Seventy-five gay rights advocates raised more than $4,500 ina faceoff with Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Churchoutside the BostonCenter for the Arts’ BlackBox Theatre last Friday.
Phelps’ fire-and-brimstoners fromTopeka, Kan., were picketing Bad Habit Productions’ staging of The Laramie Project, which is based onthe real-life 1998 homophobia-fueled murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.Phelps and his minions picketed Shepard’s funeral, waving “Matt is in Hell”signs at his grieving family.
Bad Habit artisticdirector Daniel Morris took the protest in stride. “We had a big discussionabout what has changed in the past 10 years,” he said. “Them being here isdefinitely validating the relevance of the show.”
The six Westboro picketers screamedand carried signs, one sign depicting President-elect Barack Obama as the Antichrist(with flames and horns), another sign—held by a smiling 11-year-old girl—proclaiming“God Hates You.” Phelps’ website, godhatesfags.com, condemns everything fromItalian art to the 2010 World Cup, and claims that God is letting troops die inIraq as punishment for gay marriage.
AcrossTremont Street, activist Chris Mason counterprotested with a “Phelps-a-Thon,”raising money for gay rights with pledged donations for every minute the Phelpsclan stuck around. By curtain-up on Laramie,they had raised $4,647—$755 of which came from donations made during theprotest, sometimes in the form of $20 bills shoved into Mason’s hand byonlookers.
Despite freezing temperatures,Mason’s group stayed upbeat. “Give a big cheer for Fred Phelps!” they yelled,as the number of dollars, displayed on a colorful poster, went up. Drowning outthe other side of the street, they chanted, “You’re crazy, you’re funny. You’reraising us money!” and held up their own homemade signs like, “I can has sanityplz?” and “Hate is easy. Love takes courage.” One man danced around theKansaniacs dressed only in cutoff jeans and a jaunty sailor’s cap.
Rev. Michael Cooper, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church,an LGBTcommunity, attended the counterprotest to show that Westboro “is not thevoice of the Christian church.”
“In terms of my faith and mybeliefs, it’s sad to see someone with that much hate so intent on spreadingit,” Cooper said. “Even though [Fred Phelps] looks like an idiot and peoplelaugh at him, there’s still some fear and memory deep down. We should counterthat and say, ‘There are other options.’”
Fred Phelps’ daughter, ShirleyPhelps-Roper, helped organize the Bostonprotest. “When you make sin a civil right? Yeah, God’s against that,” she said,laughing and nodding. She blamed the souring economy on the "doomedAmericans" as well. "That’s why they’re losing their jobs," shesaid. "The doomed Americans weren’t willing to just go to hell. Theywanted to take us with them. They’ve done every manner of evil thing, and now Godis repaying them.”
For 45 minutes, South End residentswatched from their stoops as policemen directed traffic. One passing driverasked if Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was here. Finally, the Phelps crowdpiled into a minivan as Mason’s crowd cheered, “Hooray! Hooray! We chased thePhelps away!”
The Boston excursion cost Westboroaround $2,000, half the amount that Mason will use to fund his Driving Equalityproject, a 100-day road trip next summer, during which he’ll interview peopleabout gay rights all across the lower 48 states.
Several years ago, Mason had hisfirst taste of the Phelps “experience,” when Westboro picketed four Greater Bostonschools. He followed them around as a counterprotestor, and the Phelps-a-thonidea was born. “These Phelps people are really good at inciting our people tostart yelling and being really upset," Mason said. "And as good as itis for people to get their emotions out, nothing positive came out of it. It’dbe great if we were laughing at them.”