Phelps Clan Met with Revelry and Frat Boys in Chicago

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday March 12, 2009

The anti-gay congregation of the Fred Phelps-led Westboro Baptist Church has met with a variety of responses in the communities around America where it pickets the funerals of fallen U.S. war heroes and productions of the play "The Laramie Project," but the greeting that awaited the group's picket at the University of Chicago surely stood out.

Where other communities have organized counter-protests, sought to isolate the group by avoiding and directing traffic away from the area where the congregation demonstrate, or simply done their best to go about their business as usual and ignore the group, the university's students created a celebratory atmosphere complete with sweet treats (s'mores and hot chocolate), frat boys dancing in their underwear, and fundraising for a GLBT youth-oriented charity.

University publication The Chicago Maroon reported in a Mar. 10 article on the revelry that greeted the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation of which is composed mainly of Rev. Phelps' extended family.

The anti-gay group, which preaches that God is punishing America and other Western nations through war casualties, AIDS, terrorist attacks, and disasters like the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, for failure to persecute gays, targeted the university for its ties to President Barack Obama, whom the group claims is the Antichrist, the article said.

The group are known for their colorful signs which carry provocative claims such as "God Hates Fags." Since Obama's election, new slogans have been added to the congregation's collection of signs, including one that reads, "Bloody Obama" and another that depicts the president sporting ram's horns.

The Chicago Maroon article noted that Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of the Rev. Phelps, belted out a song that took as its theme "God Hates America."

The group was countered by a group of students with signs and pamphlets warning that "Figs Doom Nations," "God Promises Terrible Vengeance Upon Any Fig-Loving Nation," and "Jesus rebuked the fig as an evil abomination."

The claims were supported by a Biblical passage in which Jesus denounces fig trees.

The article quoted student Carmel Levy, who said, "If you need scanty biblical evidence for anything, we've got it."

Added fellow student Max Shron, "We just wanted the world to know that God's vengeance doesn't just fall on the gay, but also on the fruit" of the fig tree.

Another group of students also added their signs to the protest, demonstrating tech-savvy slogans like "God hates dial-up" and "God hates the new Facebook," the article noted.

But the rebuke mounted by a group of frat boys may have been the most stinging, both for the nature of the demonstration and the group--stereotyped as anti-gay--from which it came.

Members of Alpha Delta Phi braved winter temperatures in order to greet the group with an underwear-only dance party to tunes like "It's Raining Men" and "I'm Coming Out."

The Westboro clan, unfazed, sent up a cheer when openly gay recording artist Elton John's song, "Tiny Dancer," reached the line referring to "Jesus freaks in the streets," the article said.

The article quoted Phelps-Roper as professing exuberance at the greeting the anti-gay group drew from students.

Said Phelps-Roper, "I truly and dearly love it."

Added Phelps-Roper, "It is so awesome when you juxtapose this little group of servants of God with this restless mob of humanity."

The cheery response included a sharp barb, however, as Phelps-Roper went on to say, "The little girly boys up there with their clothes half off gyrating around--they might as well flip off their God."

But if expressions of hate and religious intolerance were enough to trouble the students, there would have been no such party for the Phelps clan in the first place. Reckoned university student Dave Klein, "There had to be a response because a lot of people were mobilizing around the issue.

"We came up with this idea of having a party, to turn it into something beautiful," continued Klein, "a celebration of diversity."

In addition to snacks, dancing, and humorous riffing on the group's signs and message, the event also raised money for the Broadway Youth Center, which is dedicated to health services for the GLBT community.

The event also provided petitions for the repeal of California's anti-gay ballot initiative Proposition 8, which was narrowly approved by voters last November and which stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian families in that state.

University student Lexie Tabachnick, one of the event's organizers, said, "We took the opportunity" of the Phelps clan's visit "to show the University and beyond that we're proud of who we are."

The Phelps clan plan to picket Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University later this month, according to school publication The Avion.

The Baptist congregation is reportedly targeting Embry-Riddle due to the school's hosting of this year's Florida Collegiate Pride Conference, an annual gathering of college student from several Southern states that convenes to address GLBT concerns.

The anti-gay church is unlikely to find so spirited a welcome at Embry-Riddle, given that the University has expressed the hope that students will simply ignore the congregation.

The university's director of student activities, Aaron Clevenger, was quoted as saying that, "the main goal... [is] to keep the campus a safe educational environment and to allow the students to go on about their normal daily routines with as few interruptions as possible."

Added Clevenger, "[H]onestly, I hope our students do not counter-protest."

Clevenger added that, "I understand the desire to stand up for what we believe in. However, counter-protesting this group simply plays into their goal of public attention and media coverage."

The article warned that any counter-protest that turns forcible or violent could open the university to a lawsuit from the protesters.

Clevenger said that the group would not be welcome on school property: "Since the protesters obviously do not support the University's values statement on diversity, they can not be sponsored to come on our campus."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.