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1. The Quarrel of the Covenant
If a mother thinks something is important enough to take a public position about, shouldn’t she teach her children that value? Where else should children be at the time of public debate? At the local video arcade? I don’t think we should pretend that these vital issues don’t affect children.
—Shirley Phelps-Roper, letter to the editor, Topeka Capital Journal, August 26, 1991
I didn’t understand what was going on, not at first. The signs simply appeared one day and never left, like some undeniable force of nature. I’d guess Topekans experienced their arrival that way, as well. My mother’s family had been a well-known and polarizing presence in the city for decades—but in my memory, the picketing is the beginning, and it started at Gage Park.
It sure didn’t look like a park to me. There were no swings or slides or jungle gyms—just an open field that separated the place where we parked from the busy intersection of 10th Street and Gage Boulevard. As pastor of the tiny Westboro Baptist Church, my grandfather would drive the big red pickup filled with signs he’d made, and the rest of the church—consisting almost entirely of my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents, and siblings—would follow in a caravan of vehicles. I couldn’t read the messages Gramps had carefully written since I was still a few months shy of kindergarten, but when I saw photos as a teenager, I was surprised by how small and restrained some were compared to what came later: WATCH YOUR KIDS! GAYS IN RESTRMS.
The adults would pick up as many signs as they could carry, walk them across the field, and lean them against the trunks of the two biggest trees. The rest of us just had to walk by and grab one. During those first few months—June, July, August of 1991—our habit was to hold our signs and walk in a big circle just next to the roadway, cars whizzing by in all four lanes of traffic. The baseball hats my dad made us wear always gave me headaches, but I was glad to have them once I was out there walking in the heavy afternoon heat.
As I got older, I came to learn the story of Gage Park and the events that prompted our first protests. In the summer of 1989, two years before we started picketing, Gramps had been biking through the park with my brother Josh, who wasn’t quite five years old at the time. My grandfather’s custom was to ride ahead a bit, and then circle back—ride ahead, and circle back. One of the times he did so, he thought he saw two men approaching my brother, apparently attempting to lure him into the wooded area shrouded by bushes at the southwest corner of the park. Alarmed and livid, Gramps got to work. He spoke with one park official who told him, “At any hour of the day or night, male couples may be seen entering and exiting the area.” The official also mentioned that he regularly passed along citizen complaints to his superiors—but to no avail. My grandfather soon discovered that sex in the park was a well-documented issue in the local media; sting operations conducted by the Topeka Police Department had resulted in a string of high-profile arrests over the years. A nationally circulated gay and lesbian travel guide listed the park as a “cruisy area”—a place where men could cruise for anonymous sex. Even now, Gage Park is listed in that guide, though a warning was added shortly after Westboro’s picketing began: AYOR. At your own risk.
Armed with this information, my grandfather took action. He began by detailing his findings in a letter to the mayor, opening with a colorful description of the problem (“A malodorous sore with the scab off is open and running at the extreme southwest corner of Gage Park”) and concluding with a question: “Do you think Gage Park’s running sore could be permanently fixed? Your consideration is appreciated.” The mayor’s response acknowledged that the city of Topeka was “well aware of the situation” at the park, and that they were “in the process of putting together a program to bring the situation to a halt.” Nearly two years passed, during which time my grandfather monitored the situation, with no apparent improvement. He continued to write letters to city officials and to appear regularly at city council meetings, insisting that they clean up the park. According to church lore, my grandfather accused city officials of “sitting around like last year’s Christmas trees” during one such meeting—at which point the mayor instructed the police to escort my grandfather out of the council chambers.
Convinced that the city would persist in its idleness, Gramps decided that we would take to the streets and demand that it take action.
In hindsight, our protests were bound to elicit an intensely negative reaction—especially because our message went far beyond calls for the cleanup of Gage Park. Gramps was an “Old School Baptist,” he said, and was determined to represent the Scriptural position on homosexuality. He leapt immediately into attacks on the gay community as a whole, blaming them for the AIDS epidemic and proclaiming that they deserved the death penalty. The Topeka Capital Journal published many Westboro letters, including one signed by one of my aunts comparing the United States to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities destroyed by God “[b]ecause of their sin regarding homosexuality.” She declared AIDS to be “a disease for which the homosexual must take the sole blame” and insisted that the blood of straight AIDS victims “should be avenged upon those guilty of introducing and gleefully spreading this deadly disease: the homosexual.” Even during an era in which disapproval of LGBT people was more common and socially acceptable, it took only four short sentences for my aunt to make claims scandalous enough to outrage most readers—and our signs managed to do the same with even greater economy. MILITANT GAYS SPREAD AIDS. EXPOSE GAY-AIDS PLOY. GAYS ARE WORTHY OF DEATH (ROM. 1:32) = AIDS. And soon enough, what would become our most infamous message: GOD HATES FAGS.
The community response to our protests would mystify me for years, thanks to an ignorance borne both of youth and of the religious education I was receiving at home. I was five years old when the picketing began, and I didn’t understand why anyone would reject our message, let alone why our protests would draw counterprotesters—“counters.” They came every week in the beginning, and I was scared of them at first. “Young punks” and “diseased, probably got AIDS,” Gramps would say. The Bible forbade girls to cut our hair, but some of their women came out with cropped manes colored bright reds and blues and purples—“Kool-Aid hair”—and with metal in their faces. There were boys with mullets, others with half their heads shaved and the other half covered by long black hair that hung in greasy strands across ugly faces. Some looked like my dad, tall and skinny in tank tops and the awfully short running shorts in style at the time, and some were fat and bearded, combat boots on their feet and flannel shirts tied around their waists. They’d come out in angry mobs—fifty, a hundred, more and less—and try to surround our group of about thirty, starting fistfights with the Westboro dads who made a human barrier between us and them. Sometimes there were cops and sometimes there were handcuffs and sometimes we were in them—which wasn’t fair, I thought, because we were just trying to protect ourselves from those “ruffians.” I held my breath whenever I walked by them, so I wouldn’t catch whatever it was that was making them such awful people.
The counters would urge drivers to honk and yell and flip us off, which they did en masse. “Hatemongers!” “Nazis!” “Go home!” “Get a job!” “What the fuck is wrong with you?” “I’m gonna kick the shit outta you!” They threw eggs and beer and big plastic Pepsi bottles filled with urine as they sped off down the road. Drivers and passengers would sometimes abandon their vehicles in the middle of the street, car doors hanging wide open, and cross lanes of traffic to come after us on foot. My cousins and I would scuttle away, back behind Mom or an aunt who stepped between us and them. From behind my sign, I watched them approach us to hit and threaten and shove and bellow and spit and grab for our signs, our bodies, our hair. The police rarely seemed to help, but my parents kept us safe. Still, I was alarmed and angry. How dare they, I raged. That’s my mom! What made them think they could do this to us? Why weren’t the cops stopping them?
But my grandfather had a different perspective on the opposition and scorn we faced: it was proof that God was with us. He would quote Jesus, who warned his disciples to expect the hatred of the world: If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. “In fact,” Gramps would roar during his Sunday sermons, “I’d be supremely afraid if the people of this evil city were on our side!” Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.
Musical combat became an important front in the battle for Gage Park, and this was one that I relished: I was too small to physically defend the church against our opponents, but by God I was gonna make myself heard. While they were chanting things like Two, four, six, eight, Phelps is always spreading hate, we would sing hymns or this new song Gramps had written, upbeat and so catchy. It was a parody of Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” and because the first and final lines had the same melody, we could sing it in a loop without end. The end of one verse was the beginning of the next.
Get back in the closet again!
Back where a sin is a sin
Where the filthy faggots dwell
While they’re on their way to Hell
Get back in the closet again!
As time wore on, the counterprotesters’ will to battle us on the streets dissipated along with their numbers. We began to find ourselves alone on the sidewalks. Still, Gramps didn’t take victory for granted. Rain or shine, Westboro members stood vigil along Gage Boulevard every day without fail. We soon wore a path into the lawn, one of the first marks our picketing made on the city of Topeka—this place where the grass suddenly shifted from green and lush to trampled and dead.
My grandfather’s fervor was contagious, and I was proud to stand on the front lines with the church even if I didn’t always understand the message. Yet the decline in direct opposition rendered pickets something of a slog for my young self, and boredom became my new enemy. On days when the counters were fewer and less violent, I’d scan the ground beneath my feet for anything interesting as I walked. Once, there was a small brown mass beside the circle, flies buzzing all around it, and I spent nearly the whole picket trying to figure out what it was. A dead squirrel, I finally realized, making out its once-fluffy tail, now flattened and matted with blood. I was glad the picket was almost over—had it been an hour? Two?—and I reported to Dad, who kicked it away so I wouldn’t have to watch the carcass decay. We’d be coming back.
From the time we first brought our signs to Gage Park, my mom was my most important interlocutor. She spent a lot of time answering questions from my siblings and me, trying to explain what was going on out there: why we were picketing, why everyone was so angry, what it all meant. She had my older brothers, Sam and Josh, memorizing the last fifteen verses of Romans chapter 1—a task I was spared because of my age, but I still managed to get a lot of it down: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly. The only part of my mother’s explanation that really got through to me in the beginning, though, was the overarching theme of it all: that our lives were part of a never-ending struggle of the good guys against the bad. The quarrel of the covenant. This was the eternal conflict between the righteous and the wicked, and we would not back down.
* * *
As it turned out, the vast majority of the righteous had grown up at Westboro and were members of the Phelps family. My father, Brent Roper, was one of the few who didn’t fit this profile: He had grown up Episcopalian. He’d been best friends with my mom’s youngest brother in high school, and as he came to know my mother’s family, he found himself compelled by them. A Tom Petty–loving skateboard stuntman, he ended up converting and joining Westboro when he was just sixteen. It was a big decision. Though the church’s anti-gay protesting was still more than a decade off, its pastor was already a controversial figure: armed with a law degree, righteous indignation, and unwavering antagonism, Gramps had a habit of collecting powerful enemies wherever he went.
My father had seen another side of the family, though. He loved how tight-knit they were, their love and willingness to sacrifice for one another, their dedication to complete fidelity to the Scriptures. Shortly after joining the church, my father took a job at Phelps-Chartered, the family law firm. He would later credit his successful career in human resources to his time working there in his teens and early twenties. The Phelps family taught him diligence, he said—responsibility and a proper work ethic.
He fell in love with my mother, and they married a short four years after he joined the church, when he was twenty and she twenty-six. But only after he’d proved himself worthy to Gramps.
My grandfather demanded that all thirteen of his children and their spouses attend law school and continue the family business, but my mom had always had a special position at the firm. She was dearly beloved by her father, and they’d had a unique relationship from the time she was young. She and Gramps began to work closely together when my mom was just fourteen—and of the seven eldest Phelps children, my mom was the only one who would never abandon the church to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. She urgently took to heart a saying that her father repeated often: “The best ability is dependability.” As a result, her parents leaned on her more than any of her brothers and sisters, and she was entrusted with ever greater responsibility: keeping her siblings in line, managing the law office, taking care of the finances, and more. She learned to run a tight ship, to never settle on her lees. There was always something more to accomplish, and my mother was dedicated to doing it all.
In order to secure my grandfather’s permission to marry my mother, my dad finished high school, worked at the law office while completing a four-year bachelor’s degree in just two and a half years, and, as he told it, narrowly beat out my uncle Tim to get the last available spot in Washburn University’s law school class that year. Neither my mother’s pace nor my father’s slowed after they married. “I hope you will have the joy of the promise of Psalm 127,” Gramps told my parents at their wedding. “As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.” It was expected that there would be many children, and it was also expected that those children would be provided for. Understanding this, my father continued working his way through school—next up, an MBA program—and, almost out of thin air, created for himself a second career as an author writing textbooks about legal software and law office management.
Meanwhile, my mother managed the Phelps law firm and cared for our growing family. Her role in the church was ever-expanding, as well. She gave interviews to reporters, organized cross-country picket trips and the scheduling for the whole congregation: the daily pickets in Topeka, the mowing, the daycare, the weekly church cleanings, the monthly birthday parties—her contributions were without end. The dynamics of my parents’ marriage never fit with the paradigm commonly associated with conservative Christianity: that of an authoritarian father dictating to a mealy-mouthed mother who just needed to stay in her place and recognize that her husband always knew better. Wifely subjection was certainly in the Bible, but in practice, my parents operated as a team. My father couldn’t have been further from authoritarian—gentle, intelligent, hard-working, so respectful of my mother’s thoughts, and so undeniably in love with her—and my mother couldn’t have been further from mealy-mouthed. My father never weaponized his husband status to demand my mother’s silence or obedience, and their mutual respect was an example for all. My parents had each found a perfect counterpart in the other, and even Gramps—who hadn’t wanted to believe anyone could be worthy of my mother—was impressed.
By the time my dad finished law school, there were three of us kids: my two older brothers, Sam and Josh, and then me. Over the next sixteen years, eight more children would be born into the Phelps-Roper household. It took me several years to stop shaking my head in bewilderment each time someone would ask “Are you Catholic?” upon learning that I was one of six, seven, eight, nine children. Birth control wasn’t something I realized was even possible, let alone widely practiced. I just knew the verses. Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
“The womb business is God’s business,” Mom summarized. “You can’t outsmart the Lord!”
The Catholic stance against artificial contraception was a relatively fringe position, but—in a pattern that would extend to virtually every aspect of our lives—Westboro Baptist Church was prepared to take it even further, to the letter of the Scriptures as we understood them. And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. It was for God alone to give or withhold children, and even the “natural family planning” endorsed by Catholics was unacceptable. The single time I heard about an aunt of mine attempting to defy God and “counting the days” to avoid pregnancy, it was in the context of her miscounting. She and her husband had been struggling to provide for the six children they had already, but when she’d tried to take matters into her own hands, she’d ended up pregnant with twins. God was teaching her a lesson, my mother said, because my aunt had failed to trust Him. It wasn’t for her to decide when or how many children to have, it wasn’t for her to have any feeling or opinion on the matter at all, except to be grateful to the Lord for each one.
And oh, was my mama grateful. I remember feeling it most in the music, when she would sing to us, always singing. Before I turned five and had to join in with the rank and file for Saturday morning cleaning marathons, my little sister Bekah and I would dance on matching window seats in the living room, mouthing along as Christopher Cross or Fleetwood Mac blared from the big stereo while the others cleaned. Dad would pick us up and twirl us around, and Mom would sashay over with a dusting rag in one hand and a can of Pledge in the other—that sickly sweet scent of chemical lemons filtering through the whole house—and she’d lean in to kiss our cheeks, serenading us at the top of her voice: “No, I will never be the same without your love / I’ll live alone, try so hard to rise above.” This was the same era in which I sat just to her left during church, when she belted out the hymns so high and so loud that it hurt my ears. I discovered that to protect myself from the sonic onslaught, I could stick a finger into my left ear, press myself into my mother’s side, and listen to her sing from inside her body. It was so soothing, the warmth and the vibrations and the feeling of her arm holding me close as I tucked into her. I didn’t know then that this special place at her side would always be mine. That as her eldest daughter, I would become to her what she had become to her father—and as that relationship had defined my mother, so this one would define me. For I was tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother.
Samuel. Joshua. Megan. Rebekah. Isaiah. Zacharias. Grace. Gabriel. Jonah. Noah. Luke.
Sam. Josh. Meg. Bek. Zay. Zach. Grace. Gabe. Jonah. Noah. Luke.
It would be entirely reasonable to expect that my mother’s dedication to doing it all might wane with the birth of each additional child, that it would be impossible for her to maintain that commitment to having her children, her legal career, and her work for our church. Instead, the opposite was true. As our family swelled with each passing year, so, too, did the church’s profile and the added pressure we all faced as a result. I’ve never known another woman who could have stood up under the strain of the burden my mother carried, not without collapsing under the weight of it. She had an inexhaustible supply of strength, tenacity, and resourcefulness—whose origins, it seemed to me, must surely have been divine.
* * *
Soon after our initial protests at Gage Park, our war with the city of Topeka began to escalate. Every anti-Westboro effort they made only served to strengthen our resolve, and we answered each one by dramatically expanding the pace and variety of our pickets. Nearly two years in, we now targeted the newspaper (which regularly editorialized against us), the police department (which failed to protect us from the violent criminals who frequently came out to attack and threaten us), the city government (which worked to draft anti-picketing ordinances), many local churches (which joined the counterprotests against us), and any location related to any person who made any public statement against us or for gays.
Even our language had intensified. The word gay had disappeared entirely from our signs and vocabulary—a misnomer, Gramps said—and it was replaced by fag, a word that literally signified a bundle of sticks used for kindling. “Fag is an elegant metaphor!” Gramps insisted. “In the same way a literal fag is used to kindle the fires of nature, these metaphorical fags fuel the flames of Hell and the fires of God’s wrath!” Of course, fag also had the added benefit of being scandalous and offensive, which only garnered more attention for our message.
One of the verses that Gramps quoted often included a command from God to shew my people their transgression—and as with the rest of the Bible, my grandfather took this literally. For my cousins and me, this resulted in a precocious knowledge of gay sex practices, at least insofar as they were presented by our pastor. Revulsion filled his voice as he spoke of gay people “anally copulating their brains out,” and “suckin’ around on each other, lickin’ around on each other.” He started adding stick figure depictions of anal sex to our picket signs, one man bent over in front of another. I could articulate the meanings of “scat,” “rimming,” and “golden showers” all before my eighth birthday, though I was loath to do so. To publicly accuse gays of these filthy behaviors would leave a girl open to challenge—“How do you know?”—and thus put her in the unenviable position of having to explain that it’s in a book called The Joys of Gay Sex … which, no, she had not read … but her grandfather had told her about it … during church … from the pulpit.
“Golden showers” was a term featured in our parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas. On December evenings, I’d don my colorful winter coat, pick up a sign, and belt out the lyrics with gusto alongside my uncles and cousins, illuminated by streetlights or the glow of the marquee announcing The Nutcracker at the Topeka Performing Arts Center: “Five golden showers! Preparation H, three bloody rectums, two shaven gerbils, and a vat of K-Y Jelly!” I knew even then that this was transgressive, but there was something so delightful about it, so appealing: this sense that my family had some secret knowledge about the world, that we were not subject to its rules or its judgments. There might be an overabundance of regulations governing life within our own community, but the social niceties of the broader world held no sway over us in the context of the protests. In that respect, we were a law unto ourselves, and all bets were off as long as our words were justified by the Bible. Truth was an absolute defense against any and all claims made against us.
Unfortunately for us, it was not always an adequate defense.
One evening when I was seven, as my siblings and I cleaned up after dinner, there was the wail of a police siren, growing loud as it passed near our house and then fading. And then there was another. And another. My mother frowned. Our house sat just a block east of Gage Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, so sirens weren’t especially unusual. For some reason, these ones were making her uneasy.
“Maybe it’s our guys at the Vintage…”
The Vintage was a little restaurant advertising “Cocktails” and “Fine Foods” at the east end of a run-down shopping center just a few blocks from our house—targeted by Westboro because one of the managers was a lesbian serving on the Mayor’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I had desperately wanted to picket the Vintage that Friday night, because my cousin Jael had told me she would be there. She was one of my best friends, but since we now attended different elementary schools and lived on different blocks, the most regular time I had with her was when we were protesting. Jael and I had this great routine whereby we’d grab a sign from the truck—her favorite was FAG GOD = RECTUM while I preferred FAG = AIDS with the skull and crossbones underneath—and then we’d plant ourselves somewhere on the picket line and chat it up for half an hour. She’d bring those little patriotic-looking packages of Bazooka Bubble Gum, and we’d chomp noisily while I taught her the lyrics to songs I’d learned from my big brother Sam (“Baby Got Back,” “Santeria,” etc.).
At the sound of the third siren, my mother’s anxiety shifted to alarm and we took off in the family van. The scene in front of the Vintage was chaos, the small parking lot filled with curious bystanders, half a dozen patrol cars with red and blue flashing lights, EMTs, and cops taking statements from my aunts and uncles, and from mean-looking men in sweats. We’d been attacked again, I saw, but worse than usual. Dad and I stayed in the van while Mom jumped out to help. She picked up a sign lying askew on the ground, which I sounded out—ABSTINENCE NOT CONDOMS—but didn’t understand. Here, my memory of staring out the van window gets fuzzy, fusing with images I got from photographs and home videos later: my uncle Tim, neck braced and nose bleeding, being treated by EMTs on the running board of a big red fire engine; my skinny cousin Ben, seventeen years old, strapped onto a gurney with a series of black belts, a white brace around his neck and a white strap across his forehead, his left hand outstretched to hold on to our aunt Margie. As Ben was being wheeled away, Margie seemed beside herself with outrage and grief. “Never, Jerry!” she bellowed across the parking lot. “Never. We’re never—gonna—stop—picketing!”
Sitting at our family Bible reading the next day, my mother explained it all. Jerry Berger, “the Jew lawyer” who owned the Vintage—the same guy we’d later see in a photo with his hands around my uncle’s neck, choking him unconscious—had hired a dozen bouncers from his strip club to come and beat us up for picketing his restaurant. A local priest had witnessed the attack from the bank next door, and wrote a letter to the mayor: “The attackers walked with deliberate speed and apparent determination toward the picketers. Then I saw the signs falling like sunflowers being cut down by cornknifes and bodies being knocked down and into Gage Boulevard.” Eight of our people were taken to the hospital that night. Three were teenagers.
As tensions with the city continued to mount in the months following what Gramps called “The Vintage Massacre,” my mother helped me piece everything together. She liked for pickets to do double duty as preaching and exercise, so I’d listen to her stories as we walked the picket line from end to end. There was a new prosecutor in our county, my mom told me, a woman who had campaigned on the promise that she would get us off the streets. We were bad for the city, bad for its image, bad for commerce, bad for children, and she represented a community that was as determined to shut us up as we were to be heard.
Ever since this woman had taken office as district attorney, my mother explained, she was doing everything in her power to stop us. It was her encouragement that had the cops arresting us so often now, it was she who charged us with crimes we hadn’t committed. And now people were attacking us more frequently because of her refusal to file charges when we were victims, like at the Vintage. The prosecutor had gotten search warrants so that sheriff’s deputies could beat down the church doors with battering rams and confiscate our property—even though we hadn’t done anything wrong and the officers had had to give it all back. They raided the law office, as well, even though the vast majority of Phelps-Chartered’s work involved representing individual members of the public—criminal cases, personal injury, family law—and had nothing to do with Westboro. No matter how careful we were to follow the law, the DA could have us arrested, and Mom would have to run downtown and bail our loved ones out of jail again.
The attacks at Topeka protests and the vandalism of our homes grew worse during the term of that prosecutor. I woke up one summer morning and followed my mom into the backyard we shared with the church, only to find that it had been torn apart. There was patio furniture at the bottom of the pool, the seat cushions slashed open and strewn across the yard. The weights my uncle used to benchpress had been dropped and broken into heavy chunks. All of our garden hoses had been sliced open, and a huge gash in our beloved trampoline had rendered it worthless. As a kid, I was most frightened by the lacerated state of the trampoline; anyone who could do harm to such a beautiful object clearly would not hesitate to turn the knife on a person. Later on, someone did take a knife to my cousin’s tiny Westie, nearly beheading the poor creature for being on the wrong picketer’s property at the wrong time. Little April managed to pull through, but we took this as just another in a long line of violent criminal attacks we faced for lawfully standing on public sidewalks to preach the standards of God. Persecution in the purest sense of the word.
Copyright © 2019 by Megan Phelps-Roper