Escaping Westboro

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com March 14 2013 6:00 AM ET

After spending seven years as a baptized member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Lauren Drain was kicked out of the antigay church for talking to a boy online and on the phone. At least, that’s how Drain tells the story in her revealing new memoir, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, now available in hardcover or as an eBook.

Drain’s father, Steve, led the charge to remove his daughter from the church and today is one of the most vocal members of Westboro, often appearing on television, when he’s not behind the camera documenting counterprotests for the the church’s legal team, which makes a business out of suing counterprotesters who unwittingly cross the line of constitutionally protected free speech.

By the time she was kicked out, just before her 22nd birthday, Drain had built a reputation as a boy-crazy troublemaker, a “whore” and a “liar” in the church’s and her father’s eyes. She had begun questioning elements of church doctrine that she found hypocritical, but her theological curiosity was swiftly squashed, and she was shamed for questioning “the Word of the Lord.” Drain’s father, mother, and three younger siblings are still embedded in the church, living in a house on the Westboro “compound” in Topeka, Kan.

Today, Drain lives in Connecticut, where she is a registered nurse and lives with her fiancée. She says she was “ecstatic” upon hearing the news that her former friend, Megan Phelps-Roper, and Megan’s sister Grace, granddaughters of the church’s infamous founding pastor, Fred Phelps, had abandoned Westboro in February and apologized for their hateful words, the same month that Drain’s photo for the pro-LGBT No H8 Campaign was released.

The Advocate: You certainly have a compelling story, and I think one of the most interesting parts is how your dad set out to produce a documentary exposing Westboro, but then got sucked in. What was it about your father — or perhaps about the WBC — that created such an intoxicating, compulsive urge for him to uproot your entire family?
Lauren Drain: My father has never been really religious or anything like that. But he had spent a lot of time in college searching for some sort of ultimate truth. He had been changing his majors — he went from philosophy, [to] Western civilization, he did a religion class. … I think he was definitely looking for something where he could be in a dominant position of power or righteousness. At the time, he was also looking for work, so it was the whole, you know, “Could I make a documentary on this weird subculture?” And on top of that, he was raising a teenage daughter, followed by another teenage daughter. So I don’t know if it was just all a combination of everything at the time, that kind of compelled [him] to thinking, Well, this is a controlled environment, I could take advantage of this for myself and for my family.

The way you described him in the book, it seems your dad always had a controlling streak. Did that change at all when he joined the WBC? Did he become more or less borderline violent or angry?
I would definitely say, not necessarily physical violence, but definitely a loss of human emotion throughout the time we were at the church. I tried to describe … that my father was somewhat normal, my family was somewhat normal. He was what I felt was a good father figure in the beginning … but basically I think during the time we were at the church, they stripped away at human emotion, they stripped away human connection, human empathy — even for your own family members, and I noticed that. And during my time there, every time I saw it happen, it would make me very upset, whether it was to me or someone else. I never really let it strip away my own human sympathy, and I think he allowed it to happen and as a course of that, he is just able to say and do mean things to anyone and have no regret or remorse. That’s one of the things they teach: It’s very scary and a horrible thing to see.

News recently broke that Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper [two of Fred Phelps’s granddaughters] have left the church. In the book, you mentioned that you and Megan were friends, although it sounds like there was some competitiveness between you two. How did you react to the news that they had left the church?
I was ecstatic. I was so happy. As soon as I found out, I tried to get in contact with them, and now we’re back in contact. The girls are lovely, and we’ll be in close contact. We have a lot of things in common; we share a lot of things. There was such a controlled environment and such a judgmental nature that we had to carry about, that we judged each other. It was so intense and so bizarre and I feel so bad about it. They feel very bad about it too. Because we were taught to be that way. We were taught to judge each other, to constantly judge whether or not we’re doing something wrong, or if they’re doing something wrong. Should we tell on them? Should they tell? And I feel awful that’s the way it was. So it might look like I do depict the type of [competitive] mentality that I had at the time, but I’m not proud of it.

The Drain family from left to right: Steve, Lucy, Lauren, her sister Taylor, and baby brother Boaz at the hospital for Boaz's birth in August 2002. The Drains were living full-time at the Westboro compound by the time Boaz was born. 

I have actually encountered your dad on a picket line a time or two and engaged in an almost civil conversation … while he asked me if the girl I was standing next to and I were fornicating. [Laughs] It’s very obvious in your book that at some point, Steve decides the church is more important than his relationship with you or his relationship with his wife. What did it feel like to have that realization?
I think I was in utter shock. I think the more I realized it, it really hit home. ... When they had me in Shirley’s house, I was sitting in a chair and they were all questioning me…. My dad was there, my mom was there, Shirley, and a lot of the older people. My dad was just sitting there, and I was sitting in my chair, like I was on some sort of trial. He was like, “OK, well, this is what she’s done, isn’t she so evil? We should cast her out, shouldn’t we? I don’t think she belongs here anymore; I don’t really have any reason to keep her.”

My father was literally trying to throw me away and ask everyone for agreement. … He wouldn’t look at me or talk to me, like I wasn’t even sitting there. He didn’t ask me how I felt or what I thought or like, “Are you sorry? Do you want to stay?” Nothing. He didn’t care at all. He completely lost any kind of emotion for me. ... I definitely didn’t lose my care, compassion, and love for my family. … At this point, I thought I was losing my parents; I thought I was losing my family. So it was [a] scrambled effort to try and do whatever to stay and sacrifice any of my own values, any of my own questions, any of my own problems with the whole [place] because I was losing something. And that was my immediate reaction. In the end, I’m happy that I’m not there. I’m happy I’m out. I’m happy I got out sooner than later. And I feel a lot better off for it.

Do you see any similarities in that familial rejection, in the denial and loss of faith and family, as some of the experiences that many LGBT folk have when they come out to parents who are unaccepting and who banish them for something they cannot change?
Yeah, people have definitely written to me... [and] said they experienced similar situations where they were kicked out for their parents not agreeing with them and I think that’s awful. I think that’s awful to get rid of your child for any reason. Children are a gift from God either way.

Following up on that, do you think people are born gay?
Do I — what? [Chuckles] That’s kind of an interesting question. I have gay friends, and they tell me they don’t think it’s a choice, so I guess I’ll go based upon what people feel. As far as my ideas on things, I studied the Bible for years, and I still do, I still am a Christian. I know what it says in terms of anything in the Bible. … So I can’t really deny what it says, but I do know that I have changed. I don’t judge or condemn people like I did before. I don’t enjoy any type of mistreatment on people either — that’s just plain wrong. In other words, I tried to act like I knew everything about it before, and I used to judge people strongly. That’s not the way I am anymore. I treat people like people deserve to be treated. I don’t want that to be misconstrued.

Oh no, not at all. In your book, you said you’ll never be an activist for gay rights, but I might argue that posing for the No H8 campaign is taking a stand. It’s a broader campaign, but it is certainly closely associated with the LGBT community. How would you respond to those who would say that your participation is taking a step toward activism in support of LGBT equality?
I partly wrote my book to apologize to people that I’ve hurt. I feel like I owe people an apology. They know my name, they know who I used to be associated with, they … see that’s where I came from. So I don’t want people to think that I judge and condemn them or that I encourage mistreatment. Just because I was raised a certain way, to believe a certain way, I wanted people to know that I judge you based upon your character. I’m not going to judge you based on who you’re attracted to or anything like that. I have gay friends and we’re great friends. I’m just not interested in being an activist. Like I said, for whatever reason, I’m still Christian and I still have certain beliefs about things, but I just don’t think it’s right to mistreat people either way.

So I want to come out and make an active statement [with the No H8 photo]. I thought it was a good way to say you shouldn’t be mistreating people based upon this at all. I also did it to show people, whether or not they’re at a different church or the WBC or anything else, that people can change. People can be forgiven and communities aren’t going to hold those judgments against you forever. Even if you did or said things that were mean or cruel before, that doesn’t mean that people won’t accept you now, and know that you’ve changed as a person, that you are a good person. … That’s the general [response] that I’ve gotten with the No H8 campaign — people are very encouraging, they’re very thankful, very forgiving. And they know that I ultimately did not mean to hurt people. So I hope that answers your question. In the book you also talk about how some of the most vicious comments you have received behind the picket line came from gay people. Do you hold any resentment against those folks — gay or not — who hurled particularly cruel insults at you in response to your messages at the WBC?
I definitely do not hold anything against them. … Obviously, our target was the gay community. So it makes sense that some of those people were upset. But I definitely saw any and every kind of person get angry at us: Christians, Catholics, everyone. It didn’t matter who it was. People would yell back nasty things. But then again, we were asking for it. We were asking for negative attention. … I can’t imagine being on the other side and not having ever lived in the WBC, not having been raised in that way, and maybe being approached in a fashion where they’re picketing my family. I can’t imagine how I would’ve reacted, so I definitely don’t hold that against anyone. Like I said, I’m asking for forgiveness, and I totally forgive anyone else that I might have approached in my former years.

One of the things I found most interesting was the speculation you made about the source of Pastor Fred Phelps’s staunch aversion to homosexuality, specifically in the military. Can you expand a little bit on where you think that came from?
I never had a one-on-one conversation with him. He would tell the congregation, or I’d hear my father interview him. … [Phelps’s] father raised him a Boy Scout, then he went to Eagle Scouts — he had all these honors. I think he graduated high school at, like, 17, ready to go to the military. … And then all of a sudden, he had a 360 and decided he wanted nothing to do with military. Instead, now he wanted to be a preacher at the young age of 17, and now he had this whole crusade against sexual immorality. … And it was after this event  — I don’t know what happened, I can’t even say. All I know is that he said he went to West Point, then all of a sudden he had a religious experience, and now he wanted to preach against sexual immorality, preach against the military, and ever since then things have kind of progressed.

I don’t know what it is, but when people would ask me questions about the church, I never really got mad about anything. Someone might be like, “Oh, are you a lesbian?” And I’d be like, “No.” I wouldn’t be like, “Oh, my God, I’m not!” I wouldn’t freak out and get defensive. I never understood why, when [the media asked him], “Why are you so against the homosexuals? Did you have a homosexual experience? Do you have homosexual tendencies?” And he would get so mad, he would shut down. And he’d be like, “I can’t talk to this person anymore, they’re stupid.” His reaction to that was stronger than any other question you can ask him. So I always wondered that — why does he get so mad? If I’m not gay, I’ll just say I’m not gay. And I’m not going to freak out, like, “Why are you calling me gay?” I always thought that was super strange. … I don’t know what happened there, so [speculation] is all that I can leave it at. But something happened, and something made him change his mind about the military, and in turn have kind of a crusade against sexual immorality and homosexuals.