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Photo by Jack GouldAt a glance, the fidgety 11-year-old boy with the bowl haircut couldn't have seemed more normal. Dressed in a black T-shirt, blue shorts with a Star Wars logo, a Kansas City Chiefs Windbreaker and well-worn sneakers, he stood surrounded by yellow police tape outside Laguna Beach City Hall on March 20. Cops, reporters and curious passing shoppers observed quietly. Looking alternately bored and fascinated, the kid rarely spoke. When he did, his voice was soft and practically inaudible. At one point, his tiny arms held up a fluorescent placard depicting two men having anal sex.
Welcome to the Reverend Fred Phelps' vulgar traveling theater. The 70-year-old, cowboy-hat-topped pastor of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church has been on a nine-year crusade to convince the world that, as he succinctly—and frequently—puts it, "God hates fags."
Phelps is perhaps most infamous for publicly celebrating the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was pistol whipped, beaten, burned and strung up on a rural fence by two bigots. The reverend's website —www.Godhatesfags.com—carries a computer-animated picture of Shepard burning in hell. Stunts like that one have prompted the Reverend Jerry Falwell, certainly no friend of gays, to call Phelps "either mean as the devil or a nut case."
Or maybe both. On March 18, 10 members of Phelps' congregation—including the boy—flew to California for three days of protests against what they see as an increasingly pro-homosexual Orange County. They claim Laguna Beach Police Chief James Spreine will "burn"—in hell, presumably—for his new policy of documenting complaints of violence-laced hate speech; that the ultraconservative Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove is not sufficiently anti-gay; and that the recent creation of the Gay-Straight Alliance club at El Modena High School in Orange is "insensitive" to God's law.
Standing behind a patch of purple pansies and beneath a soaring palm tree and a weeping willow at Laguna Beach City Hall on an overcast, chilly morning, Phelps' disciples waved oversized homemade signs reading, "Fags doom nation," "No special laws for fags," "Matt is in hell," "Repent or perish" and, of course, the group's trusty standby, "God hates fags." The placards are a source of immense pride for the group. At the feet of Fred Phelps Jr., one of the leaders on this trip, rested an open case containing seven additional signs that were systematically rotated into the protest.
A surprisingly placid group of youthful counterdemonstrators carried signs that read, "Homophobia is a social disease," "Phelps go home," "Gay pride" and "Teach equality not hatred."
The rally started uneventfully—until Phelps' group got what must be predictable by now: a passing middle-aged female motorist slowed to shout at Phelps' group.
"You people are sick," she said. "What are you doing? Get a job."
One of the protesters responded, "That was original. Have you looked in the mirror lately? It looks like you've got soul-glow in your hair!"
The other protestors merely smiled and vigorously shook their placards.
Minutes later, a school bus—empty except for the driver—came to a screeching halt. A man jumped off the bus, pointed his finger at Phelps' group and said angrily, "Stop preaching hate to kids. It's wrong." He left amid hearty jeers.
"Oh, yeah? Well, you're dumb and ugly," one quipped.
There was something familiar about Phelps' group. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I saw a crowd of overweight, middle-aged, polyester-clad tourists eat from a jumbo-sized bag of barbecue potato chips as they roamed an elegant casino. The anti-gay protestors oozed the same attitude and style. Their appearances were epitomized by one unshaven, gut-busting fellow who was decked out in an eye-poundingly mismatched ensemble of tight sweat pants and a crumbling T-shirt. A thirtysomething man, who identified himself as a preacher and occasionally barked ominous-sounding biblical verses with the cadence of a drill sergeant, carried a camcorder in his right hand and a cell phone in his left. During the protest, he gave a telephone interview, repeatedly screaming about "the fags" and what God had in store for them. As he ended the call, he said confidently, "'Fag' is a good Bible word."
The protesters didn't really enjoy themselves until the arrival of Abbey Grunden, a 17-year-old from Burbank visiting her mother in Laguna Beach.
"You guys all need an education," said the 17-year-old. "This is hatred. Hatred isn't in the Bible."
A male protester wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey and cut-off jeans smiled and shouted back, "You don't know the Bible."
Grunden said, "God loves everyone."
"You are wrong. God does not love everyone."
"I can't believe you guys are standing there holding those awful signs."
"You're a big witch."
"Then what are you?"
"You came out here, where there are Bible preachers, and you're going to hear Bible truth whether you like it or not," he said. "You're a whore, and you've gone whoring after strange gods, and you're going to split hell wide open when you die. You need to wake up. You need to repent."
"You are so ignorant," Grunden said with tears in her eyes. "Look, you guys have that little boy out here holding a hate sign. What is wrong with you?"
The preacher shook his sign and said slowly, "You are going to hell."
"I'm going to hell because I don't hate people?"
An obese protester in her late 50s lowered her placard, stepped toward Grunden, squinted and shrieked, "You are a whore!"
"I can't believe how sick you people are," said the teenager.
The protesters looked at one another and laughed. One said, "You're on some bad crack, girl." Another said, "And you're a pervert."
Before leading her daughter away, Connie Himmel of Laguna Beach scolded Phelps' crew. "I have a wonderful, beautiful daughter," she said. "You people are nothing but trash. Gay people have just as much right to do what they want as we do."
About that time, I asked Fred Phelps Jr. what he was thinking. He cracked a contented smile and leisurely scanned the view. "Laguna Beach is a beautiful city, isn't it? It's really incredible. It'd be a great place to live, I'd imagine," said the self-described civil-rights attorney as he held a sign: "Fags Die, God Laughs."