There is a particular kind of person who will look you in the eye, smile, tell you you’re going to burn in hell for eternity, and then laugh with glee like their daughter just blew out the birthday candles.A small army of those kind of people could be coming to San Jose on Friday.
The Topeka, Kansas–based Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for picketing at the funerals of American soldiers because its members believe God is punishing the country for condoning homosexuality, has announced plans to stage a protest outside of San Jose’s Gunderson High School this Friday. The church says it’s coming to San Jose because Gunderson is staging a production of The Laramie Project, a play that tells the true story of the murder of a young gay man in 1998.
As word spreads around the valley, counterprotests are being mobilized on social networking sites. Meanwhile Gunderson teachers and school district administrators are praying for a no-show. Surprisingly, Gunderson’s drama director, Trish Buttrill, isn’t one of those people.
Buttrill has been in contact with Westboro’s leadership via email. While she said she doesn’t believe the group will really make good on its vow to come to San Jose, she says the visit would be an excellent opportunity for her students to see the First Amendment in action.
“I think it will be great, because the more people see them, the more they’re exposed,” Buttrill says. “They’re more of a hate group than a church.”
The play, which will run through Friday, March 4, dramatizes the viewpoints of a variety of people in Laramie, Wyo., where the brutal murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard took place. On a fateful autumn night, Shepard was offered a ride home from a bar by two men before being tortured and strung him up to a rural fence. He
was left there for dead for no other reason than he was gay. The Laramie Project has become a staple for high school and college theater productions. It offers lessons not just about homophobic hate crimes but also about tolerance and understanding. Included in the performance are actors portraying Westboro Baptist Church members, who in fact picketed Shepard’s funeral.
In an email that Buttrill said she received in correspondence with Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of WBC founder Fred Phelps, the drama teacher was told: “You will feed those children lies, and watch gleefully while they sprint to hell. You hate those children.” The email closes with a sign-off that is cordial and apocalyptic in the same breath: “Magormissabib. Your destruction is imminent. Thanks for writing.”
“Mahormissabib” may seem like gibberish, or the equivalent of writing in tongues, but the word is actually found in the bible (just once). It means “fear on every side.” And fear is the message Westboro is trying to send, says Don Fugate, a senior pastor at Foxworthy Baptist Church who used to help orchestrate musicals at Gunderson.
“I just wish they wouldn’t call themselves a church,” he says of the Westboro congregation. “It’s more of a cult of hate than a gospel. I really wish the IRS would revoke their tax-exempt status. It gives us all guilt by association, because we’re Baptist and they say they’re Baptist. But however many letters there are in the word Baptist—that’s where it ends.”
The decision to perform The Laramie Project was Buttrill’s. Openly gay for quite some time, the teacher says her department had performed “a bunch of fluffy pieces over the years.” A production of more substance was in order.
“I got very concerned about the spate of teen suicides,” Buttrill says, “so I thought this was a great moment to bring The Laramie Project to Gunderson.”
The San Jose Unified School District has been bracing for the possibility of a protest for almost two months now. Superintendent Vince Matthews sent out an email to board members on Jan. 15 warning that a hostile environment could be on the horizon. Since that time, Buttrill says, she has received nothing but support from school and district administrators, as well as some parents of students in the play.
Pam Foley, a member of the school district board, is proud of the Gunderson drama department. “It’s a horrific story, and given the publicity of bullying of gay students, the fact that they have the guts to put on a project like this is remarkable and commendable,” Foley says.
City Councilmember Nancy Pyle, whose district includes Gunderson, calls the WBC a “wacko group” and says she hopes people attend Friday’s counterprotest in support of the students. “This young man died needlessly, and he died because of a hate crime,” Pyle says. “They’re trying to combat that and they’re trying to set a model for all of us to follow. I think it’s phenomenal.”
Thespians and Hackers
Beth Reyes, 17, is playing four roles in the play and has a greater investment than many of the other students involved. She is the president of Gunderson’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), which actively works to build tolerance and understanding of students regardless of sexual preference.
Over the course of rehearsals, Reyes says, she has broken down several times, shaking with tears even when the role didn’t require them. “We’ve seen pictures of Matthew Shepard. We’ve formed relationships with these characters,” Reyes says. “When we heard that church was going to be here it was like a slap in the face.”
Armando Nieves, 17, is a senior like Reyes and will also be playing four roles. He is respectful, but there is an intensity that flicks on when he talks about the potential protest. “They do have the right to come and
protest our play,” Nieves says, “but their hate is not welcome.”
The disapproval of the WBC’s demonization of homosexuals and self-aggrandizing ways seems to have reached its zenith. All of the church’s web domains, which include www.GodHatesFags.com, are currently out of order due to the work of hackers.
A “hacktivist” named The Jester is credited with the initial sabotage, while a group called Anonymous, famous for its activities in support of the WikiLeaks operations, recently gloated about its ability to dismantle the WBC’s operations at any time.
“Your continued biting of the Anonymous hand … has earned you a swift and emotionless bitchslap in the form of this very message,” Anonymous wrote in a post on the WBC’s website, which has since been taken down. “Despite having had the capability to hack your sites previously, we chose not to and instead responded maturely to your threats, but you have not respected this. For this unremitting display of overzealousness, we award you no points. Take this defacement as a simple warning: go away. The world (including Anonymous) disagrees with your hateful messages, but you have the right to voice them. This does not mean you can jump on Anonymous for attention.
“God hates fags: assumption. Anonymous hates leeches: fact.”
Multiple attempts to contact the church have gone unanswered. Some wonder if the church has gone into sleeper mode or if it really is losing its ability to coordinate with its communication forums under attack.
Email, however, still provides a medium for Westboro’s message. “By indulging this filthy fancy called the Laramie Project, you teach them God is a liar, and it’s OK to be gay. Those are two soul-damning twin lies,” Phelps-Roper wrote. “When these children die young … their blood will be on your hands. When you awake in hell, they will greet you on the streets.”
Buttrill welcomes a confrontation with the author of that email. She says a no-show would prove Westboro lacks the faith to stand behind its convictions.