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Speaking with Jael Phelps, granddaughter of Fred Phelps
Section One
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Speaking with Jael Phelps, granddaughter of Fred Phelps

by Marcus James - SGN Contributing Writer

We've all had days that we don't look forward to, those we approach with a sense of dread. Sunday, June 14, was definitely one of those days; Fred Phelps was coming to town, or at least members of his reviled Westboro Baptist Church.

As a young Gay man who can still vividly recall the morning after Matthew Shepard's death and can still hear the hateful tone of Phelps' voice as he stood outside of Matt's funeral, I do my best to avoid the Westboro Baptist Church. Out of morbid curiosity, I occasionally do glance at their website. I've watched documentaries on them, sat appalled while watching them spout hate on the Tyra Banks show, and each and every time I am unable to turn away. I think it pulls me in because its repulsiveness is so blatant and vulgar that you can't help but want to reach out and touch it, just to get an idea of what evil really feels like. If evil is something tangible, something that you can grasp firmly as a solid entity, then Fred Phelps is it, our modern incarnation of evil, of the devil in human form.

I had encountered the family once before, in El Paso, Texas. The Westboro gang was into their recent fad of protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers. El Paso has a very large military base, Fort Bliss, where the first soldier to be killed in Iraq came from. I was fascinated with the Phelps family, seeing them standing out there, across the street from the cemetery at Fort Bliss, with little children who held up signs bigger than they were which read "SOLDIERS DIE FOR FAGS."

Three years later, it would seem that the Phelps and I would again cross paths.

HELLO, JAEL
I saw her standing there, across East Madison Street at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, her blonde/brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, her cheeks flushed pink from the cold, her petite body trying to balance two signs in each hand. The only thing keeping her warm was her bright orange hoodie with "readthesigns.com" stenciled on it in white. I was captivated.

"Do you mind if I ask you some questions?" I asked.

"Not at all. Not at all!" There was a joy in her eyes, something that seemed to sparkle. One could have simply assumed that it was because she was going to be able to run through her vulgar words yet again, but that wasn't it. She needed to speak to someone; she needed to communicate with another person her own age, someone who she didn't know since they were both in the same crib.

"So, why Seattle? Why did you guys come here specifically? You guys always seem to be coming to a location because of some specific event occurring - you know, usually the deaths of innocent people."

"No," she began, calmly as ever. "There are no innocent people, no one, not even me, none of us are innocent. But we're here because any chance to come preach the word to a bunch of disgusting heathens is reason enough to come to Seattle!" I nodded. Hell, I even think I chuckled. It just seemed so ridiculous.

"So, it was simply a random decision?" I asked her. People were shouting, screaming out all around us, and yet it suddenly seemed as if it was all so far away.

"No, the truth is, I'll tell you the truth of why we're really here: we're looking for a few good Jews!" I think I blinked, shook my head, and blinked again.

"A few good Jews?" I asked. She smiled. "Yes, a few good Jews. You know, Jews who are willing to stand up and apologize for killing Jesus, for corrupting the world with their blasphemy! That's our new thing." It was like a community service club in school, just picking a new cause for the New Year.

"So what's up with the 'bitch-burger' sign?" I asked her, looking at a sign which showed a sleeping baby sandwiched between lettuce, onion, tomato, and two sesame seed buns.

"The fornicators, adulterers, heathens, the homosexuals, they will all eat their babies and devour their feces, the Bible says so!" I suppressed a laugh.

"I see. And this whole Jew thing, and Gay thing, don't you think you're spreading yourselves a little thin? Isn't it better to just be focused on one thing at one time?" I said this with a bit of humor, and she echoed it back in her response.

"No, honey. Listen, we're here because we have to be here, to spread the word of the Lord." She called me "honey," like she and I were suddenly best friends, like she was my new fag-hag. Maybe, for her, this was the closest she would ever get to a Gay best friend.

"But all the same, didn't Jesus say, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?'" I asked. "I mean, isn't that what he said?"

"These men were picking up stones, literal stones, and throwing them at her," she grinned.

"Yeah, but stones aren't just rocks you pick up off the ground," I said, shaking my head. "They're words, the words that you throw out with hate. Doesn't that make you feel slightly hypocritical?"

She seemed to think on this, for no longer than a second.

"Sweetie, no." Again, an endearing word, not said with any hint of malice or a demeaning tone. "It is our mission to do what the Lord has asked of us." I was going to say more, but then the security liaison approached and told us that the cops were going to be clearing the space, which meant we had to move on to the next location.

THE WEIGHT OF COMPASSION
As I rejoined with my organization, the Queer Ally Coalition, I felt compassion for her. I felt, like in any other circumstance, if you removed the crazy out of her head, she and I could probably be friends. We even said goodbye to one another when we parted ways. I wondered if Jael ever wished to be something more than a cult shill - a doctor, a lawyer, a singer? Or, like almost all little girls at one point or another, a famous actress? Did she secretly watch Sex and the City re-runs in the Phelps compound late at night and wish that she was like them, that she had a group of girlfriends that she could turn to and bitch about boys and shoes with? Did she wish that she had a great pair of heels from Jimmy Choo or Manolo?

When we got to the final location, the beautiful and immense St. James Cathedral, the Westboro Baptists were there, along with the church choir and the little children in their cassocks and choral robes. The parishioners and children carried sticks with bright pastel ribbons on them. I was secretly overjoyed when one of the choir girls, no more than 15 or 16 years of age, flipped the Wesboro Baptists off as she walked and sang without missing a beat.

I left my group and went up to Jael, walking behind enemy lines. I had to speak with her one more time. I had to know if what she saw here touched her in any way.

"Long time no see," I said, my words trailing off. She grinned at me - it was a happy grin, a grin that expressed a gratitude for kindness given.

"So long." She responded with a laugh.

"So," I began, looking at her, and the children who marched beyond her. "How does this make you feel? This show of faith, this alternate expression of God's love?"

She seemed appalled by this, offended down to her very core.

"Faith? They have no faith! They send their children to spend time with child molesters, fornicators who take advantage of the young! Their faith is false, it is blind!" Her conviction made me recoil. "These children are already going to hell, their fate is already sealed, and they just can't see it and they won't! Not until it's too late."

I had to walk away from her then; I couldn't do it any more. Compassion has always been my downfall, and my open heart, which I wear so visibly on my sleeve, was beginning to feel like a weight. I had to remember who I was and why I was here: because I am sickened by her message and I hate her grandfather, and I have wished for his death almost every day of my life ever since I was 14.

FAITH AND FATE
I returned to my camp on the other side of the battlefield. I couldn't help but wonder what happened to Jael. Had I somehow gotten too close? Like me, had she suddenly been forced to regain herself, remember who she was, and why she was here? Were we, for one brief instant in that brief moment in time, the closest thing she could get to feeling like a regular girl, without all of this fag-hating bullshit that her psycho grandfather has shoved down her throat?

As they were leaving, I went around a corner after them and caught sight of her. We looked at one another. I offered a grin and said goodbye. She offered me a hug, but I refused, settling on a handshake.

I still wonder about that girl. Will she defect? Will she hope for something more? Or has her fate been sealed?

God, I hope not.

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