags?” and “is this the house where fags live?” Sometimes a really little kid would call instead and ask the same questions.

Wearing my bad wig and my dowdy dress, I felt like I was performing one of those hunting rituals where the hunter puts on the skin of the kind of animal she’s hunting. It felt like an initiation ritual – I wanted to hunt them, to get as close to the monster as I could and escape, to bring back some kind of trophy, knowledge of them, understanding of them, but more.

But there’s also something perilous about dressing up as anybody, and there’s a way that you become whatever you pretend to be. And for six days, I had also become a silent and unthreatening Christian woman. There’s a way that all reporting, all journalism is like that – oh, I’m just like you, I don’t have any opinions, I’m not angry at you, just keep telling me stuff that I can write down! But somehow, when I reported on homophobes, there was something weird I was always enacting. Sometimes I did phone interviews with queerhaters, like one I remember with the Oregon Citizens Alliance, and I would just keep listening and writing down what they said about “fags and dykes” and how homos are serial killers, and I would feel like a battered woman.

Or like a battered child. I’m here listening. I’m here and you may not know that I’m listening, but when I get away from you I’m going to use what you said against you!

In other words, I felt like Marge, Fred’s wife, or like all of his kids.

He forced them all, the ones who hadn’t left the family, to become lawyers so they could defend him in court, and to have houses right next to his house with shared backyards. All of them had to go to 5 to 10 demonstrations a day, a lot of them against people who were actually seriously antigay, like the Topeka Police Department and Jerry Falwell. Fred just liked taking his anger out on everyone.

And the kids liked taking their anger at him out on everyone, in an endlessly recursive series.

The last day had almost a festival air, they were picketing in Kansas City against Deepak Chopra, it was an airy summer evening with bigger crowds than usual and Phelps’s granddaughter Sara, who was 13 and had mirrored sunglasses, was holding up a sign that said LYDIA IN HELL. A passerby asked her who Lydia was and Sara answered merrily, “Lydia Moore, she was a 38-year-old dyke, coming back from vacation with her dyke lover, and and a semi crashed into their car and killed them!”

It felt like a punch in the face.

And I don’t know why it took me that long to feel it.

The irony is that my mother and sister, who I was relying on to protect me in case Fred got violent, were some of the real reason I was going to Fred in first place. I wanted to find out what made the monster tick and if I could spend six days with the monster because I had grown up with the monster in a working class, intellectual, leftist family in Brooklyn. My family weren’t homophobic, but they were violent. They had great politics, but they were violent.

And I was too scared to confront my mother and sister, who along with my father were the sources of that violence, but I could come face-to-face with Fred Phelps and expose him in print, and come out with my skin intact.

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