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United against

United against


When Fred Phelps showed up in Fort Campbell, Ky., to blame the gays for Iraq War casualties, the region's gay community found instant solidarity among Army wives and soldiers

Living as a gay man in the South is not easy, especially when your home happens to be 15 minutes away from Fort Campbell, Ky. With scores of right-wing zealots, a church on every corner, and a persistent mentality of apathy within the local gay community, every day is a challenge.

As an activist I'm often asked why I don't move. First, I tell people, this is home. Second, what's the point of being an activist when things are already changing? I'm a visionary by nature. I want to be a part of that change. I've been called a "faggot" in school hallways enough to know that if even one soul can be liberated from the crushing weight of internal homophobia, then hope can be kindled.

As chairman of the local pride organization I've seen that happen more than I ever could have imagined. Our efforts were met with a brand-new challenge when we were told that members of Fred Phelps's notorious Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., would arrive on February 5. We had less than a week's notice.

Their press release said they would be at Gate 4, the primary entrance of the Fort Campbell military base, in Oak Grove, Ky., to picket the monthly remembrance ceremony for soldiers who were killed in action during the war in Iraq. Their slogan would be: "They turned America over to the fags, now they're coming home in body bags." How nice. It even rhymes.

My first thought was that we'd just let them come and go in relative obscurity. Why would I want to give a bigoted hate-filled preacher any attention? Fred and his followers have been in this area four times already. One of the more high-profile incidents was when the group picketed events following the tragic 1998 murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell. They've held over 27,000 pickets across the country over the last several years.

My first official response was just to ignore them. They weren't worth our attention. A reporter from The Leaf-Chronicle, our local newspaper, asked if I was doing anything in response to the impending visit. I told her I didn't think we'd have to since they were targeting the grieving families of soldiers, not gay people directly. I was content to stand by and let the group make utter fools of themselves in the comfort of my living room. But then, less than half a day later, I was contacted by women representing the one group I hadn't taken into consideration: the Army wives.

The Army has a number of Family Readiness Groups, which are mostly comprised of wives (or husbands) who are home alone while their spouses are deployed overseas. They saw the sick irony of the Westboro claim that an Army that won't even allow gays to serve would be to blame for "turning America over to the fags." But instead of brushing away gays and lesbians, they reached out to us. One of the wives had done an online search to find any gay organization she could and contacted me through the Clarksville Pride Web site. Another looked up my number after getting some information about me from The Leaf-Chronicle.

Several of the more liberal groups in town took action immediately. E-mails began circulating imploring people to stand outside Gate 4 for a counterdemonstration. I realized that we had a clear opportunity--and a mandate--to send a different message to the world. The Phelps picket was going to unite LGBT people, liberals, conservatives, Christians, Buddhists, and even soldiers and their wives.

As an activist I'm always looking to build bridges and relationships with the rest of my community. The highest goal of activism is when everyone is able to interact and work together on any issue within an environment of tolerance and understanding. I saw this as an opportunity not only to interact with unlikely allies but to stand beside them and honor the fallen troops.

Suddenly, the Westboro picket took a back seat in our focus. As I spoke with these wives, they all told similar stories. Their husbands were all deployed. One woman told me a good friend of hers was recently killed. Another said that her husband and his brother were both in Iraq. Army wife Holly Ahrens wrote, "A small group of people would like to get together to show support in what our men and women are doing in the war against terror."

I know many in the gay community are ideologically opposed to the war in its current phase. Some of my fellow liberals even objected to getting involved because in their view soldiers were being killed for "a reigning tyrant, not democracy." I felt we needed to close this rift. These were my neighbors, my friends, my family. Clarksville, Fort Campbell, and Oak Grove are all part of the same community. This was a chance to break down some barriers.

The tone of this awkward alliance took shape immediately. "We must not give [Westboro] any ammunition," said Cati Montgomery, a local feminist. "I want this demonstration to remain peaceful, pro-equality, and pro-soldier." I immediately suggested that we all get together to coordinate our efforts.

The meeting was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon at a tiny church that sits in a strip mall overlooking the Cumberland River. I wasn't sure who would show up. The room was electric with anticipation when we finally gathered. People came from all walks of life, including representatives from the local branch of the NAACP. "This isn't just about gay rights," I said. "This is about common decency. We're here to support our neighbors and their families."

All the while, rumors began to circulate. One report said that the Westboro permit had been revoked. There were discussions of a possible new law that could ban such protests in Kentucky. Another buzz was that they might not even show up. But we pledged then that we'd proceed no matter what. But we didn't expect the fiercest opposition to come from the Army itself.

By Monday afternoon Fort Campbell officials had announced that Gate 4 would be closed during the picket. (The last time the gates were closed was right after the events of September 11, 2001.) "Stand down," they said to the wives. Melynda Bosch had acquired her necessary permit to stand along the strip in Oak Grove. She had hundreds of donated flags and banners, and $2,500 in cash. The pressure was swift and suffocating.

Ahrens reported that she received no less than 18 calls in one afternoon with similar demands. On Tuesday evening Bosch announced that she would withdraw her permit. The donated money was returned. Ahrens, on the other hand, was steadfast.

The idea of taking on a juggernaut like the U.S. Army wasn't appealing, to say the least. The Army demanded that no one counterdemonstrate. The official request was that if anyone wanted to honor our soldiers, they could "attend the remembrance ceremony." Local radio personalities Gretchen Cordy and Ryan McNiel urged their listeners to stay home. "Don't give this guy the time of day," McNiel said. At the time, it made sense.

"I prayed for a sign from God for two hours straight," Ahrens later told me. "I wanted to know I was doing the right thing. I have to do what's right." The divine signal she desired came from her own husband. "He called me from Iraq. He said he'd be standing with me in spirit."

"I knew then I had to go on with it," she said. Her strength and passion inspired me. I told her that I'd be there one way or another. She said that scores of other women initially told her that they'd "stand down." Later, one by one, they started calling back. "We're with you, Holly."

My mind was screaming at me to stay away. It was Wednesday, the day that the Westboro group was to arrive. I sent out a public quote to ask people to exercise restraint. I was scared. The very army that we were trying to support had cut the heart out of our effort.

The moment of truth arrived just before 5 p.m. I saw a few signs--and they were ours. "We support our troops," one sign read. "Remember our fallen Eagles," said another. Drivers honked their car horns as they passed. "God bless you!" shouted one driver.

This small group was near Gate 3, at least a mile from the "real" protest. Their passion and energy inspired me to see if there would be anyone to support us at Gate 4. Traffic, including several police cars, was backed up on the highway for at least half a mile.

There was a group of perhaps a hundred or more lined up along the sidewalk. Again, they were friends. I drove a little further and saw that other picket. Yeah, Fred Phelps. I turned the car around and called Holly, who said she was with the large crowd. It was then that I got a close-up view of a group I didn't think I'd ever see: I saw gay people, straight people, widows, families, children, liberals, and conservatives all with the same message. They were there for the soldiers, for their families. One child held a photo of his dad, a small U.S. flag, and a sign that read, "My daddy is my hero."

Even Melynda Bosch, who had said she'd comply with official demands to "stand down," stood up in support of her husband. I realized then that the Westboro Baptist Church had done far more for gay rights in one week than I could have in years. When someone sees such naked hate and realizes that it reflects a part of their own heart, they're faced with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, gay people are God's people too.

The Westboro group came and went within 10 minutes. They'll be forgotten within weeks. But those of us who stood together in the face of such hate and bigotry will never forget that day.

Thanks, Fred.

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