Academic journal article Liminalities

"Phags for Phelps": Exploring the Queer Potential of the Westboro Baptist Church

Academic journal article Liminalities

"Phags for Phelps": Exploring the Queer Potential of the Westboro Baptist Church

Article excerpt

Former Civil Rights attorney Fred Phelps created the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in 1955. The church's forty congregants, most of whom are Phelps' family members, identify as Biblical literalists, meaning they believe in literal interpretations of scripture. Phelps' assembly is best known for picketing als of soldiers, celebrities, and hate crimes victims. Their carefully crafted protest events are designed to capture media attention and amplify the church's anti-gay viewpoint. Members of the congregation proudly display signs that read, "God hates fags," "Fags are beasts," and "Fags doom nations." Over the past two decades and by their own count, the Westboro Baptist Church has visited 852 cities and staged 47,671 picket lines. The group has increasingly relied on digital media to sermonize. The WBC's website, GodHatesFags.com, features pictures of WBC protest events, Bible verses that document God's "hate," and a blog wherein churchgoers repeatedly suggest that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people are the cause of all the world's problems.

Phelps' church is not surprisingly considered one of the most notorious anti-gay hate organizations operating in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the WBC as a "hate group" and the Anti-Defamation League characterizes the church as "virulently homophobic" ("Westboro" 1). The term "virulent" suggests that Phelps' speech is infectious, or that his histrionics successfully maintain heteronormative social order and convert LGBTQ advocates into like-minded anti-gay extremists. Describing the WBC as "virulent" obscures the repellant effect the church has on many (if not most) people. Indiana's, Illinois', and Arizona's state legislatures have censored the Westboro Baptist Church. The group has been banned from entering the United Kingdom and chastised by political pundits, ranging from progressive filmmaker Michael Moore to conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly.

Conventional readings of the Westboro Baptist Church fail to recognize the group's queer potential. Phelps and his followers discuss gay sex more than most sexual minorities. Their church is only six blocks away from Gage Park, a popular gay cruising area in Topeka, Kansas. Similar to queer activists, the oddly dressed clan critiques the military-industrial complex and creates over-the-top media spectacles that frequently take place at gay pride parades. Some of Phelps' teen devotees have, in fact, attended more Gay Pride festivals than I, and I am a 37-year-old gay man living in West Hollywood. The zealots hold up brightly colored placards featuring stick figures anally penetrating one another. Many Pride participants welcome the WBC's carnivalesque presence by kissing and groping in front of the family and taking whimsical photos with the congregants. The Westboro Baptist Church has paradoxically helped endear gay and lesbian people to the masses. A few digital rhetors contend that the WBC's overthe-top performance of bigotry calls attention to some of the myths upon which homophobia is based. In this essay, I follow the lead of these online critics and explore how the church's obsession with lambasting gay people might alternately be read as queer, or a radically subversive performance and critique of "institutional practices and discourses producing sexual knowledges and the way they organize social life, attending in particular to the way these knowledges and social practices repress differences" (Seidman 13). Understanding the Westboro Baptist Church's queer potential necessitates a more nuanced understanding of queer theory and what it means to queer digital communication.

Friends in Low Places

Queer theory is predicated on the poststructural belief that identity is not who we are, identity is what we do. Queer theorists situate gender and sexuality in the realm of performance, meaning humans are exposed to repetitive and interlocking discourses that teach us how to behave (Butler). …

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