Two years ago, charity organization called Planting Peace decided to open the "Equality House," a rainbow-painted LGBT-themed building that sits directly opposite the notorious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), in Kansas, as "a symbol of peace, compassion, and positive change."
You may well know about the WBC from the film we made on the controversial church and the massive amount of other media coverage it has gotten. To sum up, the WBC is an extremist hate group that likes to upload videos of themselves doing anti-gay covers of pop hits, picket the funerals of "fags and fag-enablers" (which, it turns out, is pretty much everyone), and look upon Obama's presidency as a sign of the impending apocalypse. Needless to say, they didn't serve up any glitter-studded realness at Planting Peace's drag show last year, but apparently the two organizations have become "cordial."
Last week, the Equality House celebrated their second anniversary by staging a mass "kiss-in," where couples and families of all orientations kissed each other outside the homophobic church. Among those who attended were a number of Ex-Westboro members who had abandoned the home of hate in favor of the big, fun, gay house across the road.
One of those attendees was Libby Phelps, the granddaughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, who died a year ago this month (although bear in mind it's not hard to be his grandchild, given that he had 54 of them). I had a chat with Libby about how she went from waving about signs that said "God Hates Fags" to attending this celebratory queer love-in.
VICE: Can you tell me a bit about your decision to leave Westboro Baptist Church? What happened?
Libby Phelps: I left on March 13, 2009. There are so many reasons; bottom line is I don't believe in WBC theology. I don't think it's right to display such a hateful message. I especially don't think it's right picketing funerals. I don't think it's right how WBC treats people outside of the church. WBC members are very arrogant and think they're the only ones who are right, and I don't like people who think they're better than others. When they think someone is not part of "God's elect" (the only people who go to Heaven, in the eyes of WBC), they would be ostracized. I remember once my uncle said WBC isn't a social club, but it seemed that way to me when they would all of a sudden find someone unfit to be a part of the group.
You were at the second anniversary of the Equality House earlier this week. Why did you decide to attend?
I was thrilled to be a part of celebrating two years of the Equality House, as it has made such a positive impact on the community. Within the first month of them painting it, I stopped by and wanted to help out. The owners gave me a paintbrush, and I helped paint the house. At the recent celebration, I participated in "Plant One for Peace," where all of us stood in front of WBC and gave our partners a big smooch. We also participated in the handprint mural, which signifies unity. I decided to attend because I believe in equality for all. I think it's important to stand up for people who are discriminated against. It sends a powerful message for me in particular to attend simply because of my past. Me being there shows that people can and do change. I'm living proof that hearts and minds do change.
Did any of the Westboro Baptist members see you at the celebration?
Yeah, I could also see them looking through the cracks in their fence. I saw my cousin, but I didn't see my aunt—I just heard she walked by. My cousin didn't even look over at us, which is something very expected from them. They know what's going on. They would think just by seeing them everyone will think "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell." That's something they thought happened at school. We were told we were walking picket signs.
How did you go from using those anti-gay signs to supporting LBGT rights? How did your opinion change?
Picketing with anti-gay signs was something I was raised to do. As a child you trust your parents to raise you right and to lead you down the correct path. My parents thought they were doing the right thing. They believe in WBC doctrine. As I got older, I decided I didn't believe in the doctrine and the only option was to leave everyone I'd ever known behind and start a new life.
It's definitely been a growing process that has helped change my view. I think I've always thought nobody was better than anyone else, I just couldn't express it. At WBC your actions and thoughts were conditioned and controlled by the older generations.
Are you still in contact with any Westboro members?
No, once you leave WBC you can't talk to anyone any more. It's weird, but that's how it is. You leave your entire life, everything you've ever known. That's why it's so hard to leave.
Did any other ex-Westboro members attend the Equality House celebration?
I had a young cousin who left recently and wanted to be there, so I wanted to be there to support her too. I hope her being at the Equality House will be as helpful as it was for me. It was part of my growing progress, being so close to the church. When I was at the Equality House early on, I saw my parents for the first time in four years and immediately started crying. I wished I could run out there and give them a hug. It was nice being in a place where I felt supported and respected. It was nice being there for my cousin and being able to help her grow as well.
What was it like growing up in Westboro?
We were only really able to develop relationships with those who attended WBC. We went to public schools, and I had acquaintances at school, but we rarely got to spend time with anyone outside of the church. Sometimes classmates, and even teachers, were mean to me, but we were told that the world hated us, so we expected it. I was really close to my cousins and sister. We exercised together. My sister is a really good singer, and I would sing duets with her while my dad played the piano. I miss the closeness of my family. You don't see that type of closeness in the "real world."
Have you made many gay friends since leaving?
One of my favorite friends is gay. He was actually my friend before I left the church. He didn't tell me he was gay until after I left and I asked him. I was pretty sure he was, but I just wanted him to tell me. I know it sounds weird that he was my friend while I was still at WBC.
Have you got involved in any other LGBT rights campaigns?
I posed for NoH8 with my little family very shortly after [my son] Paxton was born.
What is your life like now?
The biggest life events were getting married and having a baby. One of my aunts had said that it would be unlikely that anyone at WBC would get married because the Lord was coming, so I never saw it as an option. I never really looked for it. I've done so many things that weren't possible at WBC. I got to travel abroad for the first time, I got married, had a baby. I did things as simple as cutting my hair and getting my ears pierced, which both weren't allowed.
For the most part everyone has been so supportive and understanding, including my friends at the Equality House. WBC had raised us to believe that everyone outside of the church hated us, and it's so refreshing to see that's not true. I tell my son every night how much I love him, as I often think about how absolutely devastated I'd be if I lost Paxton, like my parents lost me.
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