Fingerprints stamp urgency
Where postmarks can’t be found
A letter this important
Should not be here on the ground
by Heather Emme
When I was a young pup, about 20 years ago, I wrote for a local queer magazine called Siren. It was there that I first came across stories of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church. At that time, they were protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was the victim of a vicious hate crime. Since I had grown up in a hate-filled church myself, it wasn’t hard to believe that a group espoused a doctrine this harsh. I took them at face value. Most people still do.
The time has come, though, to call them what they are. They are not a Baptist church. Let’s start there. They use the word Baptist, but not one single denomination that falls under the Baptist umbrella will support them. They are autonomous. They are not Baptists. As to being a church, let us examine that as well. The Hartford Institute estimates there are around 350,000 congregations in the United States. Legally claiming to be a church is a surprisingly easy task. By definition (as set forth by the IRS) they are a church. By our social definition, though, the title is not so clear.
Most of the so-called church’s 40 members (as of 2011 paperwork) are part of the Phelps family. Led originally by violent patriarch Fred Phelps, the so-called church was more a family obligation than a community organization. According to his son (and now LGBTQ+ advocate) Nate Phelps, family members were regularly beaten with an axe handle or a barber strap. This type of violence occurred in the families of the children and grandchildren as well.
Given no choice but to comply, the children were taken along to “protests” organized by the family. At these events, they were yelled at, mocked and physically assaulted, proving the family line that there was no safe place outside of the home. WBC is not so much a church as one of the most dazzling examples of Stockholm Syndrome ever created.
After Orlando’s tragic mass shooting, and as Pride approaches, we’re seeing a lot of news that talks about WBC’s planned bad behavior. But by calling them a Baptist Church, we are lending them the legitimacy of an organization that, while certainly on the hook for its own shortcomings, is not represented here.
I propose we start calling them what they are: One Abusive Family. OAF for short. They are just one family. One family that abuses its own members, has no affiliations and reflects no legitimate doctrine. They are not a church. They are not Baptists. They are Phelps’. That is all they are. (And, thanks to the folks that keep leaving and speaking out, we can even say #notallphelps.) They are not WBC. They are One Abusive Family. Let’s call them the OAFs they are.
As you report on them, share them in your feed or express your totally legitimate heartache that people like this still exist, remember: They are a very small group that no one wants to claim. They get together to hate and yell and pretend to be important. We get together to kiss and dance and celebrate love. Love wins. And One Abusive Family will not change that. Don’t give the OAFs space in your day, or in our national discourse.
The wading pool is emptied out
The trees have left their leaves about
You wear no coat, but breathe a cloud
In puffs that float, above the crowd
At play in Christie Pits
Last night the swings were flipped around
You try to reach them from the ground
Your sister climbs to set them back
While father mimes a heart attack
Brought on at Christie Pits
You snack on fruit and carrot sticks
On cans of pop and peanut mix
You heed the words from all the mums
To feed the birds but not the bums
Who sleep in Christie Pits
The swing is swung, the slide is slid
The climbers climbed, the rides all rid
It’s time to go, you beg to stay
A second NO! You turn and say
Goodbye to Christie Pits
by Heather Emme
(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)
There is a habit we, as a culture, have of reframing experiences via the male perspective. When a she-identified human is assaulted by a he-identified human, we are trained to ask about her past and his future. What did she do to deserve it? What will it take from him is he’s convicted? We’ve seen this played out vividly in the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. I’ve never met the fellow, but thanks to the tone employed by some media coverage, I’m now aware of the scholarships he’s lost, the times of his most successful swims and how very, very hard it will be for him to enjoy his life after he was convicted of the crime he committed. His future is the window through which we were allowed to watch this story.
We have also been given the story of the two men who interrupted the assault and held convicted rapist Brock Turner until police arrived.
Despite the fact that, again, this means I’m seeing the story from the male perspective, I want to dwell on this for a bit.
When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted. For the most part, it was just the two of us in the room. But once.
Once someone walked in.
There was a moment. It was dark, my memory tells me. It was dark and maybe she didn’t see my nightgown up around my armpits. Maybe her brain hiccuped, swallowed the whole memory. Maybe there was shock. Shock can do that, right? Shock can make you delete the things that frighten you. I remember that she backed out of the room. She backed out and he left and it was never mentioned. It was dark. It was dark. Of course she didn’t see. She didn’t feel the fear radiating off me like heat from a fire. She didn’t ask why he was in my room late at night. It was dark.
Doing nothing is, like the male perspective, often our default. Anyone whose been on a bus when someone starts loudly and verbally attacking a stranger knows what I mean. We see heads drop. Earbuds go in. Books raised higher against the call to interfere. It’s a weird instinct, but it’s one our species clearly has.
So two men on bikes stopped and halted a crime in progress. A crime that, statistics tell us, isn’t treated like a crime. We wink it away. We rarely test rape kits. We rarely press charges. We rarely see convictions. It’s barely treated like a crime at all. But they stopped despite the overwhelming casual message that what was happening wasn’t a real crime.
There was a moment. It was in church. The head pastor – a man who had, once, in a sermon on forgiveness, talked about how he could imagine no worse crime than rape – told me that I needed to forgive the youth leader who had sexually harassed me while offering me a ride home from church. It was about forgiveness. He had repented and now it was on me to let it go. He didn’t feel the shame radiating off me like heat from a fire. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. It was about forgiveness.
So, you see, we are a bystander species. Doing nothing is our default. We strive for homeostasis and our norm is to close our eyes to sexual assault. I sometimes try to suss out why. I come up with a thousand explanations and reasons. In the end, I land back at: It happens because we let it. It happens because we back out of rooms, we offer forgiveness instead of justice, we mourn for the lost future of rapists.
Two men on bikes did not back away.
I’ll hold on to that.
There is an older version
Who cried so easily
She cried at hissing symphonies
Played on cassette machines
She cried for orphans
And the spinster aunts they found
To love them, though they were not sound
And spoke in poetry
She cried when other children said, “Why do you always cry?”
But she’s buried
That when I heard that you would sleep
(When I heard that you would die. Why lie?)
I did not cry
So you’ll be dust
Buried down there with the girl
Who made a small salt ocean
For a dandelion head
Popped off and left for dead
By a laughing boy who said,
“It’s no good. I pulled its roots,
I picked it just for you!
To see if you would cry some more
If I popped off its head.”
And I did.