Using Fred Phelps to Raise Money for Gay Causes

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    Dec 17, 2008 9:43 PM GMT
    This article came out in the magazine Boston's Weekly Dig. You can see the original article at

    Protests and counterprotests raise money for gay rights

    Seventy-five gay rights advocates raised more than $4,500 in a faceoff with Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church outside the Boston Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theatre last Friday.

    Phelps’ fire-and-brimstoners from Topeka, Kan., were picketing Bad Habit Productions’ staging of The Laramie Project, which is based on the 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 artistic director Daniel Morris took the protest in stride. “We had a big discussion about what has changed in the past 10 years,” he said. “Them being here is definitely validating the relevance of the show.”

    The six Westboro picketers screamed and 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,, condemns everything from Italian art to the 2010 World Cup, and claims that God is letting troops die in Iraq as punishment for gay marriage.

    Across Tremont Street, activist Chris Mason counterprotested with a “Phelps-a-Thon,” raising money for gay rights with pledged donations for every minute the Phelps clan stuck around. By curtain-up on Laramie, they had raised $4,647—$755 of which came from donations made during the protest, sometimes in the form of $20 bills shoved into Mason’s hand by onlookers.

    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 out the other side of the street, they chanted, “You’re crazy, you’re funny. You’re raising us money!” and held up their own homemade signs like, “I can has sanity plz?” and “Hate is easy. Love takes courage.” One man danced around the Kansaniacs 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 the voice of the Christian church.”

    “In terms of my faith and my beliefs, it’s sad to see someone with that much hate so intent on spreading it,” Cooper said. “Even though [Fred Phelps] looks like an idiot and people laugh at him, there’s still some fear and memory deep down. We should counter that and say, ‘There are other options.’”

    Fred Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, helped organize the Boston protest. “When you make sin a civil right? Yeah, God’s against that,” she said, laughing and nodding. She blamed the souring economy on the "doomed Americans" as well. "That’s why they’re losing their jobs," she said. "The doomed Americans weren’t willing to just go to hell. They wanted to take us with them. They've done every manner of evil thing, and now God is repaying them.”

    For 45 minutes, South End residents watched from their stoops as policemen directed traffic. One passing driver asked if Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was here. Finally, the Phelps crowd piled into a minivan as Mason’s crowd cheered, “Hooray! Hooray! We chased the Phelps away!”

    The Boston excursion cost Westboro around $2,000, half the amount that Mason will use to fund his Driving Equality project, a 100-day road trip next summer, during which he’ll interview people about gay rights all across the lower 48 states.

    Several years ago, Mason had his first taste of the Phelps “experience,” when Westboro picketed four Greater Boston schools. He followed them around as a counterprotestor, and the Phelps-a-thon idea was born. “These Phelps people are really good at inciting our people to start yelling and being really upset," Mason said. "And as good as it is for people to get their emotions out, nothing positive came out of it. It’d be great if we were laughing at them.”
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    Dec 17, 2008 11:40 PM GMT
    That's an incredible scenario; sucks the wind out of their sails AND raises money for a good cause. I like it!
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    Dec 17, 2008 11:41 PM GMT
    HAHA Great Article!
  • HndsmKansan

    Posts: 17169

    Dec 18, 2008 3:14 AM GMT
    I"m sorry there are such hateful people in the world and the fact they are from my state makes me sick to my stomach
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    Dec 18, 2008 6:54 AM GMT
    I think credit for this tactic, "Every Minute Counts", goes to the Aut Bar in Ann Arbor which used it when the Phelpsites came to town nearly 8 years ago:

    ANN ARBOR, MI - When the Reverend Fred Phelps came to town, the gay community here decided not to get mad. They decided to get rich.

    Among the Ann Arbor locales the Kansas-based Phelps and his band elected to picket was the /aut/ BAR, a gay-owned restaurant, bar and community gathering place. When co-owner Keith Orr heard that his establishment was being targeted, he wanted to respond constructively. He and his partner, Martin Contreras, did not want to promote a counter-demonstration, feeling that Phelps gains the most attention – and hence is most effective – when he provokes anger and outrage from his opponents. Rather, Orr decided to use his Phelps visit to the community’s advantage.

    Phelps’s plans to picket the bar came to light only two days prior to his scheduled February 17, 2001 demonstration. With little time, Orr used the Internet to organize a unique fundraising scheme. In an email message to customers, supporters, and friends, he proposed that people pledge money to the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project (WRAP), a local gay advocacy group and community center, for every minute that Phelps picketed the bar. In this way, Orr explained, the longer Phelps stayed to spew hate, the more money he would raise for WRAP. He and Contreras kicked off the drive by pledging $1 per minute.

    Contreras explained why he felt it was important to organize a response to Phelps. “When I was first coming out fifteen years ago people told me, ‘You’ve got to watch out for this so-called reverend from Kansas named Phelps. He’s out to wage war against the gay community.’ He had been showing up at funerals of people who had died of AIDS with signs claiming that gay people would burn in hell. At the time he was just a blip on the radar screen. But when he protested at Matthew Shepherd’s funeral he became a national menace.”

    At the same time, Orr continued, “I didn’t want to give Phelps what he wanted,” meaning a counter-demonstration. “But just ignoring him seemed wrong.”

    Only two minutes after Orr sent out his email message pledges began to pour in, not only from Ann Arbor, but from as far away as New Hampshire, Texas and California. The pledge drive gained such momentum that by the day of Phelps’s demonstration – only 48 hours after Orr and Contreras kicked off the drive – friends and supporters of Ann Arbor’s gay community had promised to contribute a total of $107 for every minute Phelps picketed the /aut/ BAR.

    “When I began the pledge drive I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything big,” Orr said. “I just wanted to give people an opportunity to turn Phelps’s message of hate into something positive for our community.” Even so, the size and speed of the response surprised him. “Normally a fundraising event of this magnitude takes months of planning and a lot of up-front costs. In 48 hours we raised over $6000 without spending a dime. I was astonished.”

    Pledges arrived in diverse amounts and from a wide range of sources. They varied in amount from as little as 10 cents per minute to as much as 5 dollars per minute. “The great thing about this kind of fundraiser is that no one is excluded. People can participate at any economic level,” said Orr. The range of contributors included neighboring business owners, a high school Gay/Straight Alliance and individual members of the Ann Arbor police force.

    On February 17, the day of the protest, Phelps’s band numbered only four adults and two small children. Instead of confronting the hate-mongerers and giving them the attention they craved, over one hundred community members and supporters gathered in the bar on a Saturday afternoon, celebrating while they counted the minutes that Phelps’s cronies stood outside raising money for Ann Arbor’s gay community.

    That afternoon WRAP Board member Linda Lombardini received one notable pledge. “A father and his young son were driving past the bar and saw the protestors out front,” she explained. “The son asked his father who they were and what they were doing there. The father stopped the car and brought his son into the restaurant to demonstrate to him that gay people are no different from anyone else. When he realized that we were holding a fundraiser he handed his son a ten-dollar bill to give to me.”

    “We view this as a form of economic containment,” Orr said. “Phelps is free to spread his message, however perverse we find it, wherever he wants. The First Amendment protects his right to do that. But we turned what could have been a negative into a positive. This has been an incredible community-building experience for us.

    “We hope that cities and towns across the country will do this everywhere he goes. I get a charge thinking that every time he hits the road he will help us build our communities and fund our organizations.”

  • UIUC1978

    Posts: 27

    Nov 16, 2010 11:48 AM GMT
    After having several run-ins with this group at a funeral of someone who died of AIDS then again in D.C. at the national AIDS quilt show on the mall, back in 1996; This group has been on my radar. Then when the group started protesting at the funerals of our service men who have died; Someone came up with the idea of turning the tables on them. On the day Fred dies; (I'm actually hoping that he lingers and suffers so he knows we are there) we are headed to Topeka KS to give him and his family/church a little of their own medicine.