It is known that WBC protesters arrived in the Brandon, Miss., area the day before the funeral. We know that the funeral took place without incident, and that hundreds of strangers arrived to support and protect the Rogers family as they mourned their loss. This was unexpected. Westboro Baptist is never shy about publicity. They had declared every intention of displaying their garish signs announcing “God Hates Fags.” So what happened?
There are tales of a WBC member getting a good old-fashioned Mississippi ass-kickin’ at a gas station, of police detaining members for questioning in connection to a possible crime, and my personal favorite, any car in the hotel parking lot bearing Kansas plates being blocked in by locals, with tow trucks mysteriously unavailable until after the funeral.
These may all be apocryphal, though I talked to people in Brandon who swear the parking lot bit totally happened — they heard about it from a guy who knows a lady whose brother-in-law was there. We don’t know what kept Westboro from seizing their usual media spotlight on that particular day, and with good reason: Mississippians have a lengthy history of using intimidation tactics that go inexplicably unreported. Just because in this instance the maneuvers happened to be against someone we mutually despise shouldn’t discount the decidedly 1960s playbook being utilized.
I am relieved that the Rogers family was afforded the opportunity to grieve in peace. And because we don’t have the facts of what occurred behind the scenes, I can only focus on what we know to be true: When confronted with the threat of WBC rolling into town with their hootenanny of hate, the community banded together and stood for what they believed to be right. The proof is in the footage and photos of the funeral procession, showing throngs of people standing in respectful tribute to a fallen soldier.
Westboro Baptist, whose persecution of the GLBTQ community has continued unabated for more than a decade, was generally portrayed by mainstream media to be an ignorant nuisance back when they were showing up at Gay Pride, or trying to install a monument in Matthew Shepard’s hometown commemorating his descent into Hell.
It was the soldiers’ funerals that served as a tipping point for Americans, which is worth exploring. No one was trying to pass legislation to keep them away from funerals back when it was just AIDS casualties. But sometimes it takes pushing a scenario to its most offensive extreme before the public stops politely ignoring it and forms an actual opinion. As the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder pointed out when they took WBC to the Supreme Court, his son wasn’t a homosexual, but what difference would it make if he was?
I, like so many in the Mississippi queer community, didn’t find my home state to be a very welcoming place. The teenage version of me, with my blue fingernails and multiple ear piercings, would have been just as likely to receive a gas station ass-kickin’. But the vitriolic nature of WBC’s efforts has forged new alliances, like my conservative uncle who observed their open hatred and was compelled to finally say, “No one deserves this.”
So go right ahead and exercise your constitutionally protected rights, Westboro Baptist. All that screaming you’re doing is forcing unexpected allies out of their comfortable silence.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.