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'Turn your back on him'

Gay-bashing protests planned at Durham School of the Arts


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When Steven Addison moved to Durham three years ago, he thought he'd seen the last of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers. Kansas City, Mo., was a frequent stop for Phelps, who has made it his life's mission to travel around the country with signs that say "God Hates Fags," picketing the funerals of AIDS victims and generally being an asshole. Now Phelps and the followers of his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka are planning to come to Durham to protest the Durham School of the Arts production of The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of gay teenager Matthew Shepard. Phelps was on hand for Shepard's funeral with signs proclaiming that the murder victim had entered hell. Phelps believes recently departed Pope John Paul II is burning in hell, too.

Durham can expect the typical Phelps road show, Addison says: "You can expect hatred, ugliness, intolerance and pretty much insanity," he says. "I don't know how many followers he claims to have, but the people I've seen with him are mostly his family." Phelps likes to dress his many children in T-shirts that say "God Hates America." Even the very small ones hold up signs that say things like "Thank God for 9/11." "He's a nut," Addison says.

"The only way to respond to the Rev. Phelps and family and followers is just not to engage them in any way, shape or form as far as verbally or with signs," he recommends. And after several dozen run-ins, Addison has some experience in the matter. He's also a minister himself. In a way. He paid $5 to the Universal Church of Life and was ordained on the Internet, "So I can marry people," he says.

During the 1980s, Addison was a member of a broad coalition of activists opposed to U.S. military intervention in Central America. Over the years, their actions broadened to protecting gay rights, among other social issues. One of Addison's friends from that group was a gay man who died of AIDS. Phelps arrived at the funeral with his followers, signs in tow, and began yelling their hellfire speeches to the man's family. "That's how the Rev. Fred Phelps came into my life," Addison says.

In response, the activists chose to show their support and respect for the family by standing in silence. "Several of us came back out and just stood there near the entrance to the cemetery so the other people coming in wouldn't feel so intimidated," he recalls. "He really likes to stir people up. I've seen people yell back and forth at him and it's a waste of energy--you're not going to convert these people," Addison says.

But Addison says it is important to demonstrate your opposition to Phelps' message by being present. "They have no problem with violence against gay and lesbians. That's another reason I think it's important for people to make their presence known," he says.

His advice? "The best thing to do, to show that we didn't agree with his extremism, is we would go where he was going to be picketing--especially funerals, which are his favorite place--and just stand in silence. Turn your backs on him. If you're religious, pray, light a candle. But never engage with him, because that's what they thrive on. People can do whatever they want; I'm not telling them what to do. But that's what worked for us."

A few days ago, Addison e-mailed the Westboro Baptist Church to make sure Phelps was really coming. "It was only a three-line e-mail. But I signed it 'Rev. Steven Addison,' and I guess that for some reason pushed him over the edge," Addison says. "I got a response that said, 'Hello dark-hearted child of Satan,' and called me all kinds of other things. They told me to bring out all of our counter-protesters so they can 'bear witness.' She called me a whoremongerer and a lying bastard. It was pretty funny. I got a big kick out of it."

According to his Web site, www.godhatesfags.com, the Rev. Fred Phelps plans the following protests in Durham:

2 p.m. Duke University, Main St. & 15th St.
7 p.m. Durham School of the Arts, 400 N. Duke St.

5 p.m. St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1200 W. Cornwallis Road
7 p.m. Durham School of the Arts, 400 N. Duke St.

8 a.m. Aldersgate United Methodist Church, 1320 Umstead Road
9 a.m. First Presbyterian Church, 305 E. Main St.
9:15 a.m. First Baptist Church, 414 Cleveland St.
9:35 a.m. St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 1737 Hillandale Road
10:30 a.m. Our Savior Lutheran Church, 2109 N. Duke St.
10:45 a.m. Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 810 W. Chapel Hill St.


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