Monday, June 22, 2009

When the Circus Came to Town

Fred Phelps came to town and I missed him. I could just spit.

To be precise, the Rev. Fred didn't actually come here to Seattle. His minions did. Members of his Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, Kan., journeyed to Seattle to stage protests around the city that featured their usual appalling signs, like "God Hates Fags" and "The Jews Killed Jesus."

Even without the ringmaster, the colorful circus carried on. And I, a devotee of such gay-hating performances, missed it even though it was on my doorstep. I feel like the elephant pooped on my foot.

I was so absorbed in something else, you see. Along with other folks from my Unitarian Universalist church, I had the task of organizing a breakfast and welcoming service for the church's new members. I'd been so busy with that and regular work that I hadn't even heard the circus was coming to town.

Next time I expect Fred to alert me with a personal phone call. Since I write humor about gay matters, and he's a clown on gay matters, I'd call it a professional courtesy.

On the Sunday morning of the church breakfast I became a fiend with a clipboard. I grabbed every new Unitarian, instructed them to sign the membership book, directed them to have their picture taken, and generally administrated the hell out of the process. One ear caught something about protesters, but the other ear was involved in a harried dialogue about how we were running low on breakfast seating and could we politely blast those who had finished eating out of their chairs?

It was my partner, joining the church that morning, who jolted me out of administrative overdrive by telling me the Phelpsians were outside. "You're kidding. Here? Now? I've never seen them in the flesh. I can't leave. Argh!"

She went outside for a look, as did the two ministers and some other members. She reported back to me that Fred's performing seals, stationed across the street, were actually protesting the synagogue next door, not us.

Well, why not? We're worth protesting! This church is gay-positive! Hell, there's an out lesbian whipping the new members into shape! Those idiots are missing a bet here!

I spotted one of the straight women also in charge of the morning's happy church events. She was in tears. I thought we'd run out of French toast. In fact she'd taken a trip outside, and was undone by "God Hates Fags" and the other messages of hate. I put my arm around her and said, "I'm a big old lesbian and they're not going to get to me. Think about something else. Like restocking the muffins."

At last I felt I could sneak away and get a good look at the group I've been reading and writing about for years. "They're gone," someone told me.

So close yet so vanished. I could do nothing but drown my sorrows in fruit salad.

I'm enormously fearful I missed my only chance. Fred Phelps is 79. When the ringmaster/clown dies, will the circus go on? Or will those horrible signs wind up on eBay?

As it turned out, the circus stayed longer in Seattle. The next morning seven protesters, all related to Phelps, staged a demonstration outside a high school. They faced off against what The Seattle Times called "a boisterous counterprotest by hundreds" of students and others.

In a Times picture, one of the high school students holds out a flower to a protestor. That student had in fact joined my Unitarian church the day before. There he was fighting ugliness with beauty. I'll feed that kid breakfast anytime.